To the Victor Go the Street Names

Gershom Gorenberg

My apologies to readers for being away for a while. My new article is up at The American Prospect.

Walking along the beachfront street in Akko recently with a social activist from the town’s Arab community, I looked up at a sign and saw I was at the corner of Shlomo Ben-Yosef Street. Then I looked again just to make sure. Really, I’m embarrassed I was surprised. Naming the street after Ben-Yosef showed an entirely predictable blend of bad taste and flagrant educational incompetence.

Akko, on the northern Israeli coast, is an ethnically mixed city: Arab citizens of Israel make up a little more than a quarter of the town’s 53,000 residents. The rest are Jews. Today’s relations between the two communities are just short of explosive, but I’ll leave that story for another time. Akko was entirely Arab until May 1948, when the Haganah — the proto-army of Israel — conquered it. Afterward, those Arabs who stayed in the town lived in the walled Old City, later spreading to nearby neighborhoods. The beachfront thoroughfare, which runs into the Old City, is named after the Haganah. This must be painful for Arab residents, but it follows an old, unwritten principle: To the victors go the street names.

Shlomo Ben-Yosef Street, just outside the walls, is a more egregious insult. In 1938, Ben-Yosef and two comrades from the ultra-nationalist Irgun underground attacked a bus full of Arab civilians on a mountain road, seeking to kill them all. (Historian Avi Shlaim gives details). The attack failed; the British rulers of Palestine captured, tried, and hanged Ben-Yosef, turning him into a martyr of the Zionist right wing. A smaller, nearby street is called Shnei Eliahu, “Two Eliahus.” It commemorates Eliahu Hakim and Eliahu Bet Zouri, two members of the even more extreme Lehi (Stern Gang) underground. In 1944 they assassinated Lord Moyne, the British Minister Resident in Egypt. They, too, died by hanging and became martyrs of the right. The Comprehensive Arab High School of Akko is on the street of the assassins, and you’d take the street of the bus ambusher to get there. I doubt those who picked the names thought of all the possible lessons that their choice might teach.

Read the rest here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.

27 thoughts on “To the Victor Go the Street Names”

  1. Difficult reading for me Gershom. I have children who I plan to send to school here, and perhaps I will take them on my own tour of Akko, when the time comes. You previously mentioned that you are also an immigrant, and if you could write more about that choice, and how you feel about it now, all these years down the line, I would be most interested.

  2. hi gershon,

    do you really not think they didn’t know where the names would go? do you think it was a mistake. i am more skeptical.

  3. History is disillusioning. People want a simple, uplifting and nation aggrandizing narrative that will allow equally simple opinions to be voiced with enthusiasm and certainty.

    No matter how many times this glittering crystal of mythology is shattered, it is re-created, the pieces reassembling like a time-lapse movie running in reverse.
    It duplicates the way individuals build their own life stories in contradiction to truths that they well know. I doubt this is a coincidence, there seems to be a yearning for infallibility just as there is for immortality.

    (By the way, a great blessing from 2009 to the new year is that Tiger Woods has virtually disappeared so I can open a magazine or newspaper without gagging)

    Thank goodness we have archives that can be mined for truth. You do Israelis a great favor by your research in history.

    I, like you, recall lessons in school that were scarcely more than the inculcation of mythology which I was in no position to question.

    What I have learned since is to doubt every word heard from authority because authority always seeks to simplify if not deceive.

    Two eye-opening books I recommend for Americans in particular are David Blum’s Killing Hope – U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since WWII and Curt Gentry’s J. Edgar Hoover, the Man and the Secrets.

  4. On teaching about these guys in Israeli schools, the article’s conclusion is 180 degrees wrong. Teaching about heroes while purposefully eliding the immoral details does not teach that morality depends on who does what to whom. It teaches the exact opposite: the details were elided precisely because they were immoral, even if we did it to them. If it were only a matter of who/whom, then we would glorify the attack as an attack on a busload of Arabs (“the enemy”), just as the Arabs glorify attacks on busloads of “Zionists”.

    The “easy response” to Gorenberg’s position is my response too: myth-building is essential to survival, and there’s no place for an objective, much less critical, perspective when building myths. But this response is anything but easy. All of us, especially American Jews like Gorenberg and me who were raised as liberals, were taught that the critical stance as exemplified by this article – critical of our own history – is the only moral and proper stance to take. It’s Gorenberg’s approach that’s the easy one nowadays for educated, Western Jews.

