Behind the politics of road signs in Israel and Palestine

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Here are two pictures that, on the face of it, look pretty similar.

The first is one that I took a few years ago, while covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a road sign in the West Bank, over which some prankster had pasted “Palestine” in Hebrew, Arabic, and English:

See on Flickr

Yesterday, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz published a picture of another set of West Bank signs. Here, the word “revenge” (for the three Israeli teenagers murdered in the West Bank in June) is sprayed next to blacked-out Arabic place-names.

Though these images seem to parallel one another, each carries a different kind of baggage, and while the first is funny; the second is deeply disturbing.

The naming of things is a fraught topic in this tiny land. Arabic, the native tongue of one-fifth of Israelis, is one of Israel’s official languages—which means it should in theory be on all street signs. But its status hasn’t been well honored. In 1998 Adalah, an Israeli civil-rights NGO, sued the government, noting that 80% of signs were in Hebrew and English only.

The supreme court found in its favor, and since then, thousands of signs have been fixed. But right-wingers found a more subtle way to de-Arabize them: In 2009 the government decided to replace Arabic place names (such as al-Quds for Jerusalem) with Hebraicized versions in Arabic script (“Urshalim,” similar to the Hebrew “Yerushalayim”).

Left-wingers have staged their own attempts at subversion. An NGO called Zochrot (“remembrance”) publishes a map of pre-1948 Palestine, with the names of hundreds of Palestinian villages that were erased both physically and cartographically after Israel came into being, and its activists sometimes paste the Palestinian place-names over Hebrew road signs, whereupon they’re quickly taken down:

There is a kind of playful despair in these attempts to subvert Hebrew signs with Arabic—a recognition that any such change can only be fleeting. Wiping out the Arabic, though, is more sinister—because it represents a continuation of the gradual effacement of Palestinian history, and because it’s far more likely to be permanent.

Now, Ha’aretz reports, some right-wing Israeli legislators want to make Hebrew the only official language (paywall), and remove it from street signs altogether. They are, of course, trading off the rise in nationalism and anti-Arab feeling among Israeli Jews in the wake of the latest Gaza war, and if it continues, they may well succeed.