Streetwise: Sderot Yitzhak Rager, Beersheba

Few street names in Israel are as controversial as Beersheba's Sderot Yitzhak "Ijo" Rager, named after the city's fifth mayor.

Rager 88 224 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Rager 88 224
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Few street names in Israel are as controversial as Beersheba's Sderot Yitzhak "Ijo" Rager, named after the city's fifth mayor. Progress is always painful, and change of any kind provokes controversy, but even so, the 1989 name change - from Sderot Hanesi'im - remains contentious. Even the location is symbolic: Sderot Rager, as the city's main north-south commercial street, splits the city roughly in half. Rager, who served as mayor from 1989 to 1997, was unquestionably modern Beersheba's primary agent of change. "When my husband became mayor, Beersheba was suffering from negative immigration," says Dr. Bracha Rager, a prominent microbiologist and widow of the former mayor. "There were about 100,000 people here, and more were leaving than were moving in. By the time he passed away in his eighth year as mayor, the population had almost doubled. "What was his biggest accomplishment? Building the city. The whole infrastructure of Beersheba - the roads and bridges - were all planned and built in his time. His biggest dream was to build a circular road around the whole city, a beltway, like he'd seen in Paris. Today, Beersheba is one of the very few cities in Israel - maybe the only one - to have such a beltway." Neither is there any question about Rager's influence on world Jewry. The Cairo-born Rager, veteran of the Six Day War, had been in the middle of almost everything. He'd been European correspondent for Israel Radio, edited the periodical 'Hayom', then director-general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority before becoming the international president of State of Israel Bonds. But it was his work during the period in which he was consul in New York that proved most satisfying. "He was very involved in working for the release of Soviet Jews," says Dr. Rager. "He closed the circle, first working for their release, then overseeing their absorption into Israel in Beersheba." The controversy surrounds Rager's entrepreneurial activities. Together with several others, he was a founder of the Negev Mall, that now anchors the south end of Sderot Rager. While the modern, Western-style shopping haven is a prized address, its creation is also regarded as having pounded the final stake into the heart of Beersheba's Old City, which had been the city's business center. Today, the Old City - the only complete Ottoman Turkish city still standing - still suffers from abandonment and neglect. In spite of volumes of political promises, little progress has been made in returning it to its old status as a business hub or restoring it as a tourist attraction. In pursuit of progress, Rager encountered allegations of corruption, crooked deals and graft-motivated business dealings. Even today, public sentiment remains divided. Say the name Yitzhak Rager, and half of those who remember him will say that he was the finest man to walk the earth, while the other half insists he belonged in jail. Even the street name change was disputed. Yitzhak Shatil, author of several books on Beersheba including a history of its streets, recounts how it happened: "It was very ugly," he says. "Before, the road was called Hanesi'im, after all of Israel's presidents, not just one like [Zalman] Shazar or [Chaim] Weizmann, but was named to honor them all. For Beersheba, Sderot Hanesi'im was symbolic, a street name with great meaning. "Then, when Yitzhak Rager passed away in office, a group of his supporters went directly to the city council during a public meeting and proposed changing the name to Sderot Rager. No one had heard of the name-change proposal before - it was a complete shock. Everyone, including the council, was taken by surprise. But the city hall was full of people - under those circumstances, who could say no? I argued against it, asking why they'd take this important name - honoring the presidents - and change it to the name of a politician. It wasn't right." Not that Shatil, a member of Beersheba's names committee, has given up. "Unofficially, I've asked several times to return honor to Beersheba, and change the name back," he says. "Mayor Rager already has a bridge and a high school named after him. Even the great Menachem Begin has only a square, and David Ben-Gurion just one road. It's not right." Today, Sderot Rager, four kilometers long, runs from the Negev Mall all the way to the north edge of the city where it turns into Route 40. As a commercial street, it runs past all of Beersheba's major institutions, government buildings and memorial structures, including Beit Yad Labanim, the Soldier's Memorial, then to the city government complex, with its wavy walls and distinctive concrete tower, which looks more like a raised fist than the tamarisk tree it's said to be, commemorating the biblical story of the tree Abraham planted in Beersheba. Sderot Rager then passes smaller shopping areas, offices, clinics, parks, educational institutions, theaters and restaurants - trendy and otherwise. A bit further on looms the new soaring Beersheba Conservatory, with its eye-catching architecture, then on to the sprawling Soroka Medical Center. Nearly next door, the equally fast-growing campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev competes for space. Today only a small area of undeveloped land remains, much of which appears committed to a massive development plan that's still a work in progress. Sderot Rager experienced terrorism, too. On August 31, 2004, Hamas suicide bombers exploded two municipal buses almost in front of the city government complex. Sixteen died that day, and more than a hundred were seriously wounded. For weeks, Sderot Rager hosted a makeshift memorial in their memory. Any street name change provokes dispute, and progress always leaves someone behind. In the process of turning an old city into a new one, Yitzhak Rager made powerful friends and dedicated enemies. While today, it's almost universal for Beershebans to lament the sad state of the Old City, presumably few would be willing to forgo the ease of driving, parking and shopping in the new commercial center, with its wide streets and relatively minor traffic problems, all of which are a part of Rager's legacy. Bracha Rager recognizes the nostalgia in which the Old City is held, but also remembers Beersheba circa 1976, when she and her husband arrived. "Even then, the Old City was sad. There were only 20 or 30 businesses, and the infrastructure was terrible, with little narrow crisscross roads designed for a Turkish village not a modern Israeli city. Besides," she gently reminds, "it wasn't only Beersheba where old things weren't protected - that happened all over the country. There were too many priorities - the army was here, olim were pouring in, the city needed so many things, including money. And never, ever, was there enough support from the government." If today, Yitzhak Rager could drive the length of the street named in his honor, he'd most likely be delighted. He'd remember the street as Sderot Hanesi'im, honoring our presidents, few of whom were popular during their lifetimes. He would no doubt identify with that.