The Israeli right is erasing Arabic from Jerusalem, one street sign at a time

A campaign by right-wing activists to strike off Arabic from Jerusalem street signs goes hand in hand with government attempts to uproot the city's Palestinian identity.

A sticker has been removed but the Arabic remains hidden on a street sign along the central King George Street in Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)
A sticker has been removed but the Arabic remains hidden on a street sign along the central King George Street in Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)

It has been two years since the passage of the controversial Jewish Nation-State Law, which, in addition to asserting Jewish supremacy over the “Land of Israel,” officially downgraded the status of the Arabic language in Israel. But while the Nation-State Law was drafted in the halls of parliament, it seems that activists on the ground have taken on its implementation.

This is becoming particularly apparent in Jerusalem, where right-wing Israeli activists are attempting to erase Arabic from the city’s landscape. To see it in action, you need only look at Jerusalem’s trilingual street signs in the West and in the occupied East, the city center and peripheral neighborhoods, and in both segregated and mixed areas which present a perfect symbolic target for this campaign.

In most instances, these activists have covered the Arabic text on these signs with political campaign stickers belonging to various predominantly right-wing and religious parties; stickers of Otzma Yehudit, an extreme right Kahanist party, appear to be the most common.

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Religious slogans representing Chabad-Lubavitch and Breslov (two Hasidic sects) can also be found covering the Arabic, as can stickers from far-right groups like Lehava and Derech Haim. In a few cases, Arabic is simply scratched off or covered with spray paint. The range of slogans and stickers used to conceal the Arabic demonstrates that the message they carry is secondary to the act of erasure itself.

Arabic scratched off a sign outside the depopulated Palestinian village of Lifta near Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)
Arabic scratched off a sign outside the depopulated Palestinian village of Lifta near Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)

This phenomenon is not unique to Jerusalem. A short drive along settler roads in the West Bank shows that the Arabic names on several signs have been scribbled out or covered up. Nor is this issue particularly new: in 2009, for example, activists set about countering the vandalization of Arabic on Jerusalem’s street signs by reprinting those names in ornate Arabic calligraphy and sticking them over the defaced originals.

Nonetheless, the ubiquity of this practice throughout Jerusalem today and the impunity and disregard that it enjoys is striking. And while it is less overt than other forms of Israeli erasure of the city’s Palestinian character such as attempts after 1948 to give Hebrew names to the formerly Arab neighborhoods of West Jerusalem like Talbiye (Komemiyut), Qatamon (Gonen), Baka’a (Ge’ulim), and Musrara (Morasha) the more subtle process on the street signs nonetheless serves a similar purpose.

‘The erasure is not random’

Last November, I tweeted a selection of photos of these vandalized signs to Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion and Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum. They didn’t see the phenomenon as a major problem: “You choose selective pictures of some vandalism around the city,” Hassan-Nahoum wrote back to me on Twitter. “I could also stoke divisions by posting pictures of Arab vandalism but I chose [sic] to focus on building a shared society and highlighting the good things happening in #jerusalem for ALL populations,” her reply continued.

In July, however, by which time I had documented dozens more examples, Hassan-Nahoum was forced to concede that these were not “selective” occurrences: “I will send this to our street sign dept to clean immediately. This is bully behavior that has no place in our city.”

But whereas some recent cases of left-wing graffiti were hastily eradicated by the municipality, most of the stickers I found covering Arabic have not yet been removed (beyond those that I was able to remove myself after photographing).

Three different stickers, two of them for the Otzma Yehudit party, covering the Arabic on a street sign in the Givat Sha’ul neighborhood in Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)
Three different stickers, two of them for the Otzma Yehudit party, covering the Arabic on a street sign in the Givat Sha’ul neighborhood in Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)

Daniel Seidemann, an attorney and political analyst specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem, describes Hassan-Nahoum’s comments as “disingenuous in the extreme, but to be expected by a municipality that gives 12 percent of its budget to 40 percent of the population.” In fact, he says, “few phenomena symbolize the current state of affairs in Jerusalem better than this. It’s not random and it’s not thugs; it’s representative of the zeitgeist.”

To illustrate this, he points to a recent controversy wherein the religious freedom NGO Hiddush filed a lawsuit against the municipality because the “Religion and Tradition” page on the city’s website listed only Orthodox Jewish institutions no Muslim, Christian, or even non-Orthodox Jewish sites were featured. Rather than respond to the suit by expanding the list, the municipality decided to remove the list altogether. “This is an indication that the erasure is not random,” says Seidemann.

