A Walk Across Jerusalem History

Rachelle Kliger, the reporter on Arab affairs from The Media Line news agency, called my attention and that of the Jerusalem Municipality to the many spelling mistakes, especially in Arabic, in municipal street signs and directional signs. I often go on foot from my West Jerusalem neighborhood, Beit Hakerem, to East Jerusalem, because it's good for the health and the pocket, and I decided to examine the signs.

For such an examination, equip yourself with the booklet by educator and geographer David Benvenisti, who served as a member of the Municipal Names Committee (there is a street named after him in southern Jerusalem). The booklet, published in 1988, includes several lines of explanation about every street in Jerusalem. Benvenisti says that in every neighborhood or area, streets were named according to a common subject. For example, in Kiryat Yovel the streets are named after leaders of the Zionist Histadrut, in Kerem Avraham after the 12 minor prophets, in Talbieh and in the city center after the Righteous among the Nations, and in Mea Shearim and its surroundings after Hasidic leaders and rabbis from the old Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community).

To go on foot from Beit Hakerem to the center of Jerusalem, one has to walk through the old and attractive Rehavia neighborhood, where the common theme is the scholars of the Golden Age in Spain: Ben-Maimon and the Ramban, Ibn Shaprut and Radak, Ibn-Ezra and Ibn Gvirol, Alharizi and Alfasi and the Tibbonim. Many jokes were told at the expense of the Jewish "yekkes" from Germany, who lived in Rehavia and had difficulty pronouncing the names of the Spanish Jews. Of all the Spanish scholars, the name of one of the most important and prominent is missing: Yehuda Halevy. How did it happen that the streets in Rehavia do not bear the name of the doctor and philosopher who is considered one of the greatest Jewish poets ever, and who may have died at the gates of Jerusalem?

On the other hand, among all the Spanish scholars there is, quite surprisingly, an Ashkenazi name, Ussishkin. Menahem Ussishkin, the Zionist leader and chair of the Jewish National Fund, lived in Rehavia, and a central street in the neighborhood is named after him. There are several versions of the urban legend about how one day Ussishkin decided to change the name of the street where he lived, Yehuda Halevy, and to name it after himself.

The story appears, among other places, in a book by Amnon Ramon, "Doktor Mul Doktor Gar" (One doctor lived opposite another), a tour guide of Rehavia. In 1933, says the book, on Ussishkin's 70th birthday, the Zionist activist demanded Yehuda Halevy deposed, and the street would then be named after him. Ussishkin also removed Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid, which had been the name of the street leading to the buildings of pre-state institutions, and transferred it southward to the area of the then Bezalel School of Art. What used to be Shmuel Hanagid Street is today Keren Kayemet L'Israel (the Jewish National Fund) Street. To make things clear, Ussishkin brought in Armenian artists to fashion colored ceramic signs for building corners, with the name of the new street. It was said that one day they came to collect the city property tax (known as arnona, its Turkish name), and he responded with a question: "Have Ibn Ezra and Ibn Gvirol paid already?"

From Ussishkin Street I continued southward, to the small neighborhood of Neveh Bezalel, which lies between Nahlaot and the city center. There, in a building called Beit Solomon, I spent my childhood. As in a song by Shlomo Artzi, "next to the house which was my house they paved a street/ They gave it a name, they always give names" a short time after the 1948 War of Independence. They paved a road there and named it Hagidem (the Amputee) after Zionist war hero Joseph Trumpeldor, of course. Some of the neighbors were angry: Since when does one name a street after a handicap? True, Trumpeldor's disability bears symbolic significance, as they could have called Moshe Dayan Street "One-Eyed Man Street." There's no end to the possibilities.

The neighbors decided to write to the municipality and to demand that the street be named after Trumpeldor. But here a problem arose. Most of the neighbors were loyal members of the Labor Movement, in other words, they voted for the socialist Zionist parties Mapai and Mapam. But there was one, Mr. Guttman, who was a loyal supporter of the right-wing Herut movement and a veteran member of Etzel (aka the Irgun, the militant right-wing pre-state organization). Guttman said that according to the instructions of Herut leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the name Trumpeldor should be written with the Hebrew letter taf, and not tet, as is common. This was because of a well known story from the past. When Jabotinsky and his followers established the Beitar movement and the sports teams, they wanted the name Beitar to have two meanings: It was the name of the fortress in the second-century Bar-Kochba Revolt, the city of Beitar south of Jerusalem; and also the acronym for "Brit Yosef Trumpeldor." The name of the city Beitar has been written with a taf for generations, and couldn't be changed, but Trumpeldor is a foreign name, and therefore there was nothing to prevent exchanging the tet for a taf.

An uproar arose in the little neighborhood. Should Trumpeldor be spelled the way the Mapainiks wanted it, or the way Guttman wanted it? In the city archive one may be able to find letters on the subject from the early 1950s, which were sent from Beit Solomon to the Municipal Names Committee. Whatever the case, because of all the arguments about tet and taf, the name of the street remained "Hagidem."

