In Israel, Controversial Memorials Are Everywhere but Not One Has Been Toppled

The country has its own Edward Colstons, but it seems people are too busy with their day-to-day problems to take to the streets just yet

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Clockwise from top left: Israel (Rudolf) Kastner, Yasser Arafat, Moshe Katsav and Rafael Eitan.
Clockwise from top left: Israel (Rudolf) Kastner, Yasser Arafat, Moshe Katsav and Rafael Eitan.Credit: AP, IDF, Tomer Appelbaum
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

When historian Johnny Mansour, who specializes in the history of the Palestinian people, is asked for his address, he goes silent for a moment, looks down and mutters: “Yair Stern Street.”

Even after more than two decades on this street in Haifa, he’s loath to look at the entrance to his house and see the sign commemorating the commander of the Lehi – a pre-state underground, as the right calls it, or a terrorist group, as Mansour sees it.

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A few years ago, he asked city hall whether there was a chance to change the name of the street, where most of the residents are Arab Israelis.

In recent weeks, Mansour has seen how in the United States and Europe, the people protesting racism and discrimination have toppled statues of historical figures with stains in their past. The residents of Yair Stern Street, he admits, are too busy with their day-to-day problems to take to the streets just because of the armed poet.  

Yes, armed poet; Stern also wrote dozens of poems and once declared: “From our ranks, only death will release us.” In 1942, he was captured by British police officers, who shot him dead.  

A 10-minute drive from Mansour’s home one can find Zionism Boulevard and November 2 Street, named after the date of the 1917 Balfour Declaration that backed “a national home for the Jewish people” in the Holy Land.

Amer Dahamshe is a lecturer at Hebrew Literature and the author of the 2017 book “Local Habitation and a Name: A Literary and Cultural Reading of the Arabic Geographical Names of the Land.”

“Commemorating the memory of certain figures in the [public] space is commemoration of a political or cultural worldview and agenda,” he says.

Accordingly, the commemoration of controversial historical figures “could very well stir resentment among certain groups that see a moral flaw in the act,” he says.

This month, Dahamshe closely followed the images from Bristol, England, where protesters uprooted a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the river.

A statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston falling into the water after protesters pulled it down during a demonstration against racial inequality in Bristol, England, June 7, 2020. Credit: Keir Gravil via Reuters

“The uprooting of the statue expressed the anger against Colston’s racist actions, and to emphasize that it wasn’t right to be part of the history of the place and collective memory,” Dahamshe says, adding that the act also represented “a challenge to the entity that considered it proper to put up a statue in his image.”

A few days ago, other protesters tried to topple a statue across from the White House of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. Among other things, they protested that in 1830 Jackson signed an order leading to the expulsion of thousands of Native Americans from their land.

The shattering of the statues, which followed the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, is part of the protest movement that aims to remove symbols linked to slavery, racism and repression of minorities throughout history.

A far cry from Gandhi

In the Israeli context, Dahamshe notes the remembrance of Rehavam Ze’evi, a retired general and the tourism minister when he was assassinated by a Palestinian in 2001. Ze’evi promoted the transfer of Arab Israelis out of the country.

“Ze’evi is commemorated throughout Israel in the names of streets in cities and on roads connecting them,” Dahamshe says. “The Arab community remembers his doctrine and sees him as someone who symbolizes a colonialist outlook that calls for their separation from their land.”

When Arab Israelis run into Ze’evi’s name in the public space, they “feel persecuted, threatened and alienated from their surroundings.”

This is how some of the residents of Ma’alot-Tarshiha in the Upper Galilee feel about that city’s Rehavam Ze’evi Square. “The Jews and Arabs in towns there live in a brotherhood and cousinhood,” Dahamshe says.

Rehavam Ze'evi Street in Ashkelon in 2019.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“Doesn’t the commemoration of Ze’evi’s name actually emphasize what separates them? It’s a bit ironic,” he says, considering places there that translate as Brotherhood of the Peoples and Peace Square.

Some Jewish Israelis are also outraged by the commemoration of Ze’evi. Three years ago, veterans of the pre-state Palmach militia won their battle against a government plan to name a site after him. The veterans said the issue wasn’t his character but their desire to commemorate the soldiers who broke the Arab forces’ blockade on Jerusalem during the War of Independence – and Ze’evi, who was later nicknamed Gandhi, wasn’t among them.

But those who didn’t want to see Ze’evi’s name on the road to Jerusalem will find it in many other places all over Israel, including on the Ayalon Highway that runs through Tel Aviv.