    There’s a place for myth – I’d call it national epic, but whatever – and a place for critical historiography. It’s important to recognize the difference and assign each to its proper place. Ninth grade is borderline, maybe. Perhaps a combination of the two is most appropriate at that age. In any case, Gorenberg seems to accept the need for heroes and epic in general, so he would have to accept “myth-building” in schools as well. The only question is at what age.

    A couple more minor remarks. About the street names themselves Gorenberg writes that it “must be painful for Arab residents” (emphasis added). I’m a little surprised that he didn’t actually ask residents what they thought about it (if they thought about it at all).

    Describing the Etzel (Irgun) as “ultra-nationalist” looks like a gratuitous barb. Presumably they were ultra-nationalist in contrast to the nationalism of the Haganah, which like the porridge in “Goldilocks” was neither too hot nor too cold. But the Etzel’s nationalism is a separate issue from their terrorist tactics, so that little barb wasn’t really tied to the subject of the article.

    I realize that this comment comes across as really negative, but that’s because saying “I agree with this, I agree with that” seems like a waste of bandwidth. As usual, I enjoyed reading Gorenberg’s though-provoking article. (Oops, “though-provoking” was a Freudian typo. I think I’ll leave it.)

  5. really great, thoughtful commentary that carries over to all nations. thanks for writing articles that i can share with my family to spark sane dialogue pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. nice work.

  6. Nice article and follow-up comments.

    Being a liberal minded Westerner, I have a knee jerk reaction against Netanyahu’s brand of low rent nationalism, so I basically agree with Gershom’s sentiments.

    As a student at Hebrew University and resident of Idelson dorms in the 80s, I recall being surprised at the new streets being put in that had names like Lehi and Etzel. Of course, that reflected not the victory of Israel over the Arabs, but of Likud over Labor.
    During that year of overseas schooling we took the requisite field trip to Akko and the gallows/museum, and while the nature of the crimes of the condemned and their political affiliations weren’t emphasized, the notion of Jewish bravery (and bravado) was.
    What Gershom seems to leave out of the article is that in the Israeli narrative Akko is best known for the prison and the hangings/escapes/suicides associated with it. Like Masada, the troubling beliefs of the protagonists are overlooked in order to focus on the post-Holocaust narrative of Jews who didn’t accept their fates meekly.
    So, when these streets are renamed after right wing terrorists, there is a reason–namely that these are the people associated most strongly with the city of Akko, and the prison/museum is the place most associated with Akko, and presumably the renamed streets in question are in the neighborhood of the prison.
    Thankfully, Shlomo Ben Yosef’s attack failed, so there is no body count to remember him by. But nonetheless, he died by the rope, and that’s what he’s remembered for. That is different from honoring a successful terrorist attacker. There are certainly plenty of people in Israel, possibly in the government as well, who would like to see a street named after Baruch Goldstein. But that is something that is still beyond the pale for most Israelis, and that stands in contrast to the square named after the Coastal Road massacre perpetrator.

  7. This is just another example of what architect Abe Hayeem and geographer Oren Yiftachel call spaciocide. It is quite the equivalent of genocide. One day, we will liberate Akko and rename the street, perhaps with a deliberitely offensive name like Chmielnicki, Qassam, Rachel Corrie, or al-Husseini. The entire world is on ourside, and it is only a matter of time when Benyosef only exists on the internet

  8. what a stupid column. If you visit San Antonio, Texas, you will find streets named Crockett, Houston, and others named after the defenders of the Alamo. This is in spite of the fact that San Antonio has a significant population descended from Mexicans, and that prior to 1845, San Antonio was in Mexico. I suggest that you get together with Amin Nusseibeh above and work on expunging the name Yerushaliyim in favor of al Quds (or Aelia Capitolina)

  9. Interesting article. I do believe you have two distinct story lines here –
    a) the glorification of terrorists when they’re, well, your own
    b) deliberately naming streets in an offensive manner to the population.

    On the second point, I have little doubt that the purpose of naming streets in hat fashion was mischievous. Granted, it’s not an Israeli exclusivity. I remember when there were plans to rename the street on which the Israeli embassy in Cairo is located to ‘Muhammad Al Durra St…’. But, as it often is, Israel’s adverserial history with its Arab population is both very fresh (and therefore not comparable to The Alamo) and effectively ongoing.

    The same, btw, is taking place in East Jerusalem. Names of random tzaddiks are replacing the old Arab street names.

