Probably the best history lesson one can get of Israel is not in the classroom but walking the streets. While clearly a statement that any responsible parent might raise an eyebrow at – it is nevertheless true!
That is provided of course that your “responsible” companion – if not a registered tour guide – is Peter Bailey’s 2017 published book, ‘Street Names in Israel – A Biography’. A glimpse into the lives of not only Israelis, Bailey’s compendium is a ‘street map’ providing direction not in the geographic but in the historical sense.
How often do people – particularly the younger generations – see the names of streets and ‘walk on by’ clueless who they are named after or why. The author reveals in his introduction that his motivation in documenting the historical significance of the street names in Israel “is to ensure that the deeds associated with those names are not forgotten with the passage of time.” He hopes his “three-year adventure” will enhance the knowledge of the history of the Biblical land of Israel “as well as of the individuals who brought about the modern state of Israel.” Bailey is not new to writing.
Growing up in the East Rand gold mining town of Brakpan near Johannesburg in South Africa, he first appeared in print at the age of ten, with poems published in national magazines – the South African Outspan and Famer’s Weekly. Nearly a half century separates Bailey’s journey from poetry to prose with his Street Names in Israel.
The book provides a voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of people that have left an indelible mark on the nation. Authentically described in the forward as “fact-finding fun”, the book introduces the reader to warriors, prophets, rabbis, spies, Zionist visionaries, scientists, writers, poets, musicians, artists, politicians, statesman and ordinary young men and women, who emerged extraordinary because of their heroism.
From A to Z
While most Israelis are familiar with ‘the usual suspects’ from the bible to the present, there are still many street names of personalities that locals and tourists from abroad may have heard of but know little more. This is evident from the book’s beginning, starting with the first letter of the alphabet – A!
The first two names appearing are the brave siblings – Aaron and his sister Sarah Aaronson. Both died tragically during the First World War spying for the British against the Ottoman Turks. Their spy ring known as NILI is also a street name found cross Israel, and yet, so few younger folk know much about it or its heroic members.
Aaron the “Agronomist and Spymaster” who is credited “with being the developer of all modern strains of wheat,” used his experimental farm – later known as Atlit Agricultural Experimental Station – as the center for all NILI activities and from where “he provided the British with maps and information on enemy troop displacements” proving invaluable to General Allenby’s successful liberation of Palestine from Ottoman rule. This development, coupled with the contemporaneous Balfour Declaration of 1917 – Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), another street covered extensively by Bailey – paved the way for the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948.
Aaron’s sister Sarah became known as the “Israeli Joan of Arc”, and used carrier pigeons to send messages to the British until one was captured by the Turks, who then broke the code putting an end to NILI activities as well as to Sarah’s life. Rather than reveal anything about her comrades, she put a pistol to her head. Sacrificing her life so as not to reveal their names a century ago, her name today is emblazoned on street signs across Israel.
And this is only the beginning!
Continuing from A – which of course includes a number of Allenby Streets – through to Z, the street section of the book concludes with the novelist, playwright and journalist, Stephan Zweig (1881-1942).
Predicting the rise of Nazi Germany, he wisely counselled “Learn languages now! That’s the key to freedom. Who knows, maybe Germany and Europe will become so stifling that the free spirit will not be able to breathe within them.” How right he was as was his support of his friend, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), one of the founding fathers of political Zionism, and whose name appears in streets in all the major cities and towns in Israel.
Patriarchs to the Present
Paging through Street Names in Israel is like letting your fingers do the walking as the reader tours from the time of the Patriarchs to the present. Bailey includes many streets named after non-Jews who made their mark in the Jewish world. Most notably is Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), “the only British Prime Minister to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature” and who was “a supporter of the Zionist ideals and clarified any doubt about the meaning of the Balfour Declaration,” which celebrates its centenary this year. Other examples are Raoul Wallenberg (1912-?) the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust; the British army officer Orde Wingate (1903-1944), who championed – both in word and in deed – the cause of Jewish statehood, and a fellow South African of the author, Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950). Field Marshall, humanist, botanist, soldier and statesman, the former Prime Minister of South Africa has “a street in Tel Aviv-Yaffo named Smuts Boulevard; a Smuts Garden in Jerusalem and Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan (Jan) was named in his honor in recognition of his Zionist sympathies and endeavors.”
Another street named after a major Israeli born in South Africa is Abba Eban (1915-2002). The multi-linguist and diplomat, Israel’s famed former Minister of Foreign Affairs was born in Cape Town as Aubrey Meir Solomon. He famously quipped, “Israel’s future will be longer than its past.”
This is one book that will not collect dust. Not to be tucked away on the top shelf of a bookcase, it should be easily accessible to all – of all ages and varying heights – so enlightening and enriching are its pages.
Kudos to Peter Bailey for his invaluable contribution to educating future generations.