“When I drive down the Ayalon every morning, I get in my face Gandhi’s name under the bridge named after him,” says Sharon Geva, a lecturer of history and gender studies. “There’s something crude in it, even more then the statue of President Moshe Katsav in the sculpture garden at the President’s Residence.”

Katsav, who was president from 2000 to 2007, served five years in prison the following decade for raping an employee; he was accused of raping or sexually harassing a number of women.

The Katsav example, however, shows that it’s possible to commemorate people without lauding them. A sign alongside the statue mentions his imprisonment and the reasons.

Two years ago, the train station in Afula was named after Rafael Eitan, the former military chief known as Raful and “a hero of Israel,” as then-Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz called him. “The landscape of Raful’s childhood and adulthood flows closely with the [Jezreel] Valley and its capital Afula, and it’s natural to memorialize him here, too.”

But as Edan Ring of the Sikkuy nonprofit group reminds us, along with the residents of Afula, the residents of nearby Nazareth also use the train station named after Gen. Eitan. And he’s the one who once said he hoped the local Arabs would one day have little more agency than “drugged cockroaches in a bottle.”

Residents of Nazareth don’t need to go as far as Afula to be reminded of Eitan. On the road to their city stands a bridge named after him, not far from Moshav Tel Adashim where he grew up and lived. “The mayor protested and boycotted the naming ceremony, but it didn’t help,” Ring said.

Arafat and Nasser

In contrast, when it comes to Arab names that could hurt the feelings of Jews, the road to removing them is much shorter. This is what happened three years ago when it became known that the Arab locality Jatt had a road named after Yasser Arafat. Members of the local council noted that the late Palestinian leader was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

But after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there “can’t be streets named after Israel’s enemies,” the street signs were removed – though the road is still Arafat Street on Google Maps.

Four years earlier, a similar storm brewed in Sakhnin in the Lower Galilee. There, too, local officials named a street after Arafat, but when they wanted to name one after Gamal Abdel Nasser – the Egyptian president who called for Israel’s destruction – they faced opposition that quashed the plan.

Two years ago, the forgotten name of Giora Yoseftal made headlines. Yoseftal – a former labor, housing and development minister, secretary general of the left-wing Mapai party and a senior official at the Jewish Agency – died in 1962. In a television documentary series two years ago, Yoseftal was quoted as saying that Mizrahi immigrants suffered poor morals and other shortcomings.

Dr. Giora Yoseftal, former senior Jewish Agency official, with his wife Senta in 1954. Credit: David Eldan / GPO

As a result of the documentary, a number of mayors announced they would stop commemorating Yoseftal in their cities. “The time has come to change the existing reality, in which institutions and streets are called by the names of those who created harsh injustices toward the Jews of Arab lands,” the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition called for at the time.

And so this is how a former head of the Jewish Agency’s absorption department suddenly became a symbol of arrogance, alienation and racism.

Tom Mehager, the head of the Amram Association for the investigation of the disappearance of Mizrahi and Balkan Jewish children early in the state’s history, says comments such as those attributed to Yoseftal have “granted moral legitimacy” to acts still considered a festering wound.

The list of the controversial people commemorated in Israel is very long. It includes figures such as Israel (Rudolf) Kastner, considered the savior of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust on the one hand and a Budapest-based collaborator with the Nazis on the other. In 2015, a park built in Haifa was named after “Kastner’s survivors.”

The opening was held without any ceremony or PR, maybe out of fear of a protest. It was preceded by two important compromises: Kastner would not be memorialized with a street but with a park. And it would be in the name of the survivors.

His granddaughter, Labor legislator Merav Michaeli, said at the time that because of a “vocal minority,” her grandfather hadn’t received proper commemoration in Israel, even though he was considered by Holocaust researchers the person who saved the most fellow Jews during the period.

Geva, who leads projects to commemorate women left out of the history books, fought a few years ago for commemoration online. After her students wrote hundreds of encyclopedia entries for women who made history, they tried to upload them onto Wikipedia – and discovered that the battle over commemoration wasn't only taking place on street corners. They had to watch as some of the fruits of their labor were erased.

Between remembrance, demolitions and erasure, Geva finds herself in a paradox. “There is tension between the motivation to commemorate controversial figures – and in doing so reflect things the way they were – and honoring those same figures, which can be insufferable,” she says. “If we don’t recognize that there were people who did and said horrible things, we won’t be able to fix the present.”

So is it preferable to preserve or knock down? Geva says it’s more important to ensure that after you upload onto Instagram a photo of a shattered statue, you hold a discussion on the background behind its destruction.

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