In June 1949, right after the War of Independence ended, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion set out on a tour of the Negev, that had just officially become part of the new State of Israel. On his return, he demanded that all the names of places and geographical features in the Negev be changed to Hebrew. The Negev Names Committee was hastily assembled to carry out the task.
By: Yadin Roman
“Tomorrow morning I leave for Eilat,” David Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary on June 9, 1949, prior to his third trip to the Negev desert. “On my first trip, more than 15 years ago, the sight of the Negev desert totally changed my Zionist perception. That trip played a major part in the decision to conquer the Negev this year. During that trip, we reached the Negev via Transjordan, from Salt to Amman, and from there via Ma’an to Aqaba. Our return trip was via Sinai to Beersheba. The second time, we drove via Beersheba down along the Arava Valley.”
Ben-Gurion was accompanied by his bureau chief, Nehemia Argov; Zeev Sherf, secretary of the government; Yizhak Ziv-Av, of the Government Press Office; Yigal Allon, commander of the IDF’s southern front; and Yitzhak Rabin, the southern front representative at the just finished armistice agreement talks in Rhodes with the Egyptians at which it was agreed that the Negev would become part of Israel.
The entourage took off from an airstrip in Ekron, in the center of the country, traveling to Sedom, on the Dead Sea, in a British light twin-engined Airspeed Consul. Then they sailed on the Dead Sea to Ein Gedi, by the border with Jordan. Yehezkel (Hetzkel) Weinstein, a founder of the popular Casit restaurant on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, also accompanied Ben-Gurion and prepared lunch for the group at Ein Gedi.
“We can build a hotel for tourists here,” Ben-Gurion wrote, “if we organize regular air transport.”
In the evening, they returned to Sedom, where “the young people organized a spontaneous choir, someone played the harmonica, and everyone was in high spirits,” Ben-Gurion noted in his diary.
The next day, the entourage set out for Eilat, with a military escort.
“At Hazeva, Hetzkel prepared an excellent breakfast, I was photographed under the ancient tree, and I tasted the water from the spring,” Ben-Gurion wrote.
From there, they continued to Ein Weiba (today Ein Yahav).
“We must give these places Hebrew names,” Ben-Gurion wrote. “If we can find an ancient one, good; if not, then a new Hebrew name.”
At 11:05 a.m., they reached the military camp at Wadi Jirafi (today Paran) and “Hetzkel prepared an excellent lunch,” the prime minister noted. At 2:45 p.m., they passed Gharandal and continued to Ein Adiyan, where “Hetzkel served us five o-clock tea under the palm trees.” At 7:15 p.m., they reached Eilat.
“The sun set beyond the mountains of Israel, but opposite us, the mountains of Jordan were bathed in the golden light of the sunset,” Ben-Gurion wrote, adding that three British destroyers were anchored in the bay.
The next day, Ben-Gurion toured the Israeli positions along the border with Egypt and Jordan before returning to Tel Aviv by plane.
“The people who came to meet me at the plane broke out in laughter when they saw me,” he wrote. “My khaki uniform, sunglasses, and kaffiyeh headdress seemed strange in their eyes. I immediately returned to my office.”
For Ben-Gurion, the vast open expanses of the Negev desert were where the future of Israel lay. As he wrote in his diary, “We have to settle it, make its desolate lands bloom, and utilize its economic resources.” However, before all that, the Negev would have to become part of Israel – and for that to happen, its riverbeds, mountains, and geographic features needed to be given Hebrew names.
The idea that an official committee would bestow names on places and geographic features was spawned in the British Empire following World War I. In 1919, the British government established a committee to advise the government on the correct spelling of place names and geographic features throughout the British Empire for maps, literature, and official correspondence. The Committee on Geographical Names operated under the auspices of the venerable Royal Geographical Society, which played a key role in the expeditions of Charles Darwin, David Livingstone, Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, John Hunt, Edmund Hillary, and many other legendary figures. This committee was entrusted with receiving a list of geographical names that governors and administrators collected throughout the empire; deciding on the right term, spelling, and location of each one; and publishing the official geographical gazetteer listing all these names. (The committee, now a British government department, is currently preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary.)
When the British Mandate of Palestine was established in 1920, a year after the names committee, it formed a local names committee with three members: David Yellin, president of the Hebrew Language Committee and head of the Jewish National Council, the main national executive institution of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine; Izhak Ben-Zvi, who at the time was a member of the Jerusalem City Council and later became president of the National Council and the State of Israel; and geographer Dr. Abraham Jacob Brawer. The committee was entrusted with advising the main names committee in London on the transliteration into English of the names of settlements in the Land of Israel and on their official Hebrew spelling.
Two years later, the Jewish National Fund created its own names committee to assign names to settlements established on JNF land. Until then, the settlers themselves had decided on their own on the name of their settlement. The settlers were far from enthusiastic about the creation of a committee of scholars and representatives of the various Jewish political movements to make this decision.
