A Stir Over Sign Language

A recently discovered trove of documents from the 1950s reveals a nasty battle in Jerusalem over the hebraization of street and neighborhood names. This campaign is still raging today.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

If you ask the average Jerusalemite how to get to the Komemiyut neighborhood, he may not know. The official municipal website won't tell you either, because that name doesn't appear on any map. This neighborhood is more commonly known as Talbieh, its original Arabic name.

How did it happen that the Arabic name prevailed over the imposed Hebrew name for this elitist Zionist neighborhood - where, among other things, the Prime Minister's and President's Residences are located? Letters and memos that recently turned up in the Jerusalem municipal archive reveal surprising findings, such as the fact that in the 1950s, the Jerusalem municipality fought a plan by the Prime Minister's Bureau to replace the Arabic names of several neighborhoods.

Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhoodCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

The documents were discovered by Shira Wilkof, an Israeli doctoral student in spatial studies (an interdisciplinary field in the sciences and social sciences) at the University of California, Berkeley, who researched the topic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Among those who will no doubt take an interest in the newly found documents are the members of the ministerial committee established a few weeks ago to formulate uniform spellings for place and site names for maps, road signs and textbooks. The panel already made headlines after it rejected a proposal by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz of Likud to remove Jerusalem's Arabic name from road signs - "Urshalim al-Quds" - and replace it with the transliterated Hebrew name, "Yerushalayim." The committee is headed by Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin, also of Likud; other members include Katz, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat (Likud ), Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi ), Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas ) and Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov (Yisrael Beiteinu ).

In recent months, the issue of names in the capital has again engaged politicians. For example, MKs Tzipi Hotovely (Likud ) and Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi ) submitted a bill that would have forced the municipality to use hebraized neighborhood names. Another example is the proposal - written on behalf of the municipality by linguist Dr. Avshalom Kor - to hebraize the names of the new light rail's stops. Also of note is the attempt by inhabitants of the Jewish enclave of Shimon Hatzaddik in the heart of the East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to ban the historical Arabic name.

Judaizing the map

The archival documents reveal that in the decade following the state's establishment, the Jerusalem municipality took a passive stance and attempted to delay and even do away with the government's plan to hebraize Arabic neighborhood names. The background to the whole affair was the establishment of the Government Names Committee in 1951, which to this day is part of the Prime Minister's Office. (That committee replaced the Jewish Agency for Israel Committee on Names of Localities, which was created in 1922. )

This government body is still in charge of naming locales in Israel and changing the pre-state Arabic names. Its members include historians, geographers, archaeologists and experts in the Bible and language, along with representatives of the Interior, Transportation and Housing Ministries and the Jewish National Fund. Alongside the government body, there is a Jerusalem Municipal Names Committee.

In 1956 Ben-Zion Eshel, the secretary of the government committee, wrote a nasty letter, which was among the documents discovered by Wilkof, to the members of the Jerusalem committee regarding their bitter conflict: "In your file there are many letters we sent you during the past five years on establishing Hebrew names for the neighborhoods in our capital, and in our files there are many letters of promises from you," he wrote. "The time has come to remove Abu Tor, Baka, Hamoshava Hagermanit (!! ) and Katamon," he wrote, referring to several Arabic neighborhood names and the German Colony. (The exclamation marks are in the original. ) "Inhabitants from around the country who visit Jerusalem protest and complain. The Israel Broadcasting Service [precursor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority] is arguing and demanding, and we are once again asking [you ] to take urgent action to establish Hebrew names for the neighborhoods."

Eshel continued to castigate the municipality, writing: "It is not enough to argue that 'the municipality does not name neighborhoods, but only streets' ... The city leaders and Municipal Names Committee members should examine themselves, and they will find that they use the neighborhoods' [foreign] names and of course not the Hebrew ones."

He ended the letter by declaring: "We shall be most grateful to you if you would be so kind as to convene an urgent meeting of the Municipal Names Committee to solve this crucial problem."

Eshel's sarcasm was his trademark. Burning with Zionist zeal, he worked energetically to force public and state institutions to adopt the new Hebrew names his committee chose. Thus, for example, in a 1958 letter to the Broadcasting Service, Eshel demanded it correct broadcasters' mispronunciation of Hebrew names. "Despite many comments and corrections on our part once again the strange and grating mispronunciations are being used," he wrote to the head of the service over a mispronunciation of Kiryat Ono. "We ask you to demand of the broadcasters in no uncertain terms that they not mispronounce the Scriptural Hebrew and that they pronounce it as is written in the Bible. To reinforce their memory, the broadcasters will please be so kind as to open the Bible and find the name there."

Eshel presented his ideological view to the Survey Of Israel - National Agency for Geodesy, Cadastre, Mapping and Geographic Information in a 1953 letter: "Judaizing the map of Israel is not merely a technical task - it is a historical phenomenon, the fruit of Israel's rebirth."

Another committee

The Jerusalem names panel replied to the Government Names Committee and justified its inactivity with bureaucratic excuses and the slow pace of its work. The excuses were ineffective and in May 1957, Eshel wrote another tough letter to the municipal committee: "If the names of the Arab neighborhoods are not immediately changed to Hebrew names ... the foreign names will become entrenched and it will be impossible to uproot them."

