Jerusalem road sign
Jerusalem road sign public domain

While ministers are not known for their enthusiasm for membership in subcommittees – except for the “important” ones, like those sponsored by the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee – a relatively new subcommittee has proven very popular among ministers, and at a meeting earlier this week, far more than the three necessary to convene a meeting showed up at the Subcommittee for the Authorization of Place Names of the Knesset Names Committee. Nearly a dozen attended the meeting Tuesday, which began final deliberations on the spelling of place names on road signs on Israeli highways – and specifically, how Arabic names would be presented.

The subcommittee has been meeting for several months, discussing reform in Israeli highway signage. Local residents have complained that place names on signs are not uniform, leading to much confusion for drivers, while tourists say that the non-intuitive spellings on many signs – like 'Petah Tiqwa' – is different than the spellings that appear on maps. The subcommittee has discussed various protocols for proper spelling in Hebrew and English.

Now it's the turn of Arabic, which generally appears on road signs, along with Hebrew and English. At issue is not only the spelling of Arabic names – but their actual usage. This is the second meeting on the subject, which has proven to be one of the more difficult taken up by the group. The group has proven so popular, the ministers said, because they believe they are setting in place what will become a long-standing, even historic tradition that will be part of their legacy for decades - perhaps centuries - hence.

Basically, the question before the committee is whether historical Arabic place names will be used on highway signs, or whether the Hebrew name for a city or town will be transliterated into Arabic. For many places in Israel the issue is moot, because the names of those towns and cities – such as Rishon Lezion, Petach Tikvah, etc. - are strictly in Hebrew. But other places – particularly historically mixed cities, such as Jaffa, Haifa, Lod – and especially Jerusalem – are termed with different names by Arabic speakers.

Thus, Yaffo is the Hebrew name for Jaffa, while Arabs have historically the city “Yaffa.” The difference is subtle, but has proven enough of a concern for 13 ministers – nearly half the government – to maintain membership in the subcommittee.

Of most concern is Jerusalem – Yerushalayim in Hebrew – which is called “Ursalim” in Arabic. Most of the highway signs on Road 1, in fact, currently use Ursalim, adding in parentheses the term “al-Quds,” a translation of the Hebrew “Ir Hakodesh,” or Holy City. In traditional Jewish literature, Jerusalem is usually termed “Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh,” but the latter part of the term is not commonly used today by secular Jews. Meanwhile, the Arabic term “al-Quds” - really a copy of the Jewish term – has come to be used by anti-Israel groups, signifying an “Arabized” term for the city, and indicating Arab “ownership” of Jerusalem's history.

Transport Minister Yisrael Katz has proposed terming towns with a Jewish majority by its Hebrew name – which would be transliterated into Arabic – while places with Arab majorities would use the Arabic name and its transliterated Hebrew (and English) equivalent. That proposal is opposed by government minister Benny Begin, whose plan would keep the Arabic place names for towns that were in existence in May 1948 – before the establishment of the state. Any new town, Jewish or Arab, would have its current Hebrew name displayed on road signs, with transliteration into Arabic. Under both proposals, the issue of mixed cities - and especially of Jerusalem - would be taken up separately. Most of the ministers are said to be in favor of using "Yerushalayim" as the name of the city, to be transliterated into Arabic, and English as well.

Begin, chairman of the subcommittee, sought to have the group make a final decision on his proposal Tuesday. However, he appears to be opposed by most ministers – including Matan Vilna'i, the Deputy Defense Minister. Vilna'i's father was the famous Biblical archaeologist Ze'ev Viln'ai, who did much research on historical place names in Israel. Invoking his father's legacy, Vilna'i said that if Begin was interested in historical accuracy, “why go back only to 1948? If you go back further you will find that most of the Arabic place names are really based on Hebrew names.” As a result of the apparent opposition to his plan, Begin called off the vote, and the subcommittee will convene in the near future.