A short time ago I was passing Hagidem Street as usual, and lo and behold: After over 50 years, the street signs had been replaced, and now the street is named Joseph Trumpeldor, with a tet of course.

"What happened?" I asked in city hall. They told me that they had once again weighed the issue of naming a street after a hero's handicap and reached the conclusion that it had to be changed. "Don't ask what problems we had with it," said a member of the names committee. It turns out that although Hagidem Street is a small street, it has several businesses, a HMO and offices, some of which demanded compensation from the city for already printed calling cards, stationery and listing in the Yellow Pages, and now they had to pay considerably to change everything from "Hagidem" to "Trumpeldor." Apparently they will have to be compensated.

From there on the way to East Jerusalem, you have to cross King George Street. At the corner there is a marble slab with the most famous street sign in Jerusalem, which mentions its opening date in 1924, in the presence of British governor Ronald Storrs and mayor Ragheb Nashashibi.

During a historical discussion I once heard at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the speakers argued about the extent to which the British helped or undermined the efforts to establish a Jewish state. Everyone agrees that in spite of all the problems, until the publication of the 1939 White Paper, British policy could be described as pro-Zionist. Afterward the British government began to sympathize with the Arabs and with the end of World War II, the Jewish undergrounds fought against the British Mandate. Some people point out that even David Ben-Gurion, during the height of the struggle, cursed the Mandatory government and called it a "a Nazi-British government."

In the context of the discussion at the university, one of the spokesmen said he had strong evidence that the Yishuv was well aware that the British assisted substantially in the establishment of the State of Israel. He claimed that the main streets in the major Jewish cities are named after British personalities: King George, General Allenby, Lord Balfour, Orde Wingate and many others. Anyone searching in Nablus, Gaza or Hebron will not find a single street named after an Englishman. The leaders of the Yishuv, said the spokesman, and in their wake the political movers and shakers in the State of Israel, knew exactly to whom we owed thanks and honor.

The entry from Jewish West Jerusalem to Arab East Jerusalem has a warlike character: IDF Square, Paratroopers' Street, Engineering Corps Street, Central Command Square. The names were given after the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, apparently so the Arabs would understand who won and what was at stake. On the descent from Central Command Square to St. George Street one can see an example of a strange and erroneous spelling of George in English, which someone has tried to correct. A little further on is one of the few street signs remaining from the British period: the sign "Derekh Shekhem" (Nablus Road) over the remains of a Mandatory mailbox. The British used to write the name of the street, like the names on stamps and coins, in the three official languages, with the name in English appearing first. The Israeli Jerusalem Municipality left the old street names in East Jerusalem for the most part but changed the order, and the Hebrew name is now on top.

Anyone who wants to visit the streets of the Old City, inside the walls, should look for information about the various places in the monumental books by Ze'ev Vilnai. There (in Volume 2) one finds a precise explanation of the name of each street, alley, square, market, staircase and yard. But on the route I use in the new Arab city, in the area of the old editorial offices of the Arabic daily Al Quds, the information about the streets comes once again from David Benvinisti's guide.

One thing strikes the eye in East Jerusalem: There are no streets named after statesmen and politicians from the modern period. There are no streets names after Gamal Abdel Nasser, the kings of Jordan and Arabia, the mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini and, of course, not Arafat and Abu Jihad.

Acquaintances from East Jerusalem say the names of those men are now beginning to appear in the streets of the major cities of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In East Jerusalem they do not exist.

There is a saying to the effect that "he who wants to lie, should distance his testimony." In the case of the street names east of Saladin Street, it's not a matter of lying, but of distancing testimony to the medieval and early Islamic periods. There are street names here like Ali Ibn Abu-Taleb, Ibn-Khaldun, Ibn-Batuta, Ibn-Sina and Sultan Baybars. All are scholars, philosophers, geographers and rulers from hundreds of years ago, whose names do not arouse any opposition. Although there is a "Mufti Ascent" in the Old City, I'm told it was named after a legal ruling (mufti) in general, and has no connection to the mufti who was the leader of the Arabs in Palestine during the British Mandate period, and who helped Nazi Germany during the war.

Kliger sent the Jerusalem Municipality a list of spelling mistakes she found on the Arabic signs. She says there are dozens of such mistakes, and this reflects disdain for the Arab residents. A municipal spokesman promised to correct them. The Municipality Names Committee decided in recent months on a long list of new names for streets in the distant Arab neighborhoods. My friend Abu Atallah says that in the Arab neighborhoods everyone knows everyone else, and the same is true of the postmen. When a letter is sent there, they write the name of the addressee and the neighborhood and the owner of the house where he lives. There is no real need for naming the streets, and many people have post office boxes.

As for mistakes, the distortions in Arabic names is not limited to street names, but is evident in every contact of the Arabs with the authorities. There is only one case where there are no mistakes: in letters from the tax authorities, first and foremost the Income Tax Authority. If a mistake is found in any name, one can avoid payment. That is why the authorities are accurate.