At the Intersection of History and Politics

Zionists have been naming streets after Theodor Herzl since before there was an Israel, creating a dissonance between historical figures and current reality in the modern state.

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

In all the stormy debates about the future of the Jewish state at the first Zionist congresses, Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann hardly ever agreed.

Herzl Steet in Tel Aviv.Credit: Archive

Herzl supported the Zionism of diplomacy: obtaining guarantees for the Jews before settling in the Land of Israel, whereas Weizmann led the Zionism of synthesis, calling for a political solution simultaneously with settlement.
At the Sixth Zionist Congress Herzl brought up the Uganda plan as an alternative to settling the land of Israel. Weizmann led the strong opposition to that idea.

The relationship between the statesman and the scientists had its ups and downs and today, 106 years after Herzls death and 57 years after Weizmanns death, these two figures continue to run into each other. But this time the August halls of Europe have been traded for the neighborhoods of modern Israel, where streets named after the two often intersect, as in Netanya and Rehovot. For a little more historic poignancy, how about the road leading from Rishon Letzion to Nes Tziona, which turns from Herzl Street into Weizmann.

It appears the geography of commemoration can teach a lot about the politics behind the scenes. Prof. Maoz Azaryahu, a cultural geographer from Haifa University, as he defines himself, is fascinated by the topic of the commemoration of Herzl and deals with this at length in his book The History and Politics of Street Names in Israel, forthcoming from Carmel Publishing House.

Herzl was the founder of the Zionist pantheon and a national hero, he says. He is the founding father and therefore in nearly every locale in Israel he has been honored with a street named after him, usually a main street. Take, for example, Tel Aviv, which is named after Herzls book Altneuland. Tel Aviv was the title given to the Hebrew book given by translator Nahum Sokolov, and nevertheless its main street is Herzl, Azaryahu says.

The politics of place

Tel Avivs Herzl Street is an important connecting route Jaffa. In contrast to other streets in the city, it was built from north to south and it is the only street on which the house numbers go up from north to south and not vice versa.
This is because the homes of public figures Ahad Haam and Akiva Arie Weiss were the first houses on the street, and out of respect were numbered 1 and 2.

Over the years Herzl Street was extended southwards several times, first in the direction of Florentine Street and finally to Ben Zvi Street and the Tel Kabir neighborhood. Herzl served as Tel Avivs central thoroughfare in its first years but in the 1920s Allenby Road developed and Herzls status began to wane. During that period the ground floors of most of the residential buildings became shops and places of business and with the construction of the Shalom Tower in 1965 on the ruins of the Herzliya Gymnasium, at the roads terminus, the area became a business center.

Today the street is dotted with furniture and interior design stores and along the southern part of the street there are mainly auto-repair shops and small workshops.

Herzls death in 1904 led to a flurry of commemoration in the Land of Israel. Every new thing the Zionists built was named after Herzl the first town, schools, streets and neighborhoods, Azaryahu says. Accordingly, it is nearly always possible to find streets named after him in the moshavot [agricultural communities] established during this period.

In Kfar Sava too, Herzls memory was honored and the main street there was named after him, even though he had never visited the place and none of the inhabitants at the time knew him personally.

In the moshavot it was customary to name streets after Zionist leaders: We have Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion who visited Kfar Sava five times and Tchernikovsky, who also came to visit and got the fourth street, says Yardena Wiesenberg, director of the Archaeological Museum of Kfar Sava. Herzls status was different he had international stature. The inhabitants had only heard of him and imagined him. Perhaps for that reason he was even stronger.

In 1913 a dozen single-story houses were built along Herzl Street in Kfar Sava, with adjacent farm buildings and dairy sheds. In the 1940s a handsome avenue of ficus trees was planted, which to this day serves as the main traffic artery. Regrettably, nothing is left of the original houses, save one small structure that has been preserved.

From Jabotinsky to Rabin

Rather surprisingly, Herzl is not the man with the most streets named after him. Zeev Jabotinsky has that honor, with 55 streets named after him, three more than Herzl and more than founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion (48 streets) and Weizmann (47 streets).

