Critical Currents: Israel's mixed (road) signals

Israel's road can drive even the most placid into uncontrollable fits of road rage.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The summer, especially August, is when Israelis - along with tens of thousands of visitors - take to the roads. They tour the country, explore its wondrous sites, discover its amazing diversity and venture into the streets and hidden alleys of its cities. They rely, even more than normally, on road signs of various colors, shapes, sizes and languages for instructions, guidance and directions. These provide, more than one can imagine, a window into the habits, predilections, culture, temperament and, above all, politics, of the country. A closer look highlights not only the anomalies of road signs, but also their absurdities and inequities. These mirror a mixture of disorder, inconsistency and lack of sensitivity that can drive even the most placid into uncontrollable fits of road rage. Their use of language is simultaneously unwelcoming and unnecessarily arrogant. To make matters worse, the newly installed minister of transportation, Yisrael Katz, now threatens to fill the roads with signs that use only the Hebrew place names for locations which have had their English and Arabic equivalents for centuries if not millennia. BEFORE HE ventures forth on another foolhardy, costly and flauntingly nationalistic escapade, he would do well to apply some common sense to correct the near chaos which greets travelers today. Some signs are designed to give critical driving instructions. Most of these consist of internationally recognized symbols - usually painted in white, red and/or blue - from stop signs or placards prohibiting entry or parking, to numbers indicating speed limits. Some of these are amusingly unique - for example the camel warnings throughout the South or the deer signs in the North. But the truly important guidelines are written on small, often bent, pieces of yellow-painted metal which tell drivers that an exit is approaching or that it is necessary to significantly slow down for safety's sake. The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway is full of such signs. A few are written in all three languages; others appear only in Hebrew. All the signs that warn that camera surveillance is in operation cannot be understood by anyone who is not fully literate in Hebrew. The police must have a heyday with Arabic-speaking citizens or with unsuspecting tourists. The orange signs are the worst offenders in this regard. Without exception they are designed for Hebrew-speakers alone, since presumably only they have any interest in the fact that the road section ahead has no shoulders; that they must be prepared for trucks merging from the left; or that, indeed, they should follow the orange lines where roadwork is taking place. The verbal, unstandardized, often inscrutable yellow and orange boards are unquestionably ineffective; they are also probably dangerous. But they are not, like their generally larger and more ubiquitous green and blue counterparts, devised to give directions to particular locations, also either confounding or thoroughly misleading. For the past year, Jewish, Muslim and Christian Jerusalemites have been confronted by the most curious signs pointing to specific neighborhoods in the city. Although residents of Rehavia and Talbiyeh have been exempt, those living in Katamon have to look for the parentheses after Gonen to see that they are nearing home. People who live in Katamon Het or Tet (usually dubbed the Katamonim) have discovered that they, too, reside in the venerable Katamon - even though the services they enjoy and the real estate prices they command remind them constantly that they are kilometers away from that upscale neighborhood. THE SITUATION is even worse for anyone looking for the German Colony, known as HaMoshava HaGermanit (capitalization in the original) in city hall circles. The same holds true for the Greek Colony, whose location is heralded by big signs announcing HaMoshava HaYevanit (with the same odd penchant for capital letters in mid-word). Probably the most egregious example of this combination of ignorance and incompetence is French Hill - originally mistranslated into Hebrew to represent the country rather than the British colonel - and now transliterated yet again into English as HaGivah HaTsorfatit. It is hardly surprising that visitors to Jerusalem frequently appear bewildered. The clarity of directional signs on the country's main highways is not much better. Mercifully, the big letters heralding Natbag (the transliteration of the Hebrew acronym for Ben-Gurion Airport) have now been erased. Anyone looking for the main port of entry into the country should just follow the signs to Ben-Gurion (the place, not the person). Finding Caesarea may be more difficult. A hint: To arrive at the ancient Roman stronghold look for signs announcing Qeyssarya. For reasons unknown, the Kibbutz Galuyot exit on Ayalon Freeway has been abbreviated to K. Galuyot (clearly not a shortened version of some unknown person or a cooperative settlement, but just a gesture in the direction of the ingathering of the exiles). Things get even touchier when place names are purposefully loaded politically. In these instances signs have become symbols for expropriation, mental repossession or physical takeover. Several months ago all the Arabic script on street signs in the Talbiyeh quarter of Jerusalem was blanked out by Jewish extremists. It has been restored not by city officials, but by private citizens who were upset by the implications of this linguistic manipulation. The renaming of places nevertheless is everywhere apparent. Nazareth has become Natzrat. Bethlehem is not accessible to Israelis, but pilgrims should be advised that if they want to visit the Church of the Nativity they should follow directions to Beit Lehem. Finding Nablus is more complicated - signs to Schem will show the way. The name game is far from haphazard. If it appears bizarre in English, in Arabic it is even more pronounced. It is meant to convey Israeli ownership. And, if Yisrael Katz has his way, then only Hebrew names will appear in both Arabic and English lettering. Al-Kuds and Jerusalem will henceforth become Yerushalayim. This would all be quite comic if it weren't such a sad display of hubris combined with insecurity. The imposition of one's own language and pronunciation on universally acclaimed places and holy sites is an act of offensive - if nonphysical - aggression. Ironically, this propensity has backfired. The founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, would hardly recognize himself on Israel's thoroughfares. He is depicted as Herzel, Hertsel, Hertzel, Hertsl, but rarely by his own name, Herzl. Those who purposefully tamper with names try to obliterate identities, historical associations, cultural attributes and collective dignity. Israel's road signs are symptomatic of such petty, misguided and misleading folly. Because these signs make no attempt to understand the other, they prevent the other from understanding. Since they don't take the Arabic-speaker or the foreigner into account, they constantly misdirect them on their way. But, by trying to erase the other, they also distort their creators. Signs which instruct, direct and respect all this country's fellow travelers in their own tongue can go a long way to ensuring human security both on the roads and in people's minds.n