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How Israel erases Arabic from the public landscape

The Israeli government has begun omitting the Arabic name for Jerusalem from its street signs, erasing not only the language from the Israeli consciousness, but Palestinian identity itself.

By Umar Al-Ghubari

Driving towards Jerusalem on Highway 1, you may notice a relatively new phenomenon taking place on the road signs directing you to the city. Readers of Arabic will see that the name of Jerusalem in Arabic has undergone a change: the word in brackets, القدس, Al-Quds, which appeared there until very recently, no longer exists on the new signs that have recently been put up by the roadsides in those sections where highway’s recent expansion been completed.

The name of Jerusalem in modern Arabic is Al-Quds, which means “The Holy.” The root q-d-s [in Arabic] is similar to the root q-d-sh in Hebrew, and the name is derived from the city’s name “Beit El-Maqdis” which was in use even in the 7th century together with the Roman name Aelia [Capitolina]. The name Urshalīm appears in the Arabic version of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Partial translations of the New Testament into Arabic were begun as early as the 7th century. The first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Arabic was probably completed early in the 9th century by a Muslim cleric, but the most regarded and important translation is that of the Jewish philosopher Sayeed Alfayumi, better known by his Hebrew name, R. Saadia Gaon (882–942). Both Urshalīm and the Hebrew name Yerushalayīm most probably stem from the town’s Canaanite name, Rushalimom, or its Jebusite name Urusalima, from the third and second millennia before the common era.

An Israeli roadsign that omits Jerusalem's Arabic name ('Al-Quds'), instead using the Hebracized Urshalim.

An Israeli roadsign that omits Jerusalem’s Arabic name (‘Al-Quds’), instead using the Hebracized Urshalim.

The State of Israel, and the Zionist movement before that, have acted, and are still acting, to erase the Arabic names from the land and to replace them with Jewish–Hebrew names. The work of renaming was assigned to the government’s naming committee, established in 1950 as a successor of the “JNF Committee for Names of Settlements,” which was formed in 1925. The committee’s tasks include giving names to new towns, intersections and bypasses, parks, springs, streams, etc. Since its establishment the committee has determined thousands of new names. Although there are more methods than one for determining the names, the purpose is one: the Judaization of the land and the erasure of Arab identity from it and from the mind.

At times the committee has based its decision on names from historical Jewish sources — which it has revived — as in the case of Yerushalayīm [Jerusalem], Modi’in, Gezer, etc. It has also replaced Arabic names with names mentioned in the Jewish sources even if the difference between them is minor, as in Akko [Acre] instead of Akka, Yafo [Jaffa] instead of Yafa, and Tzora instead of the Arab village Sora’a (by the way, these names are not necessarily Jewish or Hebrew, they existed before the Israelites arrived in Canaan).

At times the committee translated the Arabic name into Hebrew, as in the case of Ayelet Hashaḥar, which is a literal translation of the Arabic name Najmat al-Subh. At other times the committee distorted Arabic names and replaced them with Hebrew names that were similar in form or sound, as in the case of Agur, named after the destroyed Palestinian village of Ajur, or Ein Limor instead of Eyn Al’amor.

On rare occasion, new Jewish towns, particularly those that were founded before the establishment of the State next to or on top of Arab villages, retained the Arabic name, as in Ja’ara, Sejera, Karkur, etc. At times names were invented following topical events, such as Kfar Daniel, named after the president of the Zionist Organization of America, Daniel Frisch – a name similar to that of the Arab village Daniyal, which existed in that place until it was captured in 1948.

An ultra-orthodox Jewish man walks in the depopulated Palestinian village of Lifta, located on the edge of West Jerusalem, Israel, March 4, 2014. During the Nakba, the residents of Lifta fled attacks by Zionist militias beginning in December 1947, resulting in the complete evacuation of the village by February 1948. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

An ultra-orthodox Jewish man walks in the depopulated Palestinian village of Lifta, located on the edge of West Jerusalem, Israel, March 4, 2014. During the Nakba, the residents of Lifta fled attacks by Zionist militias beginning in December 1947, resulting in the complete evacuation of the village by February 1948. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

The work of Judaizing and Hebraizing place names is still in full force. This is not about giving Hebrew names to new Jewish locales, but rater about erasing existing Arabic names and replacing them with Hebrew ones. Only a few years ago was Ablun junction turned into Avlayim junction. Another method that was invented was giving two names, one in Hebrew and one in Arabic, to the same place: Shaqib Alsalam/Segev Shalom, Tal’at ‘Aara/Ma’aleh ‘Eiron and Waḥat Alsalam/Neve Shalom.

This is actually a fraud, for in official state documents and in the list of settlements only the Hebrew name appears, and the Arabic version has no chance of surviving in in the shadow of the existing power relations between Hebrew and Arabic in the Jewish state. The Arabic names of these places will remain, at best, only in the minds and speech of the Arabs, and they will not be able to use them outside, in the Israeli sphere. They are meaningless on the official level, and in fact are completely unrecognized. Moreover, this entails humiliation and contempt for the Arabic language: it is marginal, it is disregarded, it is redundant, and it is also ineffective (Israel Post will not recognize these places unless their Hebrew name appears on the envelope).

