Before 1948, both the Jewish and the Arab populations of Jerusalem were scattered throughout the city. At the end of the War of Independence, when the city was partitioned into Israeli West Jerusalem and Jordanian East Jerusalem, a major population redistribution took place. The Jews in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and the Arabs throughout West Jerusalem had to leave for the other side. As the old Arab neighborhoods in West Jerusalem were filled in with new Jewish residents, the municipality gave the neighborhoods new Hebrew names in an attempt to erase their history. So Talbiyeh became Komemiyut, Katamon became Gonen, and Baka became Geulim. Was this attempt successful? Yes, in the sense that the current residents of the old Arab mansions of Talbiyeh are still primarily Jewish. But in a linguistic sense, no: No one has heard of Komemiyut, Gonen, or Geulim, and everyone still uses the Arabic names (or Greek, in the case of Katamon).
And now history repeats itself. If you’ve been to Jerusalem in the last couple years, you’ve seen Rechov Yafo and other major streets all torn up for the construction of the new Jerusalem Light Rail, which runs through both West and “East” (actually north) Jerusalem. Now, as the project nears completion, and the engineering challenges of constructing new transportation infrastructure in an ancient and hilly city have all been met, the city faces what may prove to be a greater challenge: naming the stations.
The committee tasked with naming the stations received a proposal from linguist Dr. Avshalom Kor, who proposed giving all of the stations Hebrew names, regardless of how the locations are actually known. Haaretz reports:
The proposal most likely to prove controversial is the station in Shoafat, a neighborhood next to French Hill. The specific location of the station is known to the locals as Tel El Ful. Kor sneers at the name and proposes calling the station Givat Binyamin (Benjamin Hill), after the tribe of King Saul. Kor dedicates about half of his proposal to explaining the name change.
“Tel el Ful is the Arab name of our capital in the days of King Saul,” writes Kor, underlining the words “Arab” and “our.” “The Hebrew name was Givat Shaul or Givat Binyamin, after the king’s tribe. The name Givat Shaul is already taken by a neighborhood in West Jerusalem, therefore the station will be known as Givat Binyamin.”
Kor says that giving the station an Arab name would encourage illegal construction by Palestinians. “When we returned to this historic hill after the Six-Day War, it was bare except for King Hussein’s then unfinished villa at the top,” Kor says. “All the houses covering it now have been built, to my knowledge, illegally.”
He adds: “If it were not for the extensive illegal construction there, the hill today would bear the prestigious name of Givat Binyamin” – and he underlines the words “not” and “prestigious.”
Kor says: “Therefore, any potential request by the residents to give the station an Arab name would mean not just eradicating the Jewish past of the first capital of the Kingdom of Israel, but also acknowledging (yet again) the illegal construction in the area.”
We have obtained a copy of Kor’s memo, and he lists three more reasons for naming this particular station Givat Binyamin:
- Lebanon and Jordan are known to the world by their biblical names, and not by the local names Lubnan and Urdun.
- Quoting Genesis 26:18, “Isaac dug the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham, and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death, and he called them by the names that his father had called them.” (Is Kor going for a double entendre with the reference to Philistines?)
- “In Paris, for example, they would clearly name a station after an early French king’s capital, and not ‘Hill of Beans.’ And likewise we will name the station in honor of King Saul’s capital, and not ‘Tel al Ful’.”
Though Kor appears to be drawing an incendiary contrast between the cultured Europeans (or fictional versions of them whose views on kings are different from the actual French) and the residents of East Jerusalem, even the Europeans are not spared in his crusade for Hebrew names. He proposes naming the station on King George Street “Bikkur Cholim,” after the hospital whose name means “visiting the sick,” “an important site in the city’s history and an important mitzvah in Judaism,” rather than naming it after a British monarch.
And if you thought these stations could have both Hebrew and Arabic names, Kor’s proposal rules out that possibility. The proposal begins by saying that the Hebrew name will also appear in Arabic and Latin letters. “This way it is easier for tourists to find their way. If a tourist asks a Jerusalemite, for example, about ‘Ammunition Hill’, it is reasonable that the Jerusalemite will not know how to direct him. Therefore, in the three languages will be written, for example, ‘Givat Hatachmoshet’.”
Will Kor succeed in occluding Jerusalem’s diversity (and Israel’s multiple official languages) in favor of a Hebrew-only light rail, or will the unveiling of this proposal prompt a public backlash?