What’s in a name? The background to the Nof Hagalil name-change

The northern town recently decided to rename itself from Nazareth Illit.

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July 2, 2019 13:53
2 minute read.
What’s in a name? The background to the Nof Hagalil name-change

A street sign in Jerusalem, in Hebrew it is 'the steps to the religious school' in Arabic the name is 'the steps to the charity' meaning a charity created by Roxilana, the Russian-speaking wife of Suleiman The Magnificent in 1551. . (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

After years of confusion, the city of Nazareth Illit finally changed its name.
 
The new name, Nof Hagalil (literally the Galilee view) was decided by the residents to give the city “an independent identity,” Ronen Plot, the city’s mayor said.
 
The now formally named Nazareth Illit, which is a predominantly Jewish area, was regularly confused with its more famous neighbor, Nazareth which is known, according to Christian belief, as the biblical home town of Jesus.  
 
The changing of the name is but the most recent linguistic effort in a long history of Arabic and Hebrew speakers competing for dominance over names of streets and places in the region. 
 
The city Shfar’am, named in Arabic Shefa – ‘Amr, is mentioned by the Hebrew name in the Talmud and a variety of other sources. 
 
The ethnic make-up of the city changed during the centuries from Jewish to Christian to Muslim. Currently, it is a mostly Arab-Muslim city with a large Christian-Arab community and Druze residents.
 
Despite the predominance of Arabic speakers in the city, the Hebrew name is the one used in Israel, not the Arab one.
 
Arabic sources claim Amr ibn al-As visited the city on his way to conquer Egypt in 640 and drank from a local stream and regained his health, hence the name Shefa – Amr.  
 
Mount Meron was renamed in the 1950’s by the Government Naming Committee. Previously it was called by Jewish people Har Atzmon and Arabic speakers called it, and still call it, Jabar al-Jarmaq.  
 
The committee acted on the directive of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion who argued that “just as we do not recognize the political ownership of Arabs over the land, likewise we do not recognize their claim to spiritual ownership or their names [for places].” 
 
It should be noted that biblical and Talmudic scholars were often able to correctly identity Hebrew towns and places based on their Arabic variations.

Some argue, however, that such a view, according to which Arabic speakers allegedly ‘kept the memory’ until the return of the Jews, is perhaps a little romantic. 
 
It should also be noted that many Arab names are not related to Jewish history or culture at all.
The name of Umm al-Fahm for example [the mother of coal] dates back to the Mamluk times. Today its residents, however, might call their city Umm a – Nur, which means the source of light.   
 
In similar way, the town of Jish is often referred to by Jewish people as Gush Halav, the Hebrew name of the town. 
 
The linguistic dilemmas in Jish, however, are still ongoing as the Maronites who are the majority in it wish to revive Aramaic as their spoken language, replacing Arabic, the Vatican Insider reported. 
 
Due to the cultural impact of names, street names can also abruptly change in Israel.

For example, the United Nations Avenue in Haifa was renamed as Zionism Avenue when the UN decided Zionism has racist elements in 1975, provoking anger among Israelis.  
 
In 2001 Walla reported that Arab speakers in Haifa signed a petition calling to change the street name yet again, this time to its pre-1948 name, Mountain Street [Al Jabar]. 

Will Nof Hagalil stick? Only time will tell.


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