Israeli Traffic Signs May Get Hebrew Makeover

Israel's conservative new minister of transportation wants to remove the English and Arabic place names from new traffic signs. The Arabic and English lettering would remain, but would spell out Hebrew names.

The proposal has angered Arabs who say it's another attempt to erase the Arab connection to the land.

When motorists head up the hill to Jerusalem, for example, the large green traffic signs say "Yerushalayim" in Hebrew, "Jerusalem" in English and "Ursalim al-Quds" in Arabic.

But if transportation minister Israel Katz has his way, all three languages will spell out the word "Yerushalayim."

On its Web site, the ministry says the changes are intended to simplify things for drivers by minimizing the number of words that must be read. But Katz, a Likud Party hawk, also made clear in an interview with Israel's largest newspaper that he has a political motive.

"If someone wants, by means of a road sign, to make Jerusalem into Palestinian al-Quds," Katz said, "that won't happen in this government, certainly not with this minister."

Defending Language

In this much fought-over land, everything has a political dimension — from birth rates to cemeteries — and road signs are no exception.

"By doing this they want to erase the Arabic culture from the city of Jerusalem," says Khader Dibs, head of the Committee Against the Wall, a Palestinian group opposed to Israel's separation barrier in and around the West Bank — which its supporters refuse to call a wall.

Dibs says the struggle for Palestinian rights is not just a matter of defending land, but defending language, especially in a city that attracts such fierce devotion among Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.

"They want to erase a name that exists, is deep-rooted in Arab-Islamic culture, and even in our holy books and in our religious teachings," Dibs says.

A Naming Tug-Of-War

Just outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, the battle over names continues. In a neighborhood Israelis call the City of David, work crews dig near the entrance to an information center that tells visitors about archeological finds dating from the early days of the Jewish presence in the city.

A nonprofit group that seeks to bring more Jews to this largely Arab neighborhood wants to build more apartments, a synagogue and other new buildings.

But just down the street is the brand-new Wadi Helwah information center. Activist Jawad Siyam says Palestinians are defending the Arab name for the neighborhood, as well as its history — although they don't deny that Jews have a history here, too.

Siyam says Jerusalem is a complicated place, and they won't allow it to be simplified by removing Arab culture.

"We will not let them change the name of the street," Siyam says. "If you go through the street here, you will see we put the stickers in the name of the street, and it's the real name, Wadi Helwah."

An Annoyance

For Israeli Jews, the road sign issue is more distant, an annoyance rather than an outrage.

On a recent afternoon in western Jerusalem, those interviewed who had heard of the plan dismissed it as political grandstanding.

To avoid charges of wasting public funds, the transportation minister has promised to implement the new policy only on new signs and ones that need replacing.

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