Once considered a sleepy, backwater Negev town, Be’er Sheva is now a booming center of the Israeli high-tech industry and the home of a world-class university. Israel’s fourth-largest metropolis in terms of population has now taken one more step forward into modernity: 13 streets in the new Kalaniyot neighborhood will be named for women.
This move follows the announcement last year by the Municipality of Be’er Sheva to highlight the contributions of women in the public square, including naming all the streets in this 1200-unit residential development in honor of women.
What’s also significant about the most recent announcement is that more than half of the names on the list have Mizrahi or Sephardic backgrounds—especially noteworthy in Be’er Sheva with its large Mizrahi population. Acknowledging their achievements is an important step, given the long-standing rift in Israeli society between Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) and Mizrahi Jews, whose origins are from Middle Eastern and North African countries (including those whose ancestors were expelled from Spain and Portugal).
The seven women with Mizrahi or Sephardic roots are:
— Dona Gracia Nasi, a prominent 16th-century Sephardic philanthropist
— Aznat Barazani, a 16th-17th Kurdish scholar who lived in Mosul
— Shoshana Shababo, the first female Sephardic writer in Israel
— Bracha Tzfira, a popular 1930s singer
— Jacqueline Kahanoff, an Egyptian-born Israeli novelist, essayist, and journalist
— Rachel Tsabari, the first Mizrahi woman member of the Knesset;
— Suzanne Daniel-Natef, a Tunisian-born professor of Hellenistic Jewish and apocryphal literature at Hebrew University.
The “who’s who” list of trailblazing women, some whose contributions pre-date the State, continues:
— Miriam ben Porat, the first woman to serve in the Israeli Supreme Court
— Rosa Ginsburg Ginossar, former head of WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) and the first woman to receive a law license in Israel
— Sara Azaryahu, an early champion of women’s voting rights
— Ada Geller, Israel’s first woman auditor
— Political activists Eliza Begin and Paula ben-Gurion, wives of two former Israeli prime ministers.
In Israel, street names have enormous historical and political significance, with the fight for street signs bearing women’s names brewing for over a decade. In Tel Aviv, only 2.5 percent of streets (as of 2014) are named after women, and the city has been slow to follow through on affixing approved names to street signs.
Seeds of change are in the air. In Jerusalem, there’s an ongoing campaign to recognize women’s achievements on street signs, including a dedicated Facebook page called “Rehov MiShela” (A Street of Her Own). Gradually, more Israeli street signs are commemorating women, including prominent Mizrahi figures like Yemenite-Israeli singers Ofra Haza and Shoshana Damari whose names will also appear on Be’er Sheva street signs under last year’s approved list of 28 women.
Street signs reflect our values and how we record our history for posterity. The small city of Be’er Sheva sets an example.
Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.