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.
I mention this because of the press communiqué issued after this week's meeting of the Israeli Cabinet. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it says, opened the session by criticizing incitement to terrorism by Palestinian leaders, schools, and media. Netanyahu was particularly angry about the naming of a central square in Ramallah after Dalal Mughrabi, reportedly with the endorsement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
In 1978, when she was not yet 20, Mughrabi led a terrorism attack that ended with blowing up a hijacked Israeli bus on the main coastal highway. Thirty-seven Israelis were killed. So was Mughrabi. The salient difference between Mughrabi and Ben-Yosef is that she succeeded in murdering people, while he failed. She also achieved terrorism's strategic aim of escalating the conflict: Israel's 1978 invasion of south Lebanon, aimed at pushing the Palestinian Liberation Organization back from the border, followed the Coastal Road Massacre.
Naming a square after Mughrabi is unconscionable. It glorifies political murder. Still, before Netanyahu looks out the window at the neighbors, he might try looking in the mirror.
In November, Netanyahu's education minister and Likud Party colleague, Gideon Sa'ar, sent out a letter to the principals of the country's Jewish schools, announcing a new educational unit for eighth- and ninth-graders on "those who ascended to the gallows" -- 12 members of the Irgun and Lehi who were either executed or who committed suicide in prison. They include Ben-Yosef and the two Eliahus. The letter describes the unit as promoting the "values of heroism, self-sacrifice and devotion to national rebirth, based on the character and actions" of the 12.
My daughter, who's in ninth grade, got a copy of the ministry's glossy booklet for students. It says, correctly, that Ben-Yosef acted after the murder of several Jews on the same road. It doesn't mention that his "act of response" was attacking a civilian bus or that the victims were chosen solely on the basis of being Arab. The section on the two Eliahus leaves out a pertinent detail that has been noted by University of California, Los Angeles, political scientist David C. Rapoport, doyen of scholars of political violence: Lehi was "the last self-identified terrorist group" -- the last organization on the world stage to consider terrorism a mark of pride. The booklet was handed out in a class hour devoted to values education and social issues. The teacher, she told me, spoke passionately about the Gallows 12, young men willing to die for their country.
The easy response to all this is that school systems, like committees to name city streets, are devoted to conveying national myths. In those businesses, historical truth and moral outrage are a distraction. When I was attending school in California somewhere back in the previous century, we did not learn that white terrorism had brought the end of Reconstruction and restored white supremacy in the South (as Nicholas Lemann documents in his book, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War). Our schoolbooks did not mention that Woodrow Wilson was a segregationist.
Myth-building is a game that all sides can play. During a visit to Durban in 2008, I was given a brief tour of the city by a local Muslim of Indian ancestry. Local streets were just getting their new, post-apartheid names. He complained, more weary than angry, that a street would be named after Andrew Zondo. Zondo, a member of the African National Congress' armed wing, planted a bomb in a shopping center in 1985 and killed five people, including an eight-year-old girl. Afterward he was executed by the apartheid regime. The ANC has stressed that Zondo violated its policy by attacking civilians. Nonetheless, he has become a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle. The cynic says: One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.
It's better, I think, not to be cynical. An education that glorifies the killers on one's own side, or erases their actions while stressing their martyrdom, teaches ad hominem morality: Whether something is right or wrong depends on who did it to whom. To name a square after Dalal Mughrabi teaches that murder for the sake of the national cause is a virtue. It is indeed official incitement. So is naming a street for the two Eliahus, or teaching ninth-graders that they should emulate the dedication of Shlomo Ben-Yosef.
The day after my daughter's class got their booklets on the Gallows 12, her class took a field trip to the Underground Prisoners Museum to learn more about the subject. Somehow my daughter arrived too late and missed the trip. Normally I think poorly of skipping class. In this case, I'd like to see it as evidence of her unspoiled moral character.