Street naming is a tool used to shape national and public memory, consolidate identity, express control, and so on. It can also be used to establish relationships of spatial justice and equality or, alternately, to discriminate between groups that share a common public space. Among other things, the street naming policy reflects the sensitivity of the dominant group to other groups that share the same public space and particularly its desire to grant others a sense of belonging and visibility.

Naming streets in Israel’s mixed cities can be an opportunity to realize spatial equality and justice between Jews and Arabs and can also be a way of forming relations of acceptance, unification, and merging, rather than rejection, splitting, and separation that generate conflict.

In Israel, the local authorities are entitled to shape the common public space by legal means. In practice, one way of doing this is by naming a street for a person or event in the desire to etch this name in the public and/or national memory. In other words, the act of naming becomes an attempt to control public and/or national “places of memory.” By naming, the authorized authority selects content from the recent or distant past, intervenes, and directs present and future generations to preserve this content in their memory. In not a few cases, this is accompanied by the erasure and obliteration or at least the blurring of a previous memory.

In Israel, the debate concerning the naming of streets in mixed cities emerged in the early 2000s, when the Supreme Court deliberated whether mixed cities were obligated to translate their street signs into Arabic. In its ruling, the court addressed the significance of the Arabic language and the norm expected of the authorities, by law, to translate the street names for local Arab residents who are entitled to this service.

The actual translation was not necessarily in the best interests of the Arab minority group. Due to the painful memories of Arabs in Israel, translating street names with a negative connotation only intensifies and increases their sense of alienation and estrangement, as well as expanding the rift between Arabs and Jews. Translating street names denoting successful military operations executed by Jewish regiments and military heroes raises negative memories and is not beneficial for Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel, beyond purposes of orientation and identification.

Israeli Melting Pot Blurred Identities

On December 10, 1948, even before the first elections were held in Israel (in late January 1949), the country’s then official newspaper, called The Official Newspaper, (no. 36 p. 278) published the first table in a lengthy series containing the names of Jewish families who had immigrated to Israel from Europe and from Arab countries and whose names had been replaced by Hebrew names. For example, the Hadad family (an Arabic name that denotes a metalworker) was given a new Hebrew name, involving a switch 
to Barzilay. Also, the Deglopatsky family became Drori and the Hausman family became Gazit, and so on. The Israeli melting pot required a blurring of identities and of distinguishing languages and emphasized, at the time, the uniform and united identity of all Jews in Israel. These same efforts aimed at building Israeli identity also resulted in endeavors by the young State of Israel to erase Arab-Palestinian memory and to construct the memory of the Jewish nation in Israel by destroying Arab villages and cities and establishing Jewish towns on their ruins. Replacing the Arab names of cities, villages, streets, alleys, places, streams, lakes, mountains, hills, and others with Hebrew names was a fundamental act in creating ties of ownership and belonging for the new settlers — namely, between the Jews and the country. The renewed Hebrew names were for the most part based on the former Arab names, in the aim of showing that the names have historical roots and even ancient biblical roots that the Arabs had appropriated during 
the historical period when the Jews were forced to remain distant from Palestine (the Land of Israel in Zionist terminology) and that the time had come to reinstate the previous names, i.e., the original Hebrew names.

Hebraicizing Place Names

In many places throughout Israel, Arab residents were compelled to refer to their historical towns using transliterations of the Hebrew names, while disregarding the original Arabic names that bore their particular historical and cultural identity and memory. Street signs and names of historical Arab towns and cities were transliterated from Hebrew into Arabic. For example, instead of ʿAkka, Acre’s Arabic name, the transliteration of the Hebrew ʿAkko was used, instead of Safed - Tzfat, instead of Tabariyya – Tverya. Even in cities not inhabited by Jews, such as Nazareth, the street signs carried the Arabic transliteration of the Hebrew name, as shown by many examples.

The database of the Population and Immigration Authority, published on the government data website (last updated June 2021), clearly indicates the battle waged for the public’s memory by taking control of the shared and non-shared public space and Hebraicizing place names.