After them on the list are poet Haim Nachman Bialik (43 streets), former prime minister Menachem Begin (42 streets), former prime minister Moshe Sharett (35 streets), Zionist Chaim Arlosoroff and former prime minister Levi Eshkol (31 each) and former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin with 30 (But Rabin broke the bank because all of Route 6 is named after him, smiles Azaryahu).

In Azaryahus opinion, Jabotinskys dominance is connected to his status in the civic camp as a hero of urbanism. However, because of his rightist leanings there have also been places that were in no hurry to commemorate him.

In Haifa, for example, a street was named after him only 13 years after his death, and even then the street is called after his middle name, Zeev, with the aim of avoiding street names in foreign languages.

In Tel Aviv, too, there was a minor uproar upon the naming of Jabotinsky Street, which connects Hayarkon Street and Derekh Namir. Supporters of the Mapai party (the forerunner of todays Labor Party) did not like the idea of Jabotinsky the Revisionist running parallel to Arlosoroff the socialist.

In the end they realized no one would make the connection between the politics and the geography and decided to withdraw their objection.

Street names aside, Herzl is still probably the most commemorated leader in Israel not only in Tel Aviv but of course also in Herzliya, which is named after him and also by his Hebrew first and middle names given to children, in the Hebrew version of Monopoly and also by a Zim ship.

His portrait was also immortalized in the past on 100 lira bills, which won the public nickname Herzls.

Abroad too, Herzl is commemorated and has even had a square named after him in the 3rd Arrondisement of Paris an honor accorded very few Jewish leaders.

Nevertheless, it appears the strong image of the Zionist visionary is growing weaker. For example, in the new town of Modiin there is no street named after him or any early Zionist leader. Rather, the streets there commemorate Biblical heroes, Israel Defense Forces generals, the tribes of Israel or local streams, flowers, trees and valleys.

This is a new quality of life invention, to name a street after a chrysanthemum, says Azaryahu. Herzl doesnt have a lobby any more. He isnt a natural candidate for a street name like he was in the 1950s. Its hard for me to envision a new neighborhood named after Herzl. In fact, it turns out the most popular street name in Israel is Olive (Hazayit) with 124 of them around the country.

Another indication of the decline in Herzls status comes out of ultra-Orthodoz Bnei Brak, where in 2001 the municipality decided to commemorate Rabbi Elazar Shach at the expense of the Herzl. Since then, half of Herzl Street has been called Rabbi Shach Street.

Avshalom Vilan, who was a Meretz MK at the time, called the act insolence and the death of Zionism.

The Herzl Street mosque

But Herzl is not only downtrodden. He is also often pressed into the service of a clear Zionist-Israeli narrative, especially when it comes to former Arab cities. Ashkelon, for example, was founded on the site of the Arab town al-Majdal, home to 10,000 inhabitants before the establishment of the state. The Israeli city built there was first called Migdal-Ashkelon but later any mention of the Arab past was dropped. The main street, where the central mosque (which has since become the municipal museum) is located, was named after Herzl and the dissonance between the mosque and the street name is a clear physical expression of the occupation of space.

Something similar occurred in Beer Sheva, where the main street of the Ottoman Old City is named after Herzl. Alongside it can be found other indicators of Israeli sovereignty on streets named Independence or after the Histadrut labor federation, the Jewish National Fund and more.

In Jerusalem, too, right after the establishment of the state they tried to change the name of the main street, Jaffa Street, to Herzl Street. The municipality made a decision in principle to do so but a year later it was decided to build the commemoration site at Mount Herzl and the name-change was revoked.

Be that as it may, in Azaryahus opinion, the centrality of Herzl Streets in the cities ensure him at least for the meantime many more years of commemoration.

My research deals with the politics of commemoration and in my opinion street names are the most effective commemoration there is, he says. You have monuments and memorials but the beauty of street names is that everyone uses them and no one is aware of them. History becomes part of the most intimate layers of your life. I tell students, for example, that my first kiss was at 78 Herzl in Tel Aviv. Its lovely that the visionary of the state was part of that experience.



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