When you leave Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza through the Dung Gate out of the Old City, your gaze turns naturally southward toward another hill glimmering in the distance, across the Valley of Hinnom. Christian tradition calls it the Hill of Evil Counsel, where the high priest Caiaphas consulted his aides before ordering Jesus arrested.
In Hebrew it’s known as Armon HaNatziv, “the Commissioner’s Palace,” after the gleaming white mansion on the crest. It once housed the British mandatory government and is now United Nations headquarters, giving new life to the name Hill of Evil Counsel. Looping the hillside is the Tayelet, the lovely promenade built by the Haas and Goldman families, heirs to the Levi Strauss fortune.
Stretching southward behind the palace is East Talpiot, a nondescript middle-class Jewish neighborhood built in 1973. It’s one of the earliest Jerusalem suburbs to rise on land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. What sets it apart are its street names: In a wry, one-finger salute to the palace’s onetime British overlords, nearly all the streets in East Talpiot are named after Jews convicted and hanged as terrorists by the British before 1948.
That’s right: Israeli streets named after Jewish terrorists. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
There were 12 of them: nine members of the Irgun and three from the Stern Group, or Lehi. Two were hanged for assassinating the British minister Lord Moyne in Cairo in 1945. One unsuccessfully attacked an Arab civilian bus in the Galilee in 1938. Three participated in the 1947 Acre prison break. The rest attacked British security personnel.
In addition to streets named for each individual, the neighborhood’s main drag bears the name by which they’re collectively remembered: Olei HaGardom, “those who ascended the gallows.” Dozens more cities around Israel have an Olei HaGardom Street. Many have streets named for the individual members, too.
Two other streets in East Talpiot are named for Shmuel Azar and Moshe Marzouk, Egyptian Jews hanged in Cairo in 1955 for bombing the American and British libraries. The operation, known as the Lavon Affair, was a bone-headed plot by Israeli military intelligence meant to sour Egypt’s ties with the West. Elsewhere in Israel are streets named for Hirsh Lekert, hanged in Vilna in 1902 for trying to assassinate the tsarist governor; Sholom Schwartzbard, who confessed to assassinating Ukrainian rebel leader Simon Petlura in Paris in 1926, but was acquitted by a French jury; and Herschel Grynszpan, who assassinated a Nazi diplomat in Paris in November 1938, touching off Kristallnacht.
They’re all remembered with reverence and gratitude for their courage in facing death and their devotion to Israel and the Jewish people. But there’s another reason we should remember them. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a habit of declaring that Palestinians name streets after terrorists and Israelis don’t, and that this is an essential difference between the two. It’s not true. Facts matter.
“We denounce and condemn the murderers,” Netanyahu told his cabinet on August 2. “We chase them down. They name public squares after the murderers of children, and this difference can’t be covered up.”
He said the same thing a year ago, in his condolence message to the family of Mohammed Abu-Khdeir. The 16-year-old had been burned alive by Jewish thugs on July 2, 2014, in apparent revenge for the murders of three yeshiva students in June.
“I know that in our society, the society of Israel, there is no place for such murderers,” the prime minister said on July 7, after the suspects were arrested. “And that’s the difference between us and our neighbors. They consider murderers to be heroes. They name public squares after them. We don’t. We condemn them and we put them on trial and we’ll put them in prison.”
There are three reasons why the prime minister shouldn’t be speaking this way. For one thing, it’s wildly inappropriate. Israelis rightly complain when Palestinian leaders express regret for attacks on Israelis, but then hedge it with excuses or trash-talk about what’s wrong with Israel. The second part undoes the good in the opening words. Israelis should know better than to do the same thing.
The Palestinian public feels, much as Israelis do, that an attack like the arson murder in Duma village is an attack on all of them. Palestinians need, just like Israelis at such a moment, to hear from the other side that it understands and shares their grief. Statements like Netanyahu’s — which boil down to “It’s too bad but it’s not our fault and anyway you’re worse” — don’t cut it. The moment calls for solace, not insult.
Second, it’s the wrong thing to say to the Israeli public. The vast majority of Israelis are appalled by the Duma arson-murder, but a dangerous minority objects to the public’s outpouring of grief. Police are investigating a flood of threats that greeted Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin when he spoke out this month against the “flames of hatred” threatening Israeli democracy. Protesters, incensed that he dared criticize Israelis and sympathize with Arabs, are calling him “traitor,” “terrorist,” “president of the Arabs” and worse. They mustn’t be allowed to feel the prime minister has their back.
Netanyahu has been complaining for years that Palestinian terrorism, even when perpetrated by lone wolves without organizational backing, draws inspiration from the inflammatory words of Palestinian leaders, starting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president. Abbas’s incitement, it turns out, consists mainly of repeated harangues about Israeli ill will and mistreatment of Palestinians. Apparently, constantly telling your people that the other guys are out to get you can inspire some of your people to go get them. That’s something to watch out for.
Finally, the prime minister must surely know his words aren’t true. There’s all too much room in Israel for these creeps. As the Shin Bet security agency is now acknowledging, settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, largely discounted for years, is becoming a crisis. Property vandalism, burning of fields and cutting down olives trees have long been endemic. Most perpetrators are never caught. Most of those arrested are let off with a slap on the wrist or less. Now, though, the agency says the violence is morphing into an armed conspiracy. Law enforcement authorities recommended stepped up measures a year ago, but Netanyahu vetoed them.
Even if that crisis didn’t exist, there would still be those street names to rebuke the prime minister. Israel still celebrates the gunmen of pre-state Israel who attacked British soldiers and Arab civilians as well as defending Jews and were hunted down as terrorists. And no wonder. Like Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Nelson Mandela in South Africa and our own George Washington, hunted terrorists and traitors all, those gunmen helped win their country its freedom. That’s the way of the world. Some are more bloodthirsty than others. Some become democrats, others tyrants. But the principle is the same. It’s only after independence, when there’s a state to monopolize armed violence, that folks will stop hailing their gunmen as freedom fighters and start calling them criminals.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).