The English transliterations sparked many heated arguments in the committee, such as whether the capital of the mandate should be spelled in English as Jerusalem or Yerushalayim. In the end, biblical Shekhem was called by its Arabic name (Nablus) and Beersheva became Beersheba. The most turbulent differences were over what to call the land ruled by the mandate. The Balfour Declaration and the decision of the League of Nations to create the mandate referred to Palestine. The leaders of the Jewish community fought vehemently against this term, demanding that the mandate be called the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael). The matter was decided only after the British high commissioner, Herbert Samuel, got involved. In English, the name would be Palestine, while in Hebrew, an acronym for Eretz Yisrael was added, in parenthesis: Palestine (EY).
While the first names committees dealt only with place names, Ben-Gurion decided to create a committee that would address the full range of names that appear on the Negev map, creating a Hebrew gazetteer of all the geographic names in the Negev.
The most prominent Hebrew geographers, archaeologists, and explorers were nominated to serve on the committee: Ben-Zvi and Brawer; eminent geographers Yosef Breslavi, Zev Vilnay, and Yeshayahu Press; archaeologists Shemuel Yeivin and Benjamin Mazar; and others. Zalman Lipshitz (Lief), the pioneer of Israeli cartography, chaired the committee.
On July 16, 1949, the committee assembled for its first meeting. The first item on its agenda was, “How do we begin to Hebraize the geography of a whole region, which until this point has not had any Hebrew names except Ein Gedi, Sedom, and Masada?” The committee decided to invite an Arabic scholar to join it to help clarify the meaning of the names on the existing map. The next order of business was what to do with the Arabic names. These names were printed in English on the official maps of the British Mandate and had been transliterated into Hebrew on the maps that the IDF printed during the War of Independence. The committee was divided on this point. Some were for totally obliterating the Arabic names from the map.
“The Negev was never heavily settled in the past and none of the [Arabic] names on the map appear in historical sources,” Press remarked. “As we begin the task of converting the Negev into Hebrew, we have to deal with many riverbeds, mountains, and other features. It would be wrong to use the primitive Bedouin names whose meaning is unclear. We have to change all the names, leaving no trace of the Arabic names.”
Breslavi objected, noting, “Obliterating the original Arabic names will make it difficult for the historian and geographer to research the Negev. We should not disparage the Arab population of the country and its need to be able to identify with the Arabic names. In my opinion, all the Arabic names should remain on the map.”
“The government created this committee to convert all the names to Hebrew,” Lipshitz admonished his committee. “We must decide if we are prepared to take on the task that has been entrusted to us.”
“During the mandate, we had no access to the southern part of the Negev,” Ben-Zvi pointed out. “I doubt that we will find any places with historic Hebrew names there. We have no interest in renewing the use of Byzantine and Arab names. In addition, serious research will take a lot of time and we are meant to work quickly. We have to be very careful with translations of names; not every wadi or jebel is worthy of translation. We have to check each name carefully and convert some to Hebrew and just translate others.”
The meeting ended, but the discussion dragged on into the next meeting.
“We should inform the government that we are ready to convert only three kinds of names: those that can be identified as historic places; others that a looser historic connection for can be found; and others that have random names. ???These last ones we should leave as they are???,” xxx proposed.
Brawer suggested that the existing Arabic name appear next to every new Hebrew name.
Vilnay objected, explaining, “Arabic names in the desert are very loose. We will decide on Hebrew names and only should retain famous Arabic names mentioned in historic records.”
Lipshitz added that the Bedouins had not been living in the desert for generations and he opposed leaving the Arabic names.
“There are ??one?? thousand Bedouins living in the Negev,” ?? Barslavski ??? should this be Breslavi?? explained, “and it would be wise for us to be in contact with them. The maps do not give a name for every geographical feature, but the Bedouins do have names for them. It would be wise to use these names, which will enable us to attain a more profound understanding of the desert environment.”
The Egyptians in Eilat
The third meeting started with an announcement from Ben-Zvi, who was a close friend of Ben-Gurion.
“We have received a letter from the prime minister in which he emphasizes that we must get rid of the Arabic names for political reasons,” Ben-Zvi told his fellow committee members.
“Just as we do not accept the Arab political ownership of the land, we do not accept their spiritual ownership, which includes the names of geographic features,” Ben-Gurion had written to them.
With that in mind, the committee started to debate the first set of names for the southernmost features of Israel along the Egyptian border: Jabel Masri, Ras el-Masri, and Wadi Masri, which mean, respectively, Egyptian Mountain, Egyptian Pass, and Egyptian Riverbed. These names provided a clear example of Ben-Gurion’s concerns.
“These names are political,” Vilnay and Ben-Zvi concurred. “The Egyptians gave them in order to strengthen their hold on the Gulf of Eilat. Are we going to leave Eilat to the Egyptians – Eilat, which is now our southern border, the border of the country stretching from Dan to Eilat.”
It was an interesting discussion, especially since there was no place called Eilat, except in the Bible.
“It is obvious that we have to wipe out these Arabic names,” Press declared. “Most of them are just temporary and random.”
Breslavi offered a compromise: “Instead of Ras Masri. Egypt Head, we will call it Rosh Yisrael, Israel Head.”
