Then he said, Let me go, for dawn is breaking. But he answered, I will not let you go unless you bless me. Said the other, What is your name? He replied, Jacob. Said he, Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed. Jacob asked, Pray tell me your name. But he said, You must not ask my name! And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.
Naming, in the Bible, is a very significant act. The assigning or changing - of the name of a person often by God - is always connected to deep symbolism that relates to the identity, the essence of who that person is or has become. Naming implies power: the naming of the animals by Adam in Eden implies his mastery over them. Parents name their children but children, at least in most societies, are not allowed to address their parents by their names. The naming of places too reflects power, and symbolic meanings. In the Bible, places are often named for the memory of a significant event that occurred in them. If I can name a place, determine which memory it will preserve, then I must in some way own it.
Which is why, I suppose, the issue of place names is such a sensitive one in Israel today. Recently, the mayor of Ramleh, one of the six mixed (Arab-Jewish) cities in Israel (Ramleh [not Ramallah, which is in the Palestinian Authority], Lod, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre) was interviewed on a national radio program; he was asked about the proposal, by some Arab city council members, to restore the original Arabic names of some of the streets in their neighborhood, the "old city." These streets had been renamed in the 50s after various Zionist heroes. His response was a remarkable string of unprintable expletives about the Arabs and what they could do with their proposal and themselves. This of course did not stop all the newspapers from printing his words, repeatedly and with gleeful horror. A week later a demonstration was held, calling for his removal from office by the Interior Ministry. That seems to have been, of course, the end of the matter, as we don't really do "politically correct" here you can say the most outrageous things in public, sexist, racist, ad hominem, whatever, and there will be a brief outcry but nothing more.
What the incident brought to the surface is an ongoing struggle over whose memories will determine the identity-geography of this land. It is often obvious that traditional Arab names of places in Israel reflect a pre-Arab memory. For example, in the cases of Zippori, Yaffo, Beersheba, and Gaza, among others, one doesn't have to be a scholar of semitic languages to be able to recognize in the Arabic place name the ancient Hebrew original. There was something exciting and satisfying about finding these names waiting for us when we came back, preserved for us to reclaim and in reclaiming and re-Hebraizing them, we both proved to ourselves that we really had roots here and we reconnected to them. These were our names so obviously this was our land. Almost all the Arab villages in my neighborhood of the Galilee bear the names of towns mentioned in Josephus and in the Talmudic literature, usually completely unchanged.
On the other hand, once this became our land, it became very important for us to assert our ownership, and to delegitimize competing memories. Hence, street names in old Arab cities even if they were still inhabited by Arabs were changed to reflect modern, Zionist memories. It was natural for place names (mountains, rivers, valleys) to be Hebraized: after all, Hebrew became the language of the land. However, the assigning of Hebrew names to the communities built on the lands of villages that had been destroyed or abandoned in 1948 has been perceived by many Arabs as a deliberate erasing of memory and therefore of culture; many of the former inhabitants of those villages still live in the area, and feel that the renaming of their villages is adding insult to injury: "OK, take our land; but do you have to take our memories too?" From our point of view, of course, these memories are indeed threatening, and we would just as soon see them fade away. It seems, alas, that the harder one tries to repress a threatening memory, the more threatening it becomes.