‘Deleting Arabic names since 1967’

Faiz Abu Rmeleh, a photojournalist with the Israeli-Palestinian Activestills collective and the Turkish Anadolu Agency, is a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem’s Old City, where he sees the attempted erasure of Arabic on street signs as routine.

Far from being an isolated phenomenon by some right-wing activists, he views it in parallel to the authorities’ “official” process of changing street names in and around the Old City, and of giving Hebrew names to new streets in Palestinian neighborhoods. Recently, for example, the municipality tried to name several streets in Silwan after rabbis, an attempt that was blocked following a court petition filed on behalf of the residents by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Likud stickers and a Pokemon sticker covering the Arabic on a sign near the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)
Likud stickers and a Pokemon sticker covering the Arabic on a sign near the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)

In reality, says Abu Rmeleh, the Nation-State Law was “not so important” as an impetus for the erasure of Arabic, as “the municipality has been deleting Arabic names here since 1967.” He gives the example of the Sharaf neighbourhood in the Old City, its name erased amidst Israel’s reconstruction and expansion of what is now the Jewish Quarter. The demolition of the Mughrabi Quarter in 1967 also enabled the creation of the open plaza in front of the Western Wall. 

The municipality’s aim, Abu Rmeleh argues, is to have both Israeli and foreign visitors “only see the Jewish story here, and not the Muslim or Christian story.” In this way, they are “deleting the identity and history of Palestinians in the Old City and around it.”

Nivine Sandouka, the volunteer executive director of the NGO Our Rights, which advocates for the civic and political rights of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, agrees that the erasure of Arabic by right-wing activists is nothing new “by now it’s taken for granted.” However, she sees that the municipality’s approach to the Arabic language is not uniform. 

“You can’t deny that the municipality is adding more Arabic around the city,” she says, likely as a result of pressure from opposition voices within the city council. Often, however, the text being added “is not the [common] Arabic that is actually used.”

A clear case of this is when Israeli street signs read “Urshalim” rather than “al-Quds” as the Arabic name for Jerusalem. Sandouka also gives the example of Mount Scopus: Palestinians refer to the area as “a-Tala al-Faransiye” (the Arabic translation of French Hill), but the Arabic on street signs says “Har Hatsofim,” a direct transliteration of the Hebrew name into Arabic. 

‘Their agenda is the same’

According to Laura Wharton, the Meretz party’s representative on Jerusalem’s City Council, the attempts by right-wing activists to erase Arabic are “a disturbing reflection of what is happening all over the city with the rise of the extreme right.”

Arabic has been covered by black spray paint on a sign at a pedestrian crossing in Me’ah She’arim, Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)
Arabic has been covered by black spray paint on a sign at a pedestrian crossing in Me’ah She’arim, Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)

She notes that, even though the Otzma Yehudit party failed to cross the Knesset threshold in the last national election, its parallel in the Jerusalem municipality, the United faction, occupies two of the council’s 30 seats (Meretz occupies one). United’s leader, Arieh King, a settler activist whose stated ambition is the “Judaization” of Jerusalem, was recently appointed by the mayor to be one of his deputies.

The process of “Judaization” in the city has historically been focused on demography. In 1973, the Israeli government adopted the recommendations of the Gafni Commission, which was tasked with assessing the future development of Jerusalem. Based on the commission’s conclusions, the government has since sought to create and maintain a Jewish majority of at least 70 percent in the city — but without success.

Despite the expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, along with the constant threat of evictions and residency revocations for Palestinians, some estimates say that the Palestinian population in the city could reach 50 percent within the next 10 years. The route of the separation barrier — which cuts off several Palestinian neighborhoods located within the municipal boundaries — was one attempt by Israel to mitigate this inevitability. Further construction and potential annexation in areas like E1 are designed for the same purpose.

One manifestation of the extreme right’s power in the municipality is what Wharton characterizes as “the support given to the ultra-nationalist NGO Elad, which now runs the so-called City of David site in Silwan and aims at disappropriating and evicting Palestinian residents.”

Abu Rmeleh also sees developments in Silwan as illustrative. “Even where the court is saying houses can’t be demolished, the municipality is pushing for it in coordination with the settler organizations,” he says. “Their agenda is the same.”

‘Eliminating Palestinian identity’

While demography remains a key battleground, the erasure of Arabic across the city reveals a different kind of target: Palestinian identity. A central element of this campaign relates to the Palestinian school curriculum, which, as a function of the Oslo Accords, has been used in East Jerusalem since 2000 after it replaced the Jordanian curriculum. 