In 1948, after the Jewish army occupied the large mixed Palestinian cities – Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Tiberias, Lydda, Ramle, Bisan (Beit Shean), Safed, and others - the composition of their population changed dramatically. The Arabs, and in my opinion also native Jews, were compelled to exist in a glum reality that included no Arab representation in the renamed streets of their historical cities. In all mixed cities, the proportion of street names commemorating Arab Palestinian figures or affiliated with the Arab and/or Palestinian tradition or heritage was miniscule, and if such an affiliation existed, it was usually unrelated to national history but rather only to general Arab memory associated with the Golden Age of the Islamic period or religious figures.

Distorted One-Way Relationship in Haifa

In Haifa, today's proportion of Arab residents comprises nearly 12% of the city’s entire population. The city has 1,148 streets, of which only 63 bear Arabic names. A simple calculation shows that 6.7% of all streets have Arabic names, despite the consistent declarations of the municipality that it will recognize the cultural heritage of the Arab minority that remained in the city. The Arab population is an inseparable part of the city, and it should have been taken into account, particularly following the repeated declarations by mythological Mayor Yona Yahav, who served in this position from 2003-2018, concerning shaping the municipal fabric. Haifa has Hasan Shuqri St., commemorating the Arab mayor who sympathized with the Jews and served for two terms during the British mandate, 1914-1920 and 1927-1940. This street is considered a major traffic artery in the Jewish neighborhood of Hadar Hacarmel, which also houses the Municipality of Haifa as well as steps leading to Wadi Salib, where Shuqri used to live, considered an almost exclusively Arab neighborhood. Aside from this street, all the streets with Arabic names in Haifa are in the lower part of the city, where the Arabs were concentrated in 1948 and which since then has been characterized by a distinctly Arab majority. In this quarter, only a small part of the streets, squares, and alleys have Arabic names taken from Arab culture, but even these necessarily have no national features or memory of confrontations between Jews and Arabs. Notably, all Arab educational institutions were constructed before 1948 and are located in the lower city. Throughout Haifa’s history since becoming a Jewish city in 1948, the municipality has refused to build additional educational institutions despite the increase in the population and the decentralization of Arabs in neighborhoods outside the lower city.

These circumstances have created a distorted one-way relationship through exposure to place names that give presence to the others, their memory, and their right to the public space with no reciprocity. Arab residents are exposed to tiny and very limited areas with Arabic place name signs. These areas are almost exclusively occupied and used by Arabs. In addition to these limited spaces, Arabs use Hebrew names and are exposed to extensive parts of the city that they share as full residents. Nonetheless, their presence receives no mention in street signs and names, which commemorate people related to historical Zionist endeavors or who helped strengthen the Jewish nation, such as General Allenby, the British commander who occupied Jerusalem and liberated it from the Muslim Ottomans and thus paved the way for realization of the Balfour Declaration.

Asymmetry in Historically Mixed Cities

The inequality and the lack of symmetry in the politics of naming is conspicuous, as Jewish residents of Haifa see public spaces with Jewish-Zionist names but do not encounter Arab names, simply because they have no need to enter the limited Arab areas. The distorted asymmetrical oneway model depicted above is repeated in other historically mixed cities: Jerusalem, Jaffa, Acre, Lydda, and Ramle, where the separation between Arabs and Jews is maintained by forming concentrations of separate Arab educational institutions and residential neighborhoods. In these, it is possible to allow Arabic names in the public sphere without necessitating Jewish awareness of them, which does not happen in the reverse.

This reality has remained nearly unchanged, aside from the addition of names commemorating several renowned Arab residents of the city such as poet Emil Habibi. Even in that case, the city’s naming committee required lengthy negotiations until agreeing to commemorate him in 2013 in a small square, on a main traffic artery in Haifa leading to an area populated by Arabs.

