Israeli Road Sign Controversy Runs Deep

JERUSALEM – What’s a name, what’s in a road name? History, ideology, nationalism.

In deciphering what lies beneath the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict, sometimes small historical footprints encapsulate the conflict and at the same time highlight the enormous difficulties in trying to resolve it.

Take the surreptitious graffiti war that has broken out on the streets of the western part of Jerusalem (which has been part of Israel since its inception in 1948).

Ten years ago, all Israeli cities with a mixed Jewish and Arab population were ordered by an Israeli court to add an Arabic name on street signs, over and above the Hebrew and English street names.

In recent weeks, nationalist Jewish Israelis have vandalized the Arabic names on such road signs, painting black over the Arabic lettering.

"In Jerusalem, you have many nationalist Jews who do not accept the very existence of Arabs," said Sammy Samoha, an Israeli political sociologist from Haifa University. "They want Jews to have exclusive monopoly over Jerusalem, whereas the signs in Arabic make them feel that the country is going binational."

Other young Jews – Israelis and U.S. citizens who advocate a vision of a more pluralist Israel – are staging counter-actions of their own. Using flowing Arabic calligraphy, they are engaged in restoring the Arabic names.

Concerned civil rights activists say the Israeli police are doing nothing to stop the vandalism. "People are not deterred, because there is no accountability," Abeer Baker, an attorney with Adalah, an Arab rights group that originally petitioned the courts for the inclusion of the Arabic names, told reporters.

So, what’s in a name, what’s in a sign post? When it comes to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, the affirmation of whose land it presently is.

Since taking office four months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has designed his own "signpost" for the road down which he envisions not only the nature of his state but the demand he makes of the Arab world in relating to that state: Israel – The Jewish State.

Netanyahu says rightly that this emphasis on the Jewish character of Israel has won the consensual backing of Jewish Israelis, because it underlines Israel’s emphatic refusal to contemplate any of the surviving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who became refugees in the 1948 war or their descendants being allowed to return, in the context of a peace deal, to within Israel’s borders. It also underlines the deep fears of most Jewish Israelis.

One out of five Israeli citizens is an Arab Israeli. Arabic is the country’s official language alongside Hebrew. Most Jewish Israelis regard their country in the context of Netanyahu’s Jewish state "signpost."

Enter politics trying to reshape the reading of history through the reading of signposts, not only by the two peoples directly involved in the conflict, but by international visitors to Israel.

The Israeli Ministry of Transport has unveiled a plan to get rid of both the Arabic and the English names for cities and towns on road signs around the country, keeping only the Hebrew names. Currently, Jerusalem is identified as Yerushalayim in Hebrew, al-Quds in Arabic, and Jerusalem in English.

Under the new policy, the city will be identified solely as Yerushalayim, even in Arabic and English. Similarly, internationally known cities such as Nazareth (al-Nasra in Arabic) will be identified only as Natzrat – the Hebrew name – while Jaffa (Yafa in Arabic) will be signposted only as Yafo (as Jewish Israelis refer to the ancient city on the Mediterranean which is now an annex of the prime Jewish Israeli metropolis Tel Aviv). Caesarea, a well-known biblical site with its famed Roman antiquities, will henceforth be identified only as Kesariya.

Arab Israelis are up in arms over what they say is a blatant attempt to erase the Arabic language and heritage that predates modern Israel. "The government is mistaken if it thinks that by changing a few words they can erase our existence or our identity," Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, told IPS.

"This new signpost policy is pure provocation," Tibi added. Not at all, countered the transport minister, Yisrael Katz, on Israeli public TV: "We simply want to amend the lack of uniform spelling on road signs which causes much confusion for drivers, Jews and Arabs alike, as well foreign visitors."

Katz is a Netanyahu loyalist from the prime minister’s Likud Party. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition includes the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, the third strongest party that was elected on the slogan directed against Arab Israelis – "No loyalty, no citizenship." Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens justifiably complain that they are being marginalized and discriminated against by the Jewish majority.

Israel gave Hebrew names, often of biblical origin, to many villages, towns, and areas that had been home to Palestinians but that came under its control following the 1948 war, and which Jewish Israelis settled.

Despite earlier denials, Katz acknowledged that there might indeed be an ulterior political motive for the plan. "Some Palestinian maps still refer to Israeli towns and villages by their pre-1948 names, Bisan instead of our Beit-Shean. They want to turn the clock back," he said. "Not on our signs! This government, and certainly this minister, will not allow anyone to turn Jewish Jerusalem into Palestinian al-Quds."

Katz said emphatically that his amendments would not apply to Arab towns and villages, only to those which also have a Jewish population. Also, areas in the occupied West Bank where Israel exercises control would keep their existing Arabic road signs: the largest West Bank city of Nablus is not slated to become "Shechem," as it is known in Hebrew.

Whether Katz gets his way or not, what the signpost row suggests is that agreeing on the terminology of the conflict might be just as hard as resolving the conflict itself.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.