Israeli Life: Name Calling
We all know of familial squabbles when it comes to naming a child—but who could imagine the argument extending to pieces of Holy Land real estate.
In biblical times it was easy. When God appeared to Jacob on a certain spot, the inspired patriarch promptly called the place Beit El, House of God, and the name stuck.
Today, Jacob might be left scratching his head at the intricacies of politics, hubris and occasional chicanery that play a part in the naming of Holy Land real estate, where the route to agreement is torturous and warnings of “do not enter,” “yield” and “dangerous curves” apply not only to actual road hazards.
Indeed, across Israel, neighborhood, municipal and state committees are locked in debates about the “road map.” And the arguments can become so emotionally charged that the importance of the name seems to outstrip that of the land itself.
That is exactly what happened to Jerusalem’s Gaza, or Azza, Street: Locals give directions by noting former landmarks long torn down or renamed—underscoring the at times transient nature of the eternal city.
Like other main thoroughfares built in the 19th century, the road that passes just by the prime minister’s residence was named after former routes connecting the capital to other points, for example, Jaffa Street or Hebron Road.
But after waves of terror attacks in Jerusalem, including a serious one at Café Moment, itself on Gaza Street, some thought it was time for a change. City councilor David Hadari suggested it be renamed Burg Street, in honor of Yosef Burg, the late leader of Hadari’s own National Religious Party, who resided on Gaza many years.
Hadari saw his plan as “a symbolic strike against terror.” He cited Rehov Ha’um, UN Street, as a precedent. It was changed to Rehov Hatziyonut, Zionism Street, after the United Nations Zionism-equals-racism vote.
His suggestion got the venerable street’s many merchants squawking. “I think it’s a very bad idea,” said laundromat owner Zvi Winkler. “It’s been Rehov Azza for a long time now. It is a historic street, and there are plenty of other places they could name after Burg. It’s just politicizing something that needn’t be politicized.… It’s just silly.”
Not so, exclaimed fruit stand owner Ze’ev Kagan. “Just hearing the word Gaza makes us wince…. [It] has bad associations. Burg was really somebody. They should do it as soon as possible.”
Tel Aviv has had its own share of street fights, one of the worst over whether to memorialize controversial figure Rudolf Kasztner, who during the Holocaust traded supplies to Hitler for the lives of Hungarian Jews.
“His actions are still debated, and there are still those living among us who are Holocaust survivors,” noted Miri Mazar, former head of the Tel Aviv Municipality Names Committee. “Despite the fact that there was a request to name a street after him, and there were those on the committee to support it, in the end [we] decided that history may one day determine whether Kasztner is deserving of remembrance or not, [and] we decided to leave it to history.”
Similar debates are anticipated if a suggestion to name a street after convicted American spy Jonathan Pollard goes through to the city council.
The sensitivity extends to individual properties as well. The plan to place a memorial plaque to honor poet Alexander Penn on the Tel Aviv building where he lived was nixed after protests by neighbors and others who knew him and his wife. Penn, a known womanizer who reportedly had three children from three different women, won’t be getting his plaque. Reason: “He didn’t treat his wife nicely,” his neighbors said.
If local naming decisions provoke such controversy, imagine the ferment over towns, cities and regions. For name-calling on the national level, Israelis look to the Geographical Committee for Names.
Founded in 1922 under the British Mandate, the committee, which meets several times a year, was reconstituted by David Ben-Gurion after the creation of Israel to replace Arabic names with Hebrew ones. To date, it has given names to more than 9,000 places all over the country.
“There are arguments because people feel very strongly about these things,” said Hana Bitan, coordinator of the 21-member committee of leading geographers, historians, archaeologists and biblical scholars.
“People have all kinds of ideas,” she explained. “Someone did a doctorate in which they argued that Mount Sinai is the Golan Heights. There is no end to the arguments, which is why we exist.”
The actual process is straightforward, or should be. “As soon as the government decides, for example, to establish three communities in the Negev and we know where they will be, we determine the name,” Bitan said.
What if there are objections? “Afterward, if the settlement nucleus or settlement group complains that the name really isn’t fitting, we try to help them out,” she continued. “The committee has the sovereignty to decide, but it never forces a name on anyone. The committee’s credo is that there not be any mistakes on the map. [It] should be correct in terms of language, geography and history.”
Committee members also guard against “total anarchy,” said eminent Tel Aviv University geographer Moshe Brawer. For example, in past years communities were named for the companies that put up the money to build them. If not for the committee’s intervention, said Brawer, whose father served on the committee before him, the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon would have become Israel’s Levittown and be known as “Agrobank.”
