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What's in a name? Upper Nazareth seeks distance from famous Arab neighbor

A view of Nazareth Illit
Lyanna Crack/Wikimedia Commons
'Upper Nazareth' was conceived in the early 1950's to safeguard the Jewish character of the Galilee

This year may be the last year that Mayor Ronen Plot receives bouquets of flowers for Christmas to his office in the municipal building of Nazareth Illit.

Contrary to what might sound as natural disappointment, the Mayor of Nazareth Illit ("Upper Nazareth"), the largest Jewish city in upper Galilee, will be happy not to get any of the Christmas gifts mistakenly sent to him and intended for the mayor of his city's famous neighbor: Nazareth.

The two cities bearing the same name have led to confusion for years. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently referred to “Nazareth” meaning “Upper Nazareth”.

The late Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, the forefather of Upper Nazareth referred to it as “Nazareth” intentionally overlooking the very existence of Arab Nazareth.

Two months ago, Mayor Ronen Plot decided to put an end to the confusion and asked the residents of Upper Nazareth to suggest alternative names for their city. Five of the 200 suggestions made it to a final round of selection, among them “Qiryat Hagalil” and “View of Galilee”.

The new name is yet to be decided.

This tale of the two cities is part of the history of a then young State of Israel. Nazareth -- the birthplace of Christianity where the archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive Jesus -- needs no introduction.

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File

Over the last decades, Nazareth – the largest Arab city in Israel – has changed in character significantly. Huge numbers of Christian residents left the city for economic, social and political reasons.

Today, 70 percent of Nazareth residents are Muslim and preserving the nature and tradition of the city, holy to hundreds of millions of Christians all over the world, is sometimes accompanied by clashes between Muslim and Christian residents.

In the 1950's, just a few years after the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, the new nation's founding establishment became concerned with the Arab nature of the northern region where Nazareth is located.

In response, Upper Nazareth was conceived in the early 1950's to safeguard the Jewish character of the Galilee. In 1957 the first residents of the new settlement -- Jewish new immigrants -- moved into the new town overlooking Nazareth.

By 1958 Upper Nazareth, a municipal local council was officially named – and the confusion began. Its geographic proximity and similar name made it difficult to distinguish Upper Nazareth from its famous neighbor.

The issue, however, goes beyond confusion. Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was seriously concerned about the role and the future of Upper Nazareth in the process of the “Judaification” of the Galilee and the attempt to create a Jewish majority in the north of the country.

“I see the constant and fast growth of Upper Nazareth a mission of top priority in the next few years,” he wrote in a letter to the town officials.

AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel

In a letter to the Jewish Agency in 1962, he demanded to speed up the growth of Upper Nazareth. He explicitly ordered to form a separate local council than its neighbor, “certainly not a mixed Jewish-Arab settlement".

The intention was to build a Jewish settlement to overpower Nazareth numerically and politically, a clear statement of Jewish sovereignty.

The city did grow, but not exactly according to Ben Gurion’s plan.

The city's first major demographic change came with a huge wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The newcomers were offered cheap housing, but very little job opportunities and other infrastructure to jump-start their new life. The younger, the stronger, left as soon as they could.

Meanwhile, middle class and professional Arabs and their families from neighboring Nazareth – which lacks land for its own natural growth and poor infrastructure – began to look to Upper Nazareth for jobs and affordable housing.

By all criteria, Upper Nazareth has become a mixed city -- far from Ben Gurion’s vision and official policy. The demographic contest is not in favor of the Jewish city. Arab Nazareth has a population of close to 80 thousands; population of Upper Nazareth amounts to about 41 thousand – 25 percent of whom are Arab citizens.

Fast forward to 2018, where a change of the city's name is not only an attempt to put an end to the confusion. It runs much deeper. Mayor Ronen Plot intends to re-brand his city completely, almost from scratch.

“Nazareth Illit” has launched its historic process to change the city’s name to distinguish it from its neighbor’ to give it its own identity and end public confusion,” announced the municipality.

Next time when you plan to visit Upper Nazareth check the name before you set up Waze.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."

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