“You are above the Crusader port. From here you can see other port cities from the Crusader era: Jaffa to the south and Caesarea to the north.” The nice explanatory sign, made to resemble the shield of a Roman soldier, with a silvery metallic background, is located at the Apollonia National Park (Tel Arsuf) overlooking the Mediterranean Sea at the northern end of Herzilya.
The sign is written in two languages: Hebrew and English. The same goes for all the other explanatory signs at the site. Warning signs – those telling you not to leave the paths, not to step on the antiquities or to avoid, if possible, falling off the cliff – are written in Hebrew, English and Arabic.
The managers of the national parks and nature sites seem to think that Arabic speakers are more interested in safety warnings that in content. According to the signage, it seems that history is less interesting than words of caution.
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An hour and a half drive north of Apollonia is Gan Hashlosha (Sahne) National Park – one of the most popular attractions in Israel – which has dozens of signs. All the warning signs, especially those that requesting visitors not to jump into the water and not to drown, appear in the three languages: Hebrew, English and Arabic. The ones that provide explanations, like about the ancient flour mill alongside the natural pool where thousands of visitors swim every day, are written only in Hebrew. The sign tells us, in Hebrew only, that the mill is the only one of its kind in Israel – but non-Hebrew speakers would never know it.
Gan Hashlosha also has an interesting archeological museum, which boasts at the entrance – in three languages – that it is officially recognized by Education and Sport and Culture ministries. But inside the museum itself, almost all of the signs are only in Hebrew and English.
Many similar examples can be found at other historical sites and recreation spots – some of which are national parks and others forest and nature sites established and run by the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael). If we had expanded our investigation to municipal parks, too, the results would have been even more bleak.
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One instance that stands out among the many is Horvat Tinshemet (Barn Owl Ruins) in Shoham Forest Park. Fascinating archeological finds, including a large mosaic and remnants of a Byzantine-era church, have been uncovered there. The site is wonderfully signposted – with attractive illustrations and clear explanations– but all of them are only in Hebrew. A few of the signs have an English text alongside the Hebrew. Arabic is not a very useful language here.
Next to the large mosaic is an audio station where visitors can press a button and listen to experts talk about the history of the site. The choice is between Hebrew, easy Hebrew and English. Arabic speakers are unable to receive an educated explanation.
Not far from there stands the impressive Mazor Mausoleum, a beautiful 2,000-year-old Roman building. Next to it are two signs. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority sign has explanations in three languages. The other sign, which was put up by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and explains that the site is on the Israel National Trail, is only in Hebrew.
Just a little farther north, near the Baptist Village, the JNF has put up a number of signs along the Yarkon River. Here things are truly confusing. A few of the signs have explanations in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Others are only in Hebrew. The warning signs – No fishing, for example – also have Russian along with the other three languages.
Hanan Marjieh is a lawyer who conducted a survey into the use of Arabic on national park signage for the Shared Public Space project of Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality. “We examined the situation of the signposting and directions in 13 large and important national parks. We examined the level of presence of the Arabic language,” Marjieh told Haaretz. “The clear conclusion was that the situation was not consistent and not good. All the warning signs appear in the two languages, Hebrew and Arabic, but the signs with information almost always appear only in Hebrew.”
Marjieh says that the Nature and Parks Authority has been making efforts lately to make national parks accessible to the Arab community and has even launched a new website to invite Arabs to visit the national parks. “It’s a good thing but it’s not enough to market the sites to Arabs,” she says.
“We, Arabic speakers, come to the parks and in the end discover that a great deal of the information is not accessible to us,” she says. “After all, the target audience is the children, and regretfully they are not fluent enough in Hebrew. The same goes for the elderly audience. When they see informational signs only in Hebrew they feel a sense of foreignness and a lack of belonging. The regrettable result is that they will not come to these parks again. As a girl, I grew up and was educated in the Galilee. I visited Tzipori with my class – an important and interesting national park. I remember quite well the frustration that there were no signs in Arabic there.”
Today, too, there are still no informational signs in Arabic at Tzipori National Park.
The number of Arabs who visit national parks has increased significantly in recent years, and this rise calls for a way to allow Arabic speakers to understand the historical and archeological background at these sites, says Marjieh. This would send the Arab community a message of inclusion. Another aspect she raises concerns Hebrew speakers: The more Arabic is present in the public space, the more it will become, in the eyes of Hebrew speakers, an integral part of the public space.
“Our main claim is that in addition to a lack of accessibility, it is the right of visitors from the Arab community to receive information in their native language, the native language of 20 percent of the population of Israel,” says Marjieh.
She adds that the signs at national parks should be replaced, and Arabic should be added wherever it’s missing. She believes that such a step could send an inviting message: “A visit to the national parks is part of an educational experience and not just entertainment. It is a right of Arab society and the obligation of the state in which every fifth citizen is an Arab.”
Sikkuy’s survey found two national parks that excelled in providing information in Arabic: The En Afek Nature Reserve and Mount Carmel National Park and Nature Reserve. Other sites were much more problematic and the signs there were a mixed bag. In addition, many sites have park maps and guides available at the entrance, but most of them do not have Arabic versions.
Marjieh does not want to comment at all on JNF sites. The survey focused on national parks, which are funded by the government. “We have nothing to do with the JNF,” she says. A random sampling of a few JNF sites found that most have no signs in Arabic at all – but mostly that there is no consistency.
At the entrance of Tel Hadid, near Ben Shemen Forest, there is a sign with safety instructions in three languages. The site itself has a sign in Hebrew only which explains that the ancient city of Hadid was identified as the Arab village of al-Haditha. Hadid became important during the wars of the Maccabees in the second century B.C.E. for controlling a strategic crossroads for the cities of Judea and Jerusalem. An Arab family was picnicking next to the sign. From the top of the hill one could see the Tel Aviv metropolitan area below. Everyone was having a great time, smiling and relaxing. The sign was the least of their concerns.
The Nature and Parks Authority said that for years, their policy has been to display signs in three languages: Hebrew, English and Arabic.
Anat Gold, the director of the JNF’s planning division, admits that the organization does not have a definitive policy concerning signage. The management is now working on developing a unified method of signposting that will include content, format and location of the signs. This is a long process that will take a number of years, says Gold. “We need to examine who is the audience. In a broad organization such as the JNF it is complex, and patience is necessary.”
Out of the dozens of signs in Shoham Forest Park, one is in Arabic. The eastern section of the Yarkon has quite a number of informational signs in three languages, but a few are in Hebrew only. It’s needless to attribute this to any orders from above. There is no way to understand why the restored winding stream deserves an explanation in Arabic, while a sign with the history of the so-called Concrete House nearby appears only in Hebrew and English.
An attempt to understand whether the signage policy has political and national motives finds no answer. The feeling is that it is more of a big mess than a targeted policy with clear goals. Lack of consideration and disrespect for the Arabic-speaking community sounds like a much more reasonable explanation. No one would have forgotten to place an explanation in Hebrew there, and English inspires us with a feeling of international respect. Arabic, it turns out, is not critical.