Meet Me on the Corner of Ze'evi and Kahane

What were the members of Or Akiva's Names Committee thinking when, 15 years ago, they approved naming a street after Meir Kahane, founder of the extreme right-wing party Kach? And why did it take a decade and a half for the matter to become a bone of public contention? It is hard to say what prompted these decisions.

It is also difficult to understand why another advocate of implementing a population transfer policy for Arabs who was also assassinated, Rehavam (Gandhi) Ze'evi, was given the honor of having a boulevard in Rishon Letzion, a bridge above Tel Aviv's Ayalon Expressway and the Jordan Valley highway named after him. The moral of the story is that if you are a racist who has become the victim of an assassination, it is better if you are also a major general (reserves) and a cabinet minister.

In 1986, Jerusalem's Municipal Names Committee decided to name a street after the victims of the Deir Yassin massacre - not the Arab victims - but the five Jewish ones, who were members of the two underground Jewish armies operating during the British Mandate in Palestine, the Irgun and the Lehi. It took then Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek two months to rescind the decision.

Fringe benefit

Jerusalem has a thoroughfare called The Politician Street (Rehov Haaskan). Many of the streets in Israel commemorate long-forgotten politicians. Haim Handwerker once wrote in Haaretz that the names committee granted the last possible fringe benefit a municipality could offer. Former Haaretz television critic Hedda Bosches asserted that obviously you have to know how to influence matters even after you pass away. According to Tel Aviv's late deputy mayor Yitzhak Artzi, street-naming is particularly complicated in Israel because Jews are very sensitive to the issue of commemoration. Perhaps this is one reason why in Israel, contrary to common practice in many Western countries, roads and highway interchanges commemorate people - so there will be enough names to go around.

One problem, however, is that, barring intervention, the Government Names Committee tends to name interurban highways after geographic places.

Generally, street names commemorate the ruling elite. A survey conducted two years ago by Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipal council member Itai Pincas revealed that, of the city's 940 streets commemorating people, 896 honored Jewish males and only 40 (4 percent) honored women. Although 6 percent of Tel Avivians are Arab, only four streets are named after Arab public figures. In 2006, in a desperate attempt to correct the imbalance, Tel Aviv's Names Committee decided to name eight streets after women. However, since Tel Aviv has no room for new streets, the chances for change are slim. In 2005, 114 names were on the waiting list for a street to honor them.

A week and a half after prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, the Israel Electric Corporation decided to name its Hadera power station Orot Rabin. But the station was already named Orot David, honoring David Shiffman, the corporation's chairman for 13 years. Shiffman's family sued and a compromise was reached: The station itself would be named after Shiffman while the entire site would bear Rabin's name. Similarly, the decision to rename Petah Tikva's Beilinson Hospital in Rabin's memory aroused opposition. A compromise solution meant that the medical center uniting Beilinson with HaSharon Hospital would bear Rabin's name.

Writing in Haaretz, Amnon Dankner noted that present-day Israel is not a nation of conquerors, in which names are erased. He argued that there will always be new places and that you do not have to march backward with a giant eraser.

At the corner of Rabin and Rabin

In 2005, Ran Shapira, writing in Haaretz, published the following list of places in Israel commemorating Rabin: 14 neighborhoods; 24 streets, boulevards and roads; two bridges; 36 schools and educational campuses; 11 gardens and groves; 7 parks; 13 memorials; a youth hostel in Jerusalem; a promenade in Binyamina; two complexes of government offices; three community centers; but only two synagogues. These figures suggest the existence of a personality cult. The numbers also raise the question of whether there are some cities and towns in Israel that have not commemorated Rabin in any form whatsoever.

In practice, Israel is actually a nation that does march backward with a giant eraser in its hand. During the British Mandate period in Palestine, many streets in this country commemorated important British figures, including members of the royal family, high commissioners and governors. In Jerusalem, while Royal Jordanian Legionnaire snipers fired shots in Princess Mary Street, the city's municipal names committee renamed it Queen Shlomzion Street. Only King George Street survived the great purge.

When Israel became a state in 1948, Haifa's Coastal Road was renamed United Nations Boulevard - in appreciation of the UN General Assembly vote on the partition of Palestine. However, in 1975, when the General Assembly passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism, the street was again renamed, becoming Zionism Boulevard.

"Dear Editor, I live on Warsaw Ghetto Street, corner Olei Hagardom Street. [Olei Hagardom = literally, those who were sent to the gallows - that is, the Jewish underground fighters hanged by the British authorities in Mandatory Palestine.] From the window of my kitchen, I can see the Ten Martyrs of the Roman Empire Garden ... and from my bedroom, on a clear day, you can see Holocaust Street and Victims Boulevard. Dear Editor ... Ever since moving here, I have stopped smiling" (from Yehonatan Gefen's skit, "Letters to the Editor"). Olei Hagardom Street is the main thoroughfare of Jerusalem's East Talpiot neighborhood, which also includes streets like The Martyrs of Babylon, The Marranos of Meshad and Dov Gruner (an Irgun member hanged by the British in 1947).

The plans to name Ayalon Park, which includes Hiriya Hill, in honor of former prime minister Ariel Sharon raise the issue of naming places after living people. Generally, such naming practices are viewed as a form of megalomania. Persons commemorated during their lifetime include such legendary mayors as Teddy Kollek (Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium), former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat (a promenade) and current Rishon Letzion Mayor Meir Nitzan (a concert hall). Rishon Letzion's inhabitants believe in commemorating people during their lifetime and the city has a Shimon Per es Street, named after the vice prime minister. In Sharon's case, the problem is the opposite: Could the plans for naming South Tel Aviv's giant park in his honor be considered a form of burying him alive?