    And regarding the first issue – glorifying terrorists – well, to quote my HR professor, “he may be a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch”. People are, consciously or otherwise, willing to bend their moral red lines when they agree with the purpose..

    But when glorifying those terrorists is accompanied by a rewriting of history – if only by omission of the gruesome details – that’s where a line should be drawn.

  10. The street where the Egyptian embassy in Tehran was located was renamed Khaled al-Islambouli St., in honor of Anwar Sadat’s assassin. That’s about as stick-it-in-their craw as you can get.

  11. To me the issue is not rewriting history but what that rewrite of history says about us. Stalin rewrote history to serve the Party and the State. Texas mythologizes the Alamo. But the Alamo wasn’t chock-full of terrorists – they didn’t run out and blow up a wagon full of Mexican civilians.

    Naming streets after terrorists (your own or otherwise) does say you think the tactic is ok for the right cause and reinforce the other side’s contention that their terrorists are just national heroes who haven’t won yet, that Arafat was a Palestinian George Washington (oh ick!) and so forth. Rather than bending the moral line to exempt our own it would be better to hold the line and universally condemn terrorist tactics.

  12. Gershom,
    Appreciated reading yet another well-written piece of yours. Finished “End of Days” not long ago, found it immensely fascinating and rather enlightening. No matter how hard I try, I can’t help but draw similarities between Israeli and Palestinian behavior. This merely demonstrates that fact.
    I have posted your piece on my newly formed blog. I would be honored if you were to give it a read; the address is above.

  13. Again, the salient difference between Ben Yosef and the other terrorists is that Ben Yosef didn’t actually kill anybody, but he himself was executed. People are fond of drawing grand analogies, but to really be analogous, there would have to be a Baruch Goldstein Street.

  14. ” If you visit San Antonio, Texas, you will find streets named Crockett, Houston, and others named after the defenders of the Alamo. This is in spite of the fact that San Antonio has a significant population descended from Mexicans, and that prior to 1845, San Antonio was in Mexico. ”

    More than a “significant” number, Mexican Americans make up the majority of the population in San Antonio. However, they tend to identify as Americans of Mexican heritage, so they have no problem with streets named for Crockett, Travis, Bowie, etc. It’s also important to know that some of the defenders of the Alamo and allies of the Texas rebels were Mexican. (See, for example, Col. Juan Seguin, pone of Sam Houston’s officers.)

  15. There are plenty of illegal aliens from Mexico living in San Antonio. Many of them probably feel that the separation of Texas from Mexico was unjust. Perhaps they would be offended by streets named after Crockett, Bowie, Houston, and demand that the streets be named after Santa Ana

  16. Mr. Kaine read up on some these so -called Texas heros you cite and you will find most of them were vain-glory political egomaniacs who were pushing their own version of “manifest destiny”.And there are far more Spanish /indian descendants whose kin were in San Antonio before Texas became a state, than illegal aliens in San Antonio now.
    My personal experience with Mexicians ,which is considerable, has been quite positive. They are for the most part hardworking,family -oriented, and upwardly mobile who value education.

    I think your bigotry is showing Herb. Maybe if Texas was part of Mexico we would now have to put up with more “white trash” like Rick Perry in the remaining 49 states.

    I always liked Texas humour and especially what the late Molly Ivins said about her fellow Texan,George W.Bush;”to say that George Bush is shallow is like calling a dwarf short ”

    I seriously doubt that any Hispanic in Texas gives a ‘tinkers damn” about what’s on the streetsigns or the park names.Most of them are proud to call themselves Texans as most Texans are including my grandson.

  17. Survial and reproduction are universal outcomes, but never universal in instance. Most people, American slaveholders past to gone Stalinists, have terrible necessities for what they did. As we for what we do. It is nigh impossible, while holding a baby, to envision the granite history making that moment. It is remarkable that people such as you write at all, Gorenberg. If you want a God, think on that.