Even after receiving that letter, the municipality continued to block any real discussion of the issue. In July 1957 Ze'ev Haklai, chairman of the city's committee, sent a letter to Eshel explaining that before they could address the matter, they had to complete work on the street names, which was taking a long time because of the construction of new neighborhoods for immigrants in the west and south of the city, including Kiryat Hayovel and Katamonim (the Hebrew plural of a Greek name ).

Haklai wrote: "I would like to take this opportunity to point out that the Municipal Names Committee is making every effort to hold regular meetings once every two weeks and it is trying to name streets based on applications submitted over many years from neighborhood residents. In this way we are working to get rid of the backlog of streets lacking names."

Several months later Haklai summed up municipal activities thus: "The names committee convenes once every two weeks and the subcommittee once a week. Even if the committee were to convene three times a week - it could not keep up with the pace of work."

In an attempt to ratchet up the pressure on the municipal panel, one member of the government committee composed a detailed document with concrete suggestions. In a letter sent in June 1957, Jacob A. Arikha, author of the 1937 book "Restoration of Place-Names in Eretz Israel," suggested Hebrew names for six neighborhoods that had "foreign" names.

In reply, the municipality sent a letter explaining why it rejected the suggestions. Deputy Mayor P.Y. Yakobi wrote Arikha that some of his proposals were "indigestible," adding: "The source of my objection is historical. In my humble opinion, it is enough that our Hebrew is being replaced by 'the new Hebrew' - a kind of Semitic Esperanto ... as though a language could be produced by individuals in an artificial way and need not grow gradually like a historical plant."

His second objection related to education: "In light of this conservative tendency of mine, you will understand that I am not enthusiastic about proposals to give neighborhoods new names instead of their historical names, which mirror the fine history of new Jerusalem. In my humble opinion, every generation should know that Jerusalem had a non-Jewish period and it must guard Jewish Jerusalem lest its character change again. And if, due to practical considerations (difficulty in pronunciation and so on ), there is no alternative but to change certain streets, I do not see as inevitable the need to replace neighborhood names."

The Jerusalem names committee finally agreed to discuss the issue, but relegated it to the bottom of the agenda at one of its meetings. The minutes of that discussion stated there was a decision to establish a special forum that "will submit a proposal to change the foreign-language names of some neighborhoods in Jerusalem (those which still bear such names ) to Hebrew names."

In this way the city gained a bit more time. As the months passed, its committee apparently did not find time to convene the new forum. Again and again the item came up on the municipal agenda - and again and again it was postponed.

A new target

This multiple-year affair, replete with requests, pleas and reprimands from the Government Names Committee, was resolved only during the 10th anniversary of the country's independence. The celebrations lasted an entire year, and involved a plethora of events. From the perspective of the state, the festivities were a vehicle for advancing national aims and enterprises. One was hebraizing the names of Jerusalem neighborhoods.

In an October 1957 letter Eshel sent to the chairman of the city's names panel on behalf the government committee, he wrote: "I would be very grateful if you would inform me of the progress concerning the names of the neighborhoods ... In honor of the state's 10th anniversary, will we be afforded Hebrew names for the neighborhoods in Jerusalem?"

On July 20, 1958, the city council officially approved the Hebrew names: Musrara became Morasha, Katamon became Gonen, Baka became Geulim, the German Colony and the Greek Colony became Emek Refaim, and Abu Tor became Giv'at Hananya. And what about Talbieh? It was named Komemiyut, which comes from the Scriptures and symbolizes the Jews' aspiration for a strong, independent state of their own.

But Eshel had no time for celebrating. While the municipality was deliberating which new neighborhood names it would approve, he took aim at a new target: Jerusalem Mayor Gershon Agron. In 1958, Eshel wrote Agron: "On previous occasions we called your attention to the error in the use of the fictional name 'Valley of the Cross.' The Government Names Committee has determined that this valley should be called 'Rehavia Valley.' Though the monastery is called 'the Monastery of the Cross,' the valley has never had any Arabic name or English name; neither Muslims nor Christians called it 'the Valley of the Cross.' Before the establishment of the state this name did not exist ... The name Rehavia Valley should be used. Please instruct all departments of the municipality: education and culture, public relations, the names committee, etc."

Shira Wilkof, who found all these documents, concludes: "Ultimately, this can be seen as a battle of consciousness: The language used to name a place says who the landlord is. These documents can teach the [new] ministerial committee on names a thing or two," she says.

A few weeks ago, Katz said the committee's names had to "have a Zionist basis."

For her part, Wilkof questions: "How is Katz more Zionist than the leaders of the city of Jerusalem in the early days of the state, who were able to accept the neighborhoods' Arabic names?"

She adds: "The battle over the names in Jerusalem is today's battle for defining 'Israeliness' and for deciding which groups are included and which are kept out. The history [reflected in the documents], which reveals the plurality of voices in the past, enters into these questions, and thus enables us to examine the current reductive and one-dimensional trend with sobriety and awareness."

Furthermore, she says, "This affair is further testimony to the strong emotions this city arouses and to the constant battle over national identity and sovereignty. This struggle is especially evident in the seemingly everyday, incidental and neutral activity of 'marking a place' with a name."