In the case of Neve Shalom, it was the Arab and Jewish inhabitants of the village who chose the name. They chose a Hebrew name taken from a verse in the book of Isaiah: “And my people shall live in an abode of peace and in secure dwellings” (32.18), and translated it into Arabic. In this case the Hebrew is the original and the Arabic is secondary, despite the fact that this village, in contrast to the State of Israel, is bi-national and is meant to have full equality between its two peoples and their languages. When the inhabitants sought to officially register their village’s name, their request was rejected on the grounds that four words was too long and complicated, and they had to make do with two. Those submitting the request didn’t have the courage to insist on the full name, or, as an act of protest and reform, to make the two words Waḥat Alsalam, or to choose a new name. Here too the Judaizing instinct won out, and the name Neve Shalom — without the Arabic — has become the official and dominant name of the bi-lingual and bi-national village.

As for Jerusalem, the State of Israel determined that the Holy City’s name in Arabic would not remain solely Al-Quds, as Arabs call it, but that it would be preceded by the ancient name Urshalīm, which parallels the name Yerushalayīm. The word Al-Quds, however, would appear in parentheses. Thus the name in Israeli Arabic became (أورشليم (القدس – Urshalīm (Alquds). Official Israeli spokespeople who spoke to the Arab public or to the Arabic media remonstratively forced the Israeli invention on Arab ears and called the city Urshalīm-Alquds, in a single breath. The Israel Broadcasting Authority did this too: in each newscast in Arabic on the radio and the television the newsreaders made sure to remind Arab listeners and viewers that the broadcast was coming from “Urshalīm Al-Quds.”

An Israeli road sign that includes Jerusalem's Arabic name, Al-Quds, in parenthesis.

An Israeli road sign that includes Jerusalem’s Arabic name, Al-Quds, in parenthesis.

The trampling of the Arabic name of Al-Quds and its subordination to its new name is an aggressive act for the conquest of the public mind, complementing the physical conquest of the city and the dispossession it entails. The signs with the distorted or new name make the power relations clear. The signs aim to establish facts on the ground, in the language, and in the mind. We Palestinians pass impotently by the signs stuck in our country. The Jerusalem signs — and other signs throughout the country — stand remonstratively in our faces all the time. They are always there so as to embody and remind us of our defeat. They’re there to hurt. One can’t evade them. We’re attacked and besieged by these Judaized signs.

Zionism has succeeded in creating an environment hostile to Palestinians. In almost every place in the country they want us to feel foreign. This is not your country, this is the country of the Jews – the signs report to us. Our feeling is that we’re in a constant struggle for our consciousness. Our struggle, then, is not only against the rulers, but also against the signs. It is no coincidence that these two words in Hebrew developed from the same root [sh-l-t].

Because of all this, there exists Palestinian resistance — covert and overt, conscious and unconscious — against the signage. We don’t say, and we refuse to say “ana min Urshalīm” or “ana min Yafo.” In a normal situation it is normal for a Palestinian to say “ana min Al-Quds,” but in the Jewish state this is a part of our self defense, a part of resistance, a part of war. At any given moment we are in a national struggle. This specific struggle, however, does not manifest against the establishment, since the our chances are frail. Our struggle is to preserve our consciousness, our memory, our language and our names, at least within ourselves.

On this level there have been successes: the second and third generations of the Nakba come out against the attempts to annihilate their national identity; a spontaneous national refusal front is taking shape against the Hebrew namings. There is a popular awakening for revivification of the names of the villages that the State of Israel erased from the face of the earth and expelled their inhabitants 67 years ago. Today, in comparison the situation two decades ago, for example, more and more people know where al-Jauna, Mi’aar, Dayr al-Qasi, Amuas and Saḥmama are, even though these villages no longer exist and do not appear on the Israeli maps.

These particular successes may bring about momentary feelings of triumph and empowerment, but they can also heighten the frustration we feel because they do not find expression in the real world. We haven’t managed to change even one sign, and we won’t manage to receive even a single letter in the mail to the Arabic place-name that the state has eliminated. Here one could quote Ben-Gurion, who said, “It doesn’t matter what the Arabs say, what matters is what the Jews do.” But the daily reality that the State of Israel has created is bigger than us – it forces us to use the Hebrew names. A Palestinian from al-Jish in Upper Galilee will have to write on his university application that he is from Gush Ḥalav; a young woman from Kafr Musmus will not receive a parcel in the mail if she doesn’t write that she lives in Ma’aleh Eiron; Palestinians from Yafa, Akka, and Ḥeifa will be resigned to inform their refugee relatives in Beirut or Gaza that their home is now on Zionism Street or Etzel Street. In this way the state constrains us to take part in the erasure of our identity with our own hands.

This practice of erasure is enough to help one understand the sources of Palestinian anger and the underlying causes of the uprising. Unlike us, most Israelis are blind to the fact of systematic erasure of Palestinian identity from the public space; moreover, they’re even part of the system. Hebrew speakers won’t notice the distortion, will quickly adopt the Hebrew names and will identify with them, and thus become active players in the process of linguistic cleansing that complements the acts of ethnic cleansing. To a Palestinian this is painful, to an Israeli it’s simply identity. To a Palestinian it is continuation of the trauma, to an Israeli it has become a norm. This is how the State of Israel has created an ongoing Nakba, which includes a linguistic Nakba.

It seems that the Israeli “etchers of consciousness” are not satisfied with the results attained so far in the Judaization of the public space. So, as they are wont to do, they mobilize more forces, more escalation. A change in the status quo of Jerusalem has begun through the signage: the name Al-Quds (القدس) has been erased, and only Urshalīm (أورشليم) remains. This is a change that goes another step in severity in the policy of rule and erasure of memory, a step up in the erasure of the city’s Palestinian identity. If throughout the previous period the combined name gave the impression that perhaps there is still an Arab presence in the city, the new name aims to say that the city is Jewish only.

The author is a group counselor, a political educator and is documenting the Palestinian Nakba. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. It was translated from Hebrew by Richard Flantz.

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