Sandouka explains that the municipality has been “increasing the pressure on schools that use the Palestinian curriculum, and attempting to make them adopt the Israeli curriculum.” In recent years this has involved offering extra funding to schools that make the switch, using a budget that is meant for all of East Jerusalem’s students regardless of which curriculum they use. Israeli authorities have even forced some schools that still teach the Palestinian curriculum to blank out certain pages from their textbooks relating to Palestinian history and society.

A Shas sticker covering Arabic on a street sign in the ultra-Orthodox Me’ah She’arim neighborhood, Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)
A Shas sticker covering Arabic on a street sign in the ultra-Orthodox Me’ah She’arim neighborhood, Jerusalem. (Ben Reiff)

“Arab students in the north follow the Israeli curriculum, so their Palestinian identity is not present anymore,” explains Sandouka. “This is exactly what the municipality is now trying to do in Jerusalem, too. It is another way of eliminating their Palestinian identity.”

Seidemann sees this goal mirrored in the Jerusalem section of Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” arguing that it further legitimizes Israel’s ambitions for the city. “The agenda of the Trump plan in Jerusalem is the same as that of the Jerusalem municipality: to de-nationalize East Jerusalem’s Palestinians,” he says.

An analysis written by Seidemann’s NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem notes that the Trump plan refers to Palestinians in Jerusalem only as “Arabs”, “residents,” and “Muslims,” thus inventing an alternate reality in which “a national Palestinian presence in the city vanishes.” As such, for Seidemann, “the people erasing Arabic on the city’s signs are simply carrying out that policy of marginalization.”

Limits of resistance

In Wharton’s eyes, the attempt by right-wing activists to erase Arabic across the city stems from two factors: “Some of the most upsetting and racist activities are in part ongoing manifestations of the deep problems developing out of Israel’s occupation, but others are a backlash against the successes of those of us who are working very hard to fight the injustices and promote equality and inclusion.”

Demonstrating this second factor, she points to the growing number of Jewish Jerusalemites starting to learn Arabic, the leap in Palestinian students at the Hebrew University, and an increase in joint Israeli-Palestinian cultural and sporting activities. The fact that all announcements and signs on the light rail are in Arabic as well as Hebrew and English is also held up as a success.

A sticker reading "The lives of our soldiers precede the lives of enemy civilians," likely from the Hardali movement Derech Haim, covering the Arabic on a sign at a light rail station in the Jerusalem city center. (Ben Reiff)
A sticker reading “The lives of our soldiers precede the lives of enemy civilians,” likely from the Hardali movement Derech Haim, covering the Arabic on a sign at a light rail station in the Jerusalem city center. (Ben Reiff)

Beyond these developments, there have been attempts by Palestinian and Israeli civil society to combat the erasure of Arabic in Jerusalem.

For example, in response to the Nation-State Law, the grassroots Jewish-Arab movement Standing Together (with which this author has been involved this year) presented a “bilingual certificate” to businesses whose services catered to the city’s Arabic-speaking population, and offered to translate menus for those that had previously used only Hebrew. A second phase of the project was launched this year in Tel Aviv, before the coronavirus pandemic put it on pause. Around 40 businesses in Jerusalem received the bilingual certificate.

Initiatives like this, however, remain limited in their ability to alter the prevailing conditions in Jerusalem. This particular project by Standing Together was in essence an internal Jewish affair, given that the movement’s local “circle” does not include many Palestinians though it does cooperate with Palestinian partners in East Jerusalem in various anti-occupation activities.

The few Palestinians who are members of the movement’s Jerusalem circle tend to be citizens of Israel from the north and students at the Hebrew University, and it is rare for Palestinian non-citizens from East Jerusalem to join. Carmel, one of the local activists, explains that this is a result of both Standing Together’s stance of organizing within the Green Line, and the fact that political organizing among Palestinian Jerusalemites has been aggressively repressed by the Israeli security forces.

All the while, the pervasive erasure of Arabic on street signs continues, illustrating the strength and confidence of the extreme right in Jerusalem — and the dangers they portend. Periodic “price tag” hate crimes in the city, including the burning of a mosque in Beit Safafa and the slashing of dozens of car tires in Shu’afat in the past few months, are an indication of this growing threat. With the concurrent rise in home demolitions, police violence, and annexation maneuvers, the right in government and the right on the streets are advancing hand in hand.