JERUSALEM, July 14, 2009 — -- Yisrael Katz, Israel's new right-wing minister of transport, has revealed a plan to change the names of more than 2,500 road signs, doing away with Arabic place names and replacing them with simple translations of Hebrew names. He says the system needs to be simplified and made clearer for the country's drivers.
But this is Israel, home to both Jews and Arabs, so the plan has sparked a firestorm of protest and accusations of discrimination against the country's Arab minority.
"The lack of uniform spelling on signs has been a problem for those speaking foreign languages, citizens and tourists alike," transport ministry spokesman Yeshaayahu Ronen said.
But angry Arab Israelis accuse the ministry of trying to erase their cultural identity. Many places inside Israel have two different names, one Arabic, the other Hebrew. Perhaps the most famous example is Jerusalem itself: it is al-Quds to Arabs, Yerushalayim to Jews.
And, then, there's historic Nazareth. Arabs call it al-Nasra, Jews Natsrat. Up until now, both names have appeared on road signs, a recognition of Israel's ethnic diversity. Under the plan, only the Hebrew names would appear, in both languages -- the Arabic version would be a simple transliteration of the Hebrew name.
Arab members of the Israeli parliament were quick to take offence. Ahmad Tibi from the United Arab List said, "Minister Katz is mistaken if he thinks that changing a few words can erase the existence of the Arab people or their connection to Israel."
Israel's Arab community makes up 20 percent of the country's population and many have long perceived of themselves as second-class citizens. Tension has grown with the participation in the latest government of the ultra nationalist Jewish party "Israel Our Home," led by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.
He campaigned on a platform of demanding greater loyalty from Israeli Arabs, threatening to remove their citizenship if they refused to swear an oath of allegiance.
Despite threats from Arabs to take the road sign matter to the Supreme Court, the transport ministry claimed the criticism was from a fringe minority only.
Collaborating With 'Palestinian Propaganda'
The minister's own communications advisor, Barak Sari, said criticism was an "attempt by anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist elements to annul Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Anyone willing to refer to Jerusalem as al-Quds is collaborating with the Palestinian propaganda."