  18. Good old Gershom transfers the guilt once again, like a good “progressive”, trying to square the circle by being a good “progressive universalist” and at the same time being a “Zionist”, (but not “too extreme” like those old LEHI and ETZEL people). This reconciliation is ultimately impossible, as they are learning (e.g Benny Morris being disallowed by a Jewish group to speak at Cambridge University).
    No Gershom is not an “extremist”. The fact that “South Jerusalem” and his Yedidya synagogue are sitting on what was Arab land before 1948 and they many of his fellow “progressives” like Bernard Avishai and “MagnesZionist” Manekin admit they live in what were Arab houses does NOT, PERISH THE THOUGHT, make them “extremists”. No way. They are “progressives”. But how many Palestinians think they “progressives” really. Maybe they could prove their true “progressive” credentials by tracking down the Arabs who owned the land and houses they are living in and give it back to them. Now that would REALLY be “progressive”!
    Meanwhile, I will continue to view Shlomo Ben-Yosef and the ETZEL and LEHI fighters as true heroes (Ben-Yosef carried out his attack when Jews were being killed EVERY DAY by Arab terrorists in the 1936-1939 Arab terror campaign). Although if I had been around at the time, I would have supported the ETZEL while opposing the tactics of the LEHI, I still educate my children to look at these people as valiant fighters for the freedom of the state of Israel which even “progressives” like Gershom benefit from, even while he and the rest of his friend go on whining about the actions of those who handed him his Zionist state on a silver platter.

  19. As long as you, Y. Ben-David, agree that any opponent is exactly as yourself, so indeed must be feared and quashed, your fortress is complete. Who then wins? For the Most High it really doesn’t matter; all win outcomes are structurally identical. More reason to race to be the first.

  20. Excellent points made.

    Though valorization of terrorist acts is done everywhere especially by the victors in wars and past struggles, those who tend to write history, the issue here in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the conflict is still very much alive. It’s not a thing of the past. Would that it were.

    And so the street names are, naming is, part of the conflict pokes in the eyes, shots to the heart, incitement to anger and as such are adding to hostility and are anti-peace. The naming tells of the hollowness of stated intentions towards peace.

    That the Israeli school kids are being taught these lessons also can be compared to what the Arab side teaches or is accused of teaching their children- and so too makes those complaints hypocritical. It’s a shame to use kids this way, prescribing their future, ensuring another generation of this madness.

  21. While the tendency for aficianados of this conflict to conflate or reduce everything to ‘both sides are doing the same thing’, all I can do is reiterate that Ben Yosef’s attack failed, so from history’s perspective there was no attack. Nonetheless, he was executed. That’s why he’s being memorialized, for the execution.
    To compare this quid pro quo with a city square named after someone who died after successfully massacring several dozen civilians is a bit much.
    Had the British merely put Ben Yosef in prison for life, as Israel does with the terrorists who survive their mission, there probably wouldn’t even be a street named after him.
    Most liberals on this site probably decry the criminalization Israel uses against mere members of terror organizations who haven’t actually committed any act of murder. And yet, the British hung a guy who didn’t actually kill anybody, and from my understanding, any active member of Lehi or Irgun was subject to the death penalty.
    Can you imagine if Israel hung guys who were apprehended before carrying out a terror attack?
    While Gershom’s article is informative and makes a good point, I think people are reaching to make yet another ‘both sides are wrong’ argument about the IP conflict. If you understand what the Akko prison means in the Israeli psyche, you’d realize that to the average Israeli if there is any statement being made here, it’s more against the British of the Mandate Period than about the Palestinians. It’s not like Israel just consecrated a Baruch Goldstein Street.

  22. “It’s not like Israel just consecrated a Baruch Goldstein Street.”

    No, but then again the name could have been changed to show good will , a willingness to coexist (don’t you think?) if that was the intention. Don’t deny that this is a symbolic way of saying – “we won, you lost”

  23. YBD gets it almost right. Ben-Yosef’s reprisal attack was a response for the killing of a friend of his David Gaon, a tractorist, by Arabs and the ambush of a taxi from Safed whose occupants were killed, butchered and the 17 year old female, daughter of a Rabbi, was raped as well. No matter how you are abhorred by Ben-Yosef’s attempt to kill many Arabs, leaving out the context when pretending to retell history is a sure sign of moral turpitude.

    As for the Two Eliyahus, as Gerald Frank’s The Deed details, thousands of Egyptian Arabs came out into the streets to demonstrate against the death verdict given to the two Lechi members. Again, hiding history although ignorance is probably the case here. Gershom doesn’t know everything.

  24. “Leaving out the context when pretending to retell history is a sure sign of moral turpitude”.

    Can I check with you whether that applies in all directions, YBD? You see, I’ve read many, many accounts of terrorist attacks by Hamas et al., which somehow neglect to mention that many of those attacks were in retaliation for specific actions by Israelis. Am I right to assume that anyone who describes Hamas terrorist attacks without also describing the Israeli actions which provide the context for those attacks is guilty of moral turpitude?

  25. Of course, my previous comment was addressed to Yisrael, not YBD. Apologies for the confusion …

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