The Arab-Jewish Battle Over Street Names in Jaffa

In the ancient city, part of Tel Aviv for nearly seven decades, only 14 streets have been named after Arabs, though that community makes up one-third of Jaffa

Jaffa's Natan Panz Street, where the Islamic Movement placed a green metal plaque with a quote from the Koran, May 2017.
Daniel Monterescu

Fifty years after he was killed in 1948 when Jewish forces took Jaffa, the Irgun fighter and soccer player Natan Panz had a street named after him by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality. The street was located in the middle of a residential area where most of the people were Arabs.

Shortly after the street-naming ceremony, where the prime minister and mayor were on hand, activists from the Islamic Movement placed a green metal plaque next to the street name. The plaque bore a verse from the Koran calling on believers to ask forgiveness for their sins: “Ask forgiveness of your God, He is merciful.”

If that weren’t enough, a square on the street has a statue by sculptor Zvi Gera in memory of Panz. The street sign says “Natan Panz (1917-1948): an exemplary athlete who fell in the service of the Irgun in the battle for the liberation of Jaffa.” The statue of a member of a right-wing militia triggered a fierce debate in Jaffa, where many people argued that not only was city hall ignoring the local Arabs’ history, it was alienating them further from the place where they lived.

There’s a long, twisting political history surrounding the naming of Jaffa streets. After the establishment of the state in 1948, the first stage was the changing of street names to numbers.

The second stage began in 1950, with street names organized into groups, as had been the custom in Tel Aviv since 1934. These groups are classified according to categories such as historical figures (Michelangelo, Pushkin and Pestalozzi streets in Jaffa) and biblical names (Yefet, Ben-Ahituv and Shaare Nikanor streets). There are also names from Christian tradition like Simon the Tanner Street, from Jewish and Zionist history like Yehuda Margoza and Shivtei Yisrael streets, and a handful of names from Arab and Jaffa history like Ibn Rushd and Abd al-Ghani streets.

Graffiti in Jaffa, 2008.
Daniel Monterescu

The relative scarcity of Arab names is a constant source of alienation and tension, part of a struggle around the national and cultural character of municipal spaces in mixed cities. Street naming is a political act of marking territory that often ends in a fierce dispute. Street names define “spatial texts” that sear events and historic figures into the local collective memory.

There is an incongruence between quintessential Jewish street names such as the one named after Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa (Przysucha, Poland) and the Arab residents living on those streets. Regarding the rabbi from Peshischa, Ahmed Balha, who consults Tel Aviv’s mayor on the Arab community, says that “without showing disrespect, Peshischa has become a joke here. No one even knows how to pronounce it.”

Changing names overnight

To protest, local youths erase names like Rabbi Nachman of Breslau Street in an area rapidly being gentrified, as old buildings make way for new ones right across from the tin shacks in the Karem Dalek neighborhood. Another way to protest is to give Arabic names without the approval of the municipal street-naming committee. A local initiative has thus changed Victor Hugo Street to Al-Nahda Street — Arab Renaissance Street.

In 2014, social activists changed many street names overnight, replacing them with names from the Palestinian world, some of them renowned for criticizing Israeli policies. Thus Olei Tzion Street was replaced by Mahmoud Darwish Street, named after the man often considered the Palestinian national poet. Nes Lagoyim Street was changed to Fadwa Tuqan Street, after another poet, and Shivtei Yisrael Street was changed to Naji al-Ali Street, a cartoonist who created Handala, the iconic Palestinian observing injustices from the sidelines.

The statue of soccer player and Irgun veteran Natan Panz, Jaffa, May 2017.
Vered Navon

Negotiations between residents and the municipality reveal the tensions between the demand to commemorate people and places from before 1948, thus evoking memories of the Nakba — when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-49 war.

These include the sociologist Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, who is buried in Jaffa, former Mayor Abd al-Rauf al-Baytar, Dr. Fouad al-Dajani, who founded the city’s first hospital, and Issa el-Issa, the editor of the Falastin newspaper. Other suggestions include Arab figures with a more universal cachet such as Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature. Often the compromise is to note local figures who have no national significance.

The street-naming committee for the Tel Aviv municipality is tasked with commemorating the “history of Israel in its land,” according to its 1942 guidelines. But Palestinian researchers divide pre-1948 street names into several groups: streets named after historical figures such as King Faisal, now called Yehuda Hayamit Steet, or Djemal Pasha, now the northern part of Jerusalem Boulevard.

There are also streets named after authors and intellectuals such as the Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi, and streets named after local dignitaries such as Saksik Street, now Beit Eshel Street. There is also Dajani Street, now Kedem Street, and Butrus Street, now Raziel Street. There are also streets named after locations in the city such as Nuzha Street, now the southern part of Jerusalem Boulevard, Al-Hilweh Street is now part of Yefet Street, and Al-Quds Street is now Ben Zvi Road.

Dialectical processes

In 2012, council member Ahmed Mashharawi heralded a changeover in the city’s approach: More streets would get Arab names. There are currently 14 such streets in Jaffa, including a square named after Sheikh Bassam Abu-Zeid.

Israeli flags for Independence Day and a street sign with the name painted over, May 2017.
Daniel Monterescu

Arabs make up one-third of Jaffa’s population, so these 14 streets don’t reflect this community, with 400 other streets named after figures from world, Jewish and Zionist culture. An appeal by former council member Rifaat Turk to the committee stated that the “tiny proportion of streets reflecting the culture and heritage of the city’s Arab population constitutes discrimination.”

The intercommunity strife illustrates how relations between Tel Aviv and Jaffa are still unresolved after 100 years of conflict. Relations between the two cities and their residents highlight the tension between ethnicity and incorporation into the establishment, expressing a growing trend of “Palestinization” meshed with “Israelization.”

This dynamic lies at the basis of the dilemma facing representatives of the Arab minority in mixed cities who wish to be recognized for their political and cultural uniqueness but don’t wish to be severed from the state or even from the Tel Aviv municipality.

The Arabic language street sign in Jaffa for Arab Renaissance Street, May 2017.
Daniel Monterescu

These dialectical processes are present at all levels of life in Jaffa, starting with discussions on life in mixed cities, and including demographic trends and political power differentials in the city. Looking at Jaffa, it’s clear that more than an ethnic hegemony ruling the city, there has been a failure to mediate between communities, with the state unable to define Jaffa as a Jewish city and the local Palestinian community failing to define the city as an Arab one. This struggle is defining the city’s cultural and political realities.