If Israel hasn’t experienced its own version of the Confederate statue wars waging in the United States, it’s not for lack of controversial historical figures.
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Rather, it has to do with the fact that statues are rarely used in Israel to pay tribute to heroic individuals or famous personalities.
That does not mean that those who have made their mark go unacknowledged. But instead of statues in their likeness, they get schools, hospitals, highways, bridges, parks, city squares, army bases and streets named after them.
As in the United States, some pretty objectionable figures have been honored in the Israeli public sphere. Meir Kahane, the racist American-born rabbi whose political party was outlawed in Israel, has a street named after him in the town of Or Akiva and a park named after him in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba. Situated in that very park is the gravesite of another figure of infamy: Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish-American physician who massacred 29 Palestinians while they were praying in the nearby Tomb of the Patriarchs. Although it is not an official monument, Goldstein’s gravesite has over the years become a site of pilgrimage for many radical right-wingers.
Rehavam Ze’evi, a former Israeli general and tourism minister who headed a far-right party that hoped to evict Arabs from Israel, has a bridge, a highway, several monuments, a West Bank settlement and a number of streets named after him. Ze’evi, who was assassinated in 2001 by Palestinian gunmen at the height of the second intifada, was considered controversial not only because of his extreme political views.
A recent expose, published after his death, alleged that he had a history of sexually assaulting women. Responding to the allegations at the time, his widow Yael Ze’evi (who has since passed away) said that the report brought “anonymous testimony about events that supposedly happened decades ago, and the man accused of them is no longer alive in order to tell what happened.”
Ze’evi’s detractors won a rare victory several months ago, when the government withdrew plans to name a key War of Independence memorial after him. The decision came in response to a public campaign led by well-known veterans of the war and supported by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
Other campaigns have been less successful, including the attempt to remove the bust of Moshe Katsav – the former Israeli president who spent five years in jail after being convicted of rape – from the official residence of the head of state. Katsav’s bust still appears alongside those of his predecessors and successors in the presidential garden, where foreign dignitaries and official ceremonies are often hosted.
Katzav may have prevailed, but Yasser Arafat did not. Several months ago, it emerged that a street in the Arab town of Jatt had been named years earlier after the Palestinian leader, considered by many to have been a terrorist and arch enemy of the Jewish state. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a protest on his Facebook page, Interior Minister Arye Dery gave the municipality of Jatt a 48-hour deadline to remove the signs. It complied.
It is not clear, though, that it needed to, at least not according to Prof. Maoz Azaryahu, a geographer from the University of Haifa who has written extensively on commemoration culture – and in particular, the politics of street-naming – in Israel. “In Israel, as in the United States, it is the local authorities that have the power to decide these things, and they do not need to take orders from high up.”
That can explain, he notes, how a settlement like Kiryat Arba could get away with honoring someone as controversial as Kahane and nothing could be done about it. Or, by the same token, how the Arab town of Kfar Manda could name a square after Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president who was one of Israel’s most formidable enemies, and the country would have to swallow it.
When Israeli cities began commissioning public monuments in the 1950s, recounts Azaryahu, the tenders they issued stipulated that the artists had to respect Jewish tradition and not cause offense. “This was their way of discouraging statues of people, and it explains why we have so much abstract art in the public sphere here in Israel,” he says.
Nonetheless, statues can be found here and there on the Israeli landscape, among the most prominent examples are a full-figure sculpture of Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai; a statue of Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, sitting on his horse, outside Independence Hall; a bust of Yitzhak Rabin outside the main city square in Tel Aviv, where he was assassinated; and busts of both Rabin and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Azaryahu recalls only one example of a statue ever being removed, and that was before Israel had even gained its independence. “In the 1930s, as part of their revolt against the British, the Arabs took down a statue of Edmund Allenby that had been erected in Be’er Sheva,” he says, referring to the British general who helped bring an end to Ottoman rule in the region during World War I.
Many streets that bore the names of British imperial figures were renamed after the 1948 War of Independence (though Allenby still has a major street named after him in Tel Aviv), but since then, says Azaryahu, it has been fairly uncommon.
“There used to be a King George Street in Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” he notes. “The one in Haifa was renamed after the War of Independence, the one in Jerusalem was renamed, but it didn’t stick, so it went back to its original name. In Tel Aviv, they kept the name as well, but added alongside it, in parenthesis, the fact that King George had been the British ruler when the Balfour Declaration was signed so that there was at least some Zionist history included,” Azaryahu said, referring to the 1917 document issued by the British government supporting the formation of a “national home” for the Jews in Palestine.
Local authorities have the right to rename streets, with one exception, according to Azaryahu. “You are not allowed to rename a street that was named after a national hero.”
That didn’t stop the city council of ultra-Orthodox B’nai Brak from renaming Herzl Street (named for the Zionist visionary Theodore Herzl) in honor of Rabbi Eliezer Schach, a spiritual leader of the Haredi community in Israel, after his death. “They found a clever way to get around this prohibition,” says Azaryahu. “They left Herzl’s name on a tiny part of it.”