Many Israelis feel frustrated with their inability to communicate with their Palestinian neighbors in Arabic. But now they have a chance to practice their salaam aleikums at any Jerusalem tram stop.
Citypass, Jerusalem’s light rail operator, has declared the first week of July “the Arabic language week on the light rail.” Signs explaining the Arabic equivalent of “validate your ticket” and “have a safe ride” have been placed at stops along the tram’s red line, which stretches from Yad Vashem in the southwest to Pisgat Ze’ev in the northeast. Passengers can also register for free colloquial Arabic lessons at the company’s service center downtown, to better understand the Arabic pamphlets handed out by ticket conductors throughout the week.
In Jerusalem’s largely segregated public-transportation system, the tram already stands out as a binational and bilingual oasis. With three stops in Arab East Jerusalem, the tram has become an essential means of transport for the city’s 330,000 Arab residents, who comprise 37 percent of Jerusalem’s total population.
Unlike the national rail system and Jerusalem’s bus service, stop names are announced in Arabic on the tram, as well as in Hebrew and in English. That’s not self-evident. In 2011, member of Knesset Lia Shemtov of Yisrael Beiteinu demanded that Arabic be removed from the trams, arguing that “united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state. Why instate this precedent now?” City Hall rebuffed her claim, saying that “the light rail serves all Jerusalem residents, Jews and Arabs alike.”
“We thought it would be nice to expose the Jewish public to the Arabic language,” said Yaron Ravid, CEO of Citypass. “We employ people from East Jerusalem both in operations and maintenance, and make an effort to reach out to the Arab community.”
Ravid said his company goes to great lengths to make information accessible to passengers in Arabic on its website and Facebook page, trying to cater to the special needs of Muslim residents.
“On Ramadan we put our trams at the disposal of worshipers on Temple Mount,” he said. “On Thursday evenings throughout that month our employees distributed dates and water at our stops. We do nice things.”
Vida, a veiled woman from the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Ghosh working in Citypass’ customer service, said she was excited about her language being celebrated on the streets of West Jerusalem.
“It will do a lot for Arab-Jewish coexistence in Jerusalem,” she opined. “Today we have ticket conductors who speak both Arabic and Hebrew, so people on the train don’t face any language barrier.”
Like the rest of Jerusalem, the light rail has also suffered from political violence in recent years. During riots following the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir by Jewish terrorists in July 2014, three East Jerusalem stops were vandalized and set aflame. Arab residents sporadically hurl stones and Molotov cocktails at trams traveling through the neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina, often halting service across town. Most recently, in April 2017, visiting British student Hannah Bladon was stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist.
But at the Arabic-language-week launch at Davidka Square the atmosphere was festive. A teenager dressed in a lion costume—the city’s symbol—was handing out ice pops to passersby, as a musical group played traditional Palestinian music outside the company’s main service center.
“Jerusalem has experienced difficult times, but contrary to its public image, Jerusalemites really believe in the value of tolerance,” said Hagai Agmon-Snir, director of the Jerusalem Intercultural Center on Mount Zion, whose Arabic teachers will offer free classes to passengers.
According to a poll carried out by the Intercultural Center ahead of Jerusalem Day last month, 82 percent of Jerusalem residents said they were pleased with the city’s ethnic diversity, with 96 percent reporting daily exposure to people of a different religion or national group.
“There are currently very few reports of hate crimes on the tram,” Agmon-Snir added. “The tram is like the spine of Jerusalem’s tolerant tendency.”
Mordechai Friedman, 24, dressed in ultra-Orthodox garb, was collecting brochures specifying the many achievements of Citypass, while teaching Hebrew speakers how to say “it’s like Europe here” and “let’s sit over there” in Palestinian dialect.
“It’s a wonderful initiative,” Friedman said. “I work with people from East Jerusalem, but unfortunately don’t speak Arabic.”
“It’s always interesting to learn about other cultures,” he added. “I think we could solve many problems if we had a common language. I think we should teach Arabic to pupils just like we teach English, starting from kindergarten.”
Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.