Graffiti War Erupts Over Israel’s Road Signs

‘It’s a Public Service,’ Says an Activist With Arabic Stickers

What’s In A Name? After ultra-nationalists painted over Arabic lettering on this Jerusalem street sign, a new group of vigilantes restored it.
DANIEL ESTRIN
What’s In A Name? After ultra-nationalists painted over Arabic lettering on this Jerusalem street sign, a new group of vigilantes restored it.

By Daniel Estrin

Published July 08, 2009, issue of July 17, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On a recent night in this ethnically divided city, an Israeli and two American Jews patrolled the streets, armed with a ladder, adhesive spray and a pile of handwritten placards. Every few minutes, they hopped out of the car, slapped a sticker onto a road sign and snapped a picture.

Their operation, which has taken place four times since May, is aimed at countering ultra-nationalist vandals who had defaced the Arabic lettering on Jerusalem’s street signs. Over that vandalism, the new vigilantes, with a more pluralist vision of Israel, have put up stickers with large, flowing Arabic calligraphy spelling out the street’s name.

“It’s a public service,” said Romy Achituv, the Israeli behind the wheel, before speeding off to the next sign on the checklist.

So far, the “maintenance group,” as they call themselves, has gone out four times at night and attended to around 50 signs. The $100 or so that this has cost has come from their own pockets.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing graffiti war that has transformed Israel’s road signs into ideological battlefields. The conflict began in 1999, when an Israeli court ordered Arab-Jewish cities to include Arabic translations on street signs in addition to Hebrew and English. In the years since that order, anti-Arabic vandalism has appeared in mixed cities, such as Akko, as well as on highway signs throughout the country — but it is said to be most prominent in Jerusalem. There, residents have grown used to the Arabic translations of “Jehosaphat Street” or “Slow” being blotted out by black spray paint or covered up in ultra-nationalist bumper stickers.

Signs of Conflict: A group has placed stickers with florid Arabic calligraphy on Israeli street signs that had been vandalized.
DANIEL ESTRIN
Signs of Conflict: A group has placed stickers with florid Arabic calligraphy on Israeli street signs that had been vandalized.

“In Jerusalem, you have a lot of nationalists who do not accept the very existence of Arabs,” said Sammy Smooha, an Israeli political sociologist at the University of Haifa. “Arabic signs give them the feeling of binationalism, that the Jews have no exclusive monopoly on the town.” Achituv and others on his team contend that Israeli authorities have been uninterested in dealing with the defacing of the Arabic signs.

“The police are not working against this phenomenon,” said Abber Baker, who is an attorney with Adalah, an Arab rights group that petitioned for the Arabic lettering on street signs. “People are not deterred, because there is no accountability. It is never reported as a big issue we need to fight as a state matter.”

Besides the anti-Arab messaging implied in the vandalism, the covered-up Arabic poses a very practical problem for taxi drivers like Muhammed Dabash.

“When I need to take a passenger somewhere, I read the Arabic on the street signs,” Dabash told the Forward.

A Jerusalem policewoman patrolling near a sign pointing to Tel Aviv on which the Arabic had been marked out said she had not noticed the vandalism and that she was not responsible for dealing with such incidents. Stephen Miller, spokesman for Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, said the city was working to improve its handling of graffiti and other sanitation issues.

“In a city of 800,000, there’s going to be graffiti,” Miller contended, adding that the vandalized road signs are “isolated incidents.”

The vigilante effort to fix what the municipality had not was initiated by Ilana Sichel, who became bothered by the extremist graffiti while spending the year in Jerusalem on a social justice fellowship given by the New Israel Fund and Shatil. Sichel enlisted the help of Josh Berer, a New Israel Fund fellow who previously studied traditional Arabic calligraphy in Yemen, to write the Arabic placards.

“This is fundamentally an issue of decency and neighborliness,” Sichel said.

The initiative is independent of the New Israel Fund, but Vered Nuriel-Porat, the Israeli coordinator of the New Israel Fund fellows, praised the project.

“We’re talking about equality and talking about respecting different cultures,” she said. “The strength of these fellows is just amazing, to keep on doing this.”

Sichel and her crew have made repeated trips to some signs after some of their stickers were ripped off. In one instance, they found a road sign that had been completely cleaned, with no trace of any kind of graffiti or stickers, theirs included. Sichel thought it might have been the municipality, but when she reported to a left-wing activist e-mail list what had happened, a fellow vigilante named Udi replied that he was the one who restored the street signs to their original look.

“I really think you are mistaken,” Sichel wrote in a polite but impassioned e-mail exchange in which she argued that erasing all traces of graffiti hid the real problem. Udi countered that cleaning the street signs was the ultimate goal.

On another front, the group asked the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish research institution that operates a religious high school, to patrol its own vandalized road sign after Sichel reaffixed the Arabic sticker on the sign for the fourth time.

In the meantime, the vigilante maintenance crew invites visitors to Jerusalem to catch a glimpse of the Arabic calligraphy adorning the city’s street signs while they can. It is likely to be a temporary exhibit.

Contact Daniel Estrin at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.