Sometimes even the experts can be wrong however. Example: the southern town of Kiryat Gat. A mistake was discovered years after the name was registered and placed on the official record. “They…thought that the biblical Tel Gat was in that region. It turned out that this wasn’t the case…but we couldn’t change the name,” Bitan said.
And sometimes the committee has to draw a line in the sand. A battle over the name of Kadesh Barnea, where the Israelites encamped twice on their way from Egypt to the land of Israel and where Miriam was buried, has been going on for years. The settlement was located at one site initially, then it had to move some 12 miles north after the peace agreement with Egypt, toward Nitzana.
“They wanted to keep the same name, but how could the committee agree to it?” asked Bitan. “We called them Nitzana…. We are all in favor of taking historical names, but they have to be right geographically.”
The map is full of towns and places still proudly bearing their biblical names, such as Ashdod and Ashkelon on the coast. Southwest of Jerusalem, soldiers wait patiently for buses at the intersection of Eshtaol, where the Bible says Samson grew up; it’s not very far from Beit Shemesh, so called since the days of Joshua.
Occasionally, however, there are different interpretations of biblical connections. Take Efrat, the well-established Gush Etzion community home to a large number of English-speaking residents.
“The committee didn’t want to give them the name Efrat, because it says in the Bible that Efrat is in Bethlehem—it says so,” argued the chagrined Bitan. “And we talked to them, and they said: ‘If we make it Efrata, will that be okay?’ We knew in the end that they would call it Efrat. They pulled one over on us.”
The transient nature of some Israeli pioneering towns has also had an impact on name changes. Settlements often switch hands, and ideology, as communities change or evolve. For example, a left-wing settlement, named after a left-wing idealogue, fails. Right-wing settlers take over the site and ask the committee for a name that suits their philosophy.
Indeed, the whole issue of memorialization via names has been controversial. In the state’s early days, Bitan explained, the country needed money from donors, so many sites were named after them. This was halted in 1967, despite demands to commemorate those who fell in the Six-Day War. “In the end, the committee members simply didn’t want to turn the entire country into one big war memorial dedicated to that victory,” she said.
But it’s the living who kick up a real fuss. A battle between a Samaria community and the committee over the name Neveh Tzuf ended up in a lawsuit. A visiting businessman, eager to make a deal with a company he had been told was from Neveh Tzuf, was informed by the phone operator there was no such spot in Israel. The committee had decided to only recognize the name Halamish for the designated site.
The local company sued the communications minister and his ministry for the lost contract. “In the end, the people suing lost the case. And even after all that, there are still people who insist on calling the place Neveh Tzuf,” Bitan said.
On any Israeli thoroughfare it’s easy to appreciate the care and time devoted to assigning names that refer to both nature and history.
For example, there’s Sasa, the Upper Galilee community named after the tip of a wheat stalk. Livnim was named for the white-blossomed trees adorning it, and Karkos on the ascent to the Hermon for a plant in the iris family. There’s also Malkiya, after a figure in Chronicles, or even Modi’in, after the town of the Maccabees.
When radio announcers warn of a traffic jam at Tsomet Messubim near Bnei Brak, only a handful of drivers are aware that the junction is named after a reference in the Haggada to a group of rabbis who gathered and reclined (mesubin) at a Seder in that city centuries earlier.
Driving through the country with his grandchildren, Brawer still gets a kick out of explaining the origins of towns and sites on Israel’s road map, even though he admits they sometimes tell him that the names are very old-fashioned. Though some of the place names still make his skin crawl—that ridiculous Nesher junction right near the town of Ramle, not too far from Ben-Gurion Airport, which was named after the adjoining Nesher cement factory, is one grating example—overall his work gives him “great satisfaction.”
But back on Jerusalem’s Rehov Azza, pharmacist Eitan Morad is feeling far from satisfied. His Gaza Pharmacy has been a fixture in the area for 40 years, and the controversy has gotten to him.
Recently, however, it seems that the street fight has taken yet another twist.
“Regretfully, since I raised the request to erase the name Gaza from Jerusalem, Sharon’s bad unilateral disengagement plan has come into the world, which will erase all memory of Jewish settlement in this important area,” Hadari wrote city mayor Uri Lupolianski. “Changing the name of Rehov Azza at this time is likely to be viewed [erroneously] as support for the disengagement plan.”
The city has since found a different street to name after Burg. So, at least until the next uproar, Azza will retain its original name.
Shaking his head over the drawn-out dispute, Morad looks outside at the street and sighs: “People here take these things way too seriously.”