How Language Divides The Holiest City On Earth.

Hebrew, Arabic, English – and that’s just for starters. Jerusalem is demarcated by the use and misuse of language.

11798409_10207324844898826_1395947977_nThrough the patchy red spray paint daubed across the otherwise ornate tiles, it’s possible to just about pick out English characters. A ‘Q’ here, a ‘K’ there. The Hebrew characters above are even less decipherable. The Arabic characters in the centre of the sign, however, are unblemished. Save for where the spray paint has dripped from above, tracing little red scar lines down.


This is Qanater Khudair street, within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The sign indicating as such, whilst once trilingual, is now monolingual. 

At one time, Jerusalem itself was trilingual. During the first half of the twentieth century the British Empire extended its jurisdiction to what was then the ‘mandate of Palestine’, carved from the remains of the then-crumbling Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The bulk of the mandate of Palestine is now better known as Israel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Under British rule, article 82 of the ‘Palestine Order in Council’ stated;

‘All Ordinances, official notices and official forms of the Government and all official notices by local authorities and municipalities in areas to be prescribed by order of the High Commissioner, shall be published in English, Arabic and Hebrew.’

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An Arab area in the Old City of Jerusalem
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An Jewish area in the Old City of Jerusalem

Article 82 remains the basis for the status of Hebrew and Arabic as official languages, as the State of Israel adopted the law when it succeeded the governance of the British Mandate. In the process of adoption, however, the requirement for the use of English was repealed. As a result of this, Hebrew and Arabic were ‘inherited’ as official languages. Yet despite no longer being an official language, English is common on signs in more international areas, and is widely spoken to varying degrees.

But whilst many official and tourist signs are trilingual, the use of language across the city is inconsistent and is often used to mark boundaries of collective identities. In the predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem and parts of the Old City, spoken and written Arabic prevails. From market sellers crying out ’hamza shekel, hamza shekel!’, their stalls adorned with fluorescent card covered in cursive script, to small recitations and verses from the Qu’ran pasted to shop doorways and the prayers of the muezzin echoing from the minaret during the call to prayer.

But not more than a kilometre away simmers the hustle and bustle of Jaffa street, a distinctly more Israeli area of the city. Here Hebrew characters are predominant, with a smattering of English thrown in. The voices heard on Jaffa street are often Hebrew; but American, European, and Asian accents are not uncommon either. The defacing of the sign for Qanater Khudair street is clear; this is an Arab area. Whilst West Jerusalem feels more ‘western’ and ‘multicultural’, the diminished presence of Arabic in relation to English also sends strong signals about the intended clientele. The fact that the announcements on the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR) for much of the route are trilingual, yet are only in Hebrew for the stops of Shivtei Israel and Shim’on Ha’Tsadik speaks volumes. Picking and choosing languages in this fashion is discomforting, yet benign; few Palestinian residents of Jerusalem would have much reason to venture in to the Mea Shearim neighbourhood opposite the Shivtei Israel stop. Yet, there are other uses of language which could easily become more dangerous.

As the heavy steel door of the building slammed shut behind us, a siren began to wail.

I glanced at my colleague, puzzled. We had both been working in the Beit Hanina, Al Dahye neighbourhood for several months at this point. We had seen a lot of strange and wonderful things, but had never heard such a piercing siren. As we continued in to the office, a harsh insistent buzzing blared from mobile phones. ‘EMERGENCY WARNING‘ read the screens, above a block of text in Hebrew. 10408578_1005680336110076_6501486352203278749_nBewildered, I asked my Palestinian colleagues what was happening. Their responses were all remarkably calm. ‘Oh, my Mom said the Jewish are having a festival, maybe it’s something to do with that?’ replied one. Unable to read Hebrew that well, most of them simply disregarded the message.