In Jaffa, after the 1948 war, the streets' names that were in Arabic were then switched to numbers and subsequently, after Jaffa was annexed to Tel Aviv, the Arabic neighborhoods were given Hebrew names, usually neutral ones, by the municipal names committee, while also commemorating universal historical figures. Arab role models constituted a small part of these. Two decades ago, in 2001, it was said that only five streets in Jaffa are affiliated with Arabs. At present, 20 years later, according to the Population and Immigration Authority database, 19 streets commemorating Arab figures can be found in Jaffa versus 154 commemorating Jewish figures, although 30% of Jaffa’s residents are Arab.

Nof Hagalil (formerly Nazareth Illit) located beside the city of Nazareth, is a large mixed city (with 41.2 thousand residents). Though nearly one-third of the residents are Arab and the city has nearly 188 streets, only one street has an Arab name (Mukhtar Muhana). Here, too, this street is in an older neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, which existed prior to 1948, where all residents are Arab and to which Jewish residents have almost no access or need to pass through.

I believe that the rage that is accumulating in mixed cities due to the policy of inequality and asymmetrical relations will have grave effects and even worse consequences for the relations between Arabs and Jews than the recent clashes in May 2021.

Disregard for Arab Presence in Acre

After Acre passed into Israeli hands, its naming committee convened (in January 1952) with the purpose of Judaizing the public sphere and granting the city’s streets names of a Zionist and Jewish nature. This policy was employed in the old parts as well as in the new parts of the city, and the naming committee decided to preserve two Arabic street names that had existed prior to 1948 and that were of a religious nature, Salah a-Din St. and al-Jazar St.

One-third of Acre’s residents are Arab. Nonetheless, the street names are mainly Jewish, side by side with a list of streets with universal affiliations related to the Crusaders or the Romans or to figures and events in the city’s history. As a result of the continuous disregard for the Arab presence in the public sphere, in 2004 the Islamic movement hung green signs with religious meaning throughout the Old City. This act took the form of a demonstration. The signs were posted illegally and had the effect of disrupting the orderly public façade. Nonetheless, the municipality chose not to remove them to avoid further irritating the enraged Arab residents, particularly because they cited religious texts.

The confrontation between Arabs and Jews in Acre on Yom Kippur of 2008 was a watershed line. A year later, in the summer of 2009, in a hasty and unaccommodating step, the Acre Municipality decided to commemorate Ze’ev Fried, one of the founders of the Israeli military and civil fleet, in Acre’s old harbor street. The Arab residents protested and asked that the well-known harbor street be named for ʿIssam al-ʿAwam, Salah a-Din’s commander who repelled the Crusaders. In an act of protest and in contravention of the law, the residents hung a sign with the name ʿIssam al-ʿAwam next to the sign Ze’ev Fried placed by the municipality. In this case, the level-headed conciliatory approach triumphed. In 2010, the city council agreed to name the portion of the street in the eastern harbor Ze’ev Fried, while the part at the entrance to the harbor was named ʿIssam al-ʿAwam.

Public Sphere Should Be Equitable Shared Space

The convictions and wishes of key figures who determine the naming policy are the main force behind the relations between residents of the mixed cities and their right to be included in the public sphere in a fair and respectful manner. The public sphere should be planned as an equitable shared space where both the majority and the minority, the natives and the immigrants, can feel that they belong and are connected. This is facilitated by granting them the autonomy and freedom to choose the names of streets in divided spaces and the opportunity to have their voice heard, and by including all residents in choosing the names of the city’s streets, with proper representation on the naming committee. In addition, names that symbolize adherence to a separating and divisive past should be relinquished in favor of forming a uniting and connecting future. This is the proper conduct that should be proposed for planning names in mixed cities, in order to dissipate the sense of estrangement and stress and create a sense of sharing and acceptance among the residents of cities that contain a diverse mosaic rather than forming groups of estranged residents.

In conclusion, there is insufficient guidance due to the lack of an institutionalized constitution that would ensure elimination of the asymmetric attitude and the ostracism of Arab historical memory in the shared public sphere within mixed cities. Legislation is the only guarantee of proper representation for Arabs on municipal name committees in mixed cities, as well as for enforcing the commemoration of Arab figures in a way that is proportionate to the part of Arab society in the city’s population.