For over an hour and a half, the committee debated what to do with these three geographical features. In the end, the Egyptians were expelled from the Land of Israel. Only Ras el-Masri, which marked the border between Israel and Egypt, remained on the map and a few decades later, it was changed to Ras Taba. When the committee subsequently decided to name the mountains around Eilat after the biblical kings of Judea who had been active in the Negev, it also turned Wadi Masri into Nahal Shelomo, honoring the grand king who the Bible credits with helping spearhead Israel’s presence on the gulf.
The issue of Eilat took up another chunk of the committee’s time. In 1949, Eilat did not exist. The city was founded only in 1952. But a place by the name of Eilat appears time and again in the biblical record. It was one of the stations in the wanderings of the people of Israel during the exodus from Egypt. King Solomon built ships on the shore of the Sea of Sof, in the land of Edom at Etzion Gever, which is Eilat. King Azariya of Judah built the city of Eilat, and so on and so forth. However, the location of this place called Eilat or Etzion Gaver remained unclear.
On the shore of the gulf, where the big shopping mall of Eilat is today, a small adobe hut stood. The hut served as a British police station called Umm Rashrash.
“On the map,” Yeivin explained, “we see a place called Umm Rashrash and next to it the name Eilat. But Eilat was not here. Biblical and Roman Eilat were across the border in Jordan. The name Eilat should be erased from the map.”
“We cannot give up Eilat,” Press retorted, “when the real Eilat finally is in our hands, our settlement will expand and reach over to there.”
David Amiran, the geographer, suggested that Eilat should be the name of the settlement that would be built on the shore of the gulf, which should be called the Gulf of Eilat.
Ben-Zvi was for eliminating Umm Rashrash from the map together with Etzion Gaver. Eilat is Eilat, he said, musing that maybe the committee should call Umm Rashrash Etzion Gaver and establish Eilat elsewhere.
The committee ultimately decided to replace the name Umm Rashrash with Eilat. Etzion Gaver was commemorated on the map by dubbing a well along the coast Be’er Etzion Gever. Today the well is buried under the artificial lagoon in Eilat.
A Few Other Names
A little north of Eilat are Jabel Suieda and Wadi Suieda, which mean black mountain and black riverbed respectively. They became Har Shehoret and Nahal Shehoret, which is the literal Hebrew translation of their Arabic names. Wadi Radadi became Nahal Roded; the only connection between these two names is the same sound. However, the word roded appears in the Bible (Psalms 144). The Arabic word means “became shallow,” which is a fitting description of this riverbed. Continuing further north from Eilat, the committee reached Jabel a-Sabakh, which means Sunrise Mountain, and translated it to Hebrew, creating Har Shaharut.
As literal translations into Hebrew and similar sounds began to run out, the committee moved on to biblical kings (all the mountains around Eilat were named after kings of Judah who had operated in the area) and biblical lists of name, such as the sons of Simeon, which were assigned to the wells north of Beersheba.
Another issue the committee tackled was determining terms for geographical features. It debated the definition of a nakeb, which means passageway or mountain pass in Arabic. It pondered whether this actually is an ascent (ma’ale in Hebrew) or a pass (ma’avar in Hebrew). Unable to reach a consensus, the committee members turned some nakebs into ascents and others into mountain passes.
A New Map is Born
In May 1950, the committee finished its work – after 29 meetings. The new Negev map featured 70 historic names, 50 features connected to historic names, 60 names of biblical figures, 175 translations of Arabic names, 150 Hebrew names that sounded similar to their Arabic predecessors, and 30 names with no connection to anything. Only eight names remained unchanged. In addition, 27 names of new Israeli settlements appeared on the map. The official Israeli map of the Negev featured a total of 560 names.
In 1949, biblical researchers saw the Negev as the venue of many of the events of the Exodus. As a result, 70 of the new Negev names were connected with the wandering of the tribes of Israel in the desert. The two great riverbeds that cross the Negev were dubbed Paran and Zin; the surrounding geographic features also received biblical names.
The mountains around Eilat mentioned above were not the only ones named after biblical figures. Kenan the son of Enosh got a summit of his own. Even Saguv, the son of Hiel beit Haeli, who rebuilt Jericho and suffered Joshua’s curse that the sons of whoever rebuilds the city will die, got one of the tallest summits in the Negev. Yorke’am, the son of Raham of the Hebronites, got a spring. The builder of Masada, Jonathan the Hasmonean, got a mountain, as did Eleazar the son of Ya’ir, the Jewish commander of Masada.
Many names on the Negev map turned out to be names used for people in Hebrew or descriptions derived from Bedouins who roamed the area. Hassan and Auda, the one with the cap, the sweaty one, large, and scrappy are a few examples whose Hebrew name means the same as its Arabic one. The map also includes names of animals, such as leopards, snakes, and gazelles, names of plants, and descriptive names, such as blue, yellow, and red.
The committee’s work was, of course, a success. Nobody knows today where Wadi Jirafi, el-Birin, and even Ras al-Masri are and the committee’s recommendation to publish a gazetteer listing the new Hebrew names alongside the old Arabic names seems to have had the same fate as the names it was intended to record for posterity.