It was only when we turned to Twitter that we discovered that the Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) Home Front Command was holding a simulated missile strike drill; the ‘EMERGENCY WARNING’ was sent out by the IDF to pre-warn of such an event. Whilst an emergency SMS seems like a great idea, the fact that it was only in Hebrew does seem deeply concerning; Rockets do not discriminate between Hebrew and Arabic speakers*.

The phenomenon of language purging in this fashion is not exclusive to Jerusalem though; it also occurs in the occupied territories. A sign pointing the way to an Israeli settlement within the West Bank, Yizhar, has black paint daubed across the Arabic text, with the Hebrew for ‘revenge’ spray painted on in its place. 

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Photo by Adar Cohen. From http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel/.premium-1.612357

But the opposition to language goes beyond simple vandalism. Repeated attempts have been made to remove Arabic as an official language of the State of Israel. In 2014, right-wing Knesset Members (MK’s) from the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home), Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), and Likud parties submitted a draft bill which sought to annul the law maintaining Arabic as an official language. Ha’aretz reported that the MK’s believed this would ‘contribute to social solidarity’ and help ‘build the collective identity necessary for fostering mutual trust in society’. For these MK’s, the relegation of Arabic from an official language to one of ‘special class’ would help create a cohesive Israeli identity (albeit an intrinsically Jewish one), and is only achievable because of Hebrew’s status as the dominant language. The process by which this identity construction would occur, however, is unclear, especially in a society in which language, identity, and difference are so tightly entwined. Initiatives to remove Arabic as an official language through legislation is the privilege of the Hebrew speaking majority (a 2011 Government Social Survey found 49% of Israelis reporting Hebrew as their native language, whilst only 18% stated Arabic). As such Palestinian resistance to what some see as a ‘linguistic occupation’ is of a more asymmetrical nature. One such initiative has seen stickers pasted on walls, floors, and windows across the East of the city. There are various permutations of these stickers, but they all share a common goal: highlighting the causal adoption of Hebrew words in to Arabic speech. For example, one states ‘We say in Arabic “hajez” (Barrier), not ‘mahsom’ (the Hebrew equivalent)’.

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‘We say in Arabic “tahweeleh” (referral), not “thaifot”‘

In a city in which identity, language, and culture is so tightly entwined, do either of these initiatives represent a pragmatic way forward? A certain amount of linguistic assimilation is inevitable in cultures living toe to toe; does resisting this process serve to usefully reinforce an identity? Conversely the removal of an official language, which is bound tightly to sensitive historical and geopolitical considerations, in order to consolidate a dominant Hebrew identity could be easily construed as an attempt to homogenise the land. 

Unfortunately, some seek to fulfil this agenda through more violent means. Recently two young men were convicted on charges of arson following the burning of a classroom of the ‘Hand in Hand’ Hebrew-Arabic bilingual school in Jerusalem. Emergency Responders found anti-Arab graffiti, reading ‘death to Arabs’ and ‘there is no coexistence with cancer’, daubed on the walls of the building. The two men are members of the Jewish far-right anti-assimilation group Lehava, whose activities include ‘demonstrating against the employment of Arabs, excursions to prevent assimilation along with activists armed with a knuckleduster and a chain, and dissuasion of Jewish men and women from having contact with gentiles’. Following their sentencing, the unrepentant convicted arsonists described their actions as ‘worth the price’ and then ‘burst in to song’.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXiU2DSK2o0 This article was updated on 5th of August to add additional information about the announcements on the Jerusalem Light Rail.

*Disclaimer: I do not know if the policy of sending out warning SMS messages in Hebrew is a widespread policy. It may be that in some areas, Arabic messages are sent also. However, I can express what I saw from the experience detailed above: All of the Palestinians in the office I was in received these messages, and they were all in Hebrew.

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One thought on “How Language Divides The Holiest City On Earth.

  1. I’m returning from a trip in Israel and I, too, saw signs sprayed out like you did. It was a lot more common in Jerusalem and other inland areas, but almost absent in Tel Aviv. Still, a sign that doesn’t bode well for the future.

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