In a move that may cause confusion among travellers and will surely cause discomfort among some of its Arab citizens, Israel’s minister of transport, Yisrael Katz, has declared that the country will get new road signs-in Hebrew only. Right now, road signs are trilingual, with the names of cities, airports and other destinations spelled in Hebrew, English and Arabic.
Why change the signs? Well, the official answer given by the minister of transport is that having three different languages on each road sign confuses people. Of course, there’s probably a little bit more to it than that…the language used on street signs is often about declaring ownership or establishing cultural dominance.
In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Jerrod Kessel and Pierre Klochendler state that “the political motive is ill-concealed.” They quote Mr. Katz as follows: “Some Palestinian maps still refer to Israeli towns and villages by their pre-1948 [pre-Israel] names: Beisan instead of our Beit-Shean. They want to turn the clock back. Not on my signs! We won’t allow anyone to turn Yerushalayim into al-Quds.”
According to the Jewish Daily Forward, there’s also been a bit of a tussle in Jerusalem itself over the trilingual street signs, with vandals painting over the Arabic portions of the signs. A more moderate group of Jewish “vigilantes” has taken matters into their own hands, placing stickers printed with the appropriate Arabic street names on top of the vandalized signs.
Seen in this context, it’s easy to see why the minister of transport’s actions could make Israel’s Arabic citizens feel unwelcome. According to the New York Times op-ed, one in 5 Israeli citizens is Arabic, and Arabic is one of the country’s national languages.
The rest of the New York Times editorial gets a little nonsensical in its argument, as the writers claim that since “Israel” is spelled “Yisrael” in Hebrew, Katz’ changes “will be literally wiping Israel off the map.”
Adding a “Y” to the name of a country hardly qualifies as “wiping it off the map,” and as far as English-speaking travelers are concerned, well, when you travel to a foreign country you should make an effort to learn how city/street names are spelled in the local tongue. The real concern is that the move will likely increase Israeli Arabs’ sense of disenfranchisement in their own country. It could also have practical consequences for Israeli citizens. For example, the Jewish Daily Forward article quotes cabdriver Muhammed Dabash saying “When I need to take a passenger somewhere, I read the Arabic on the street signs.” What will he do once the new street signs are up?