The absence of the Arabic language from the public sphere in Israel

Haifa - a sign at city-run park in Hiafa is written in Hebrew, English, and Russian, but not Arabic

Alya Zoabi

Mondoweiss  /  July 22, 2021

Many Israeli government ministries have no services in Arabic. Most museums provide no information in Arabic. While Israel’s international airport only lately provided signs in Arabic, after holding out for years.

Two days ago in Haifa, a city where Palestinian Arabs [Palestinians] comprise 10% of the population, the municipality placed a sign in one of the parks in the French Carmel neighborhood to remind people who have dogs to close the gates. The sign is written in Hebrew, English and Russian, but not Arabic, thus excluding the Palestinian Arabic-speaking residents that live in the neighborhood.

Recently attempts have been made to undermine the Arabic language’s status as an official language in Israel despite the fact that 1.5 million Arabic speakers – 21% of the population – suffer from systematic marginalization and discrimination, linguistically and otherwise. This situation is reflected in many spheres of a Palestinian Arab individual’s life, be it in academia, the economy, or even in daily matters such as going to the post or the doctor’s office. Hebrew and English are the most dominant and Arabic is practically non-existent.

In 2004, Dr. Ahmad Tibi, a member of the Israeli Knesset, petitioned the Supreme Court to add signs in Arabic in the Ben-Gurion International Airport. However, it wasn’t until a month ago in 2021 that the airport management – after a long battle with Sikkuy (The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality) – installed a new welcoming sign that includes Arabic.

In 2018, the Israeli government stripped Arabic of official language status when it passed the Jewish Nation-State Law. The specific meaning of the term “official” (rishmi in Hebrew) is related to the definition of the term by government institutions. An official language is a language used by the government and elevated by the authority of the State. It is the language of internal communication to and from the government, as well as the language of judicial and administrative affairs, representing the government and State.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Palestinian Arabs of Israel faced various hardships, including language barriers, that complicated its ability to implement Health Ministry instructions and guidelines. A significant delay in the government’s dissemination of instructions in Arabic led to severe gaps in the level and scope of the information reaching much of the Palestinian Arab public. For example, the “Traffic Light” website that was created by the Ministry of Health to inform the public of any updates regarding COVID only contains titles in the Arabic language, but when a person tries to enter the complete article, the website takes you to the Hebrew page. The “Traffic Light” issue reflects a problem documented in research conducted by the Knesset information centre in 2016, which revealed that only certain parts of the pages in governmental websites are accessible in Arabic.

Five ministries (Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Economy and Industry, Ministry of Science, Technology and Space, Ministry of the Interior, and Ministry of Welfare and Social Services) have no way to contact or send public inquiries in Arabic; these ministries constitute about 20% of the 24 government ministries and about 29% of the ministries.

The Mossawa Center – The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel has sent many letters to different governmental institutions during the pandemic, including National Security, demanding that they provide Arabic content to the public. When there was only minimal response, the Mossawa Center, along with other civil society organizations, took it upon itself to translate a major part of the important content to the Arab public. 

According to a new study, 60% of museums in Israel do not have service or access to information in Arabic. The study, conducted by attorneys Hanan Margia and Idan Ring, examined parameters such as signage, website, Facebook advertising and marketing, newsletters and maps, videos, presentations, and audio guides. According to the study’s findings, in 12 of the 20 museums examined, there is no Arabic at all, or the presence of the language is minimal and mainly includes signage referring to exits, entrances, and services.

For many years, the Mossawa Center demanded the Haifa municipality to renovate one of the old buildings in the historic neighborhood of Wadi Alsaleeb and turn it into an Arabic Museum. To this day, the Palestinian Arab society in Israel has no museums of its own nor a cinema that screens films in the Arabic language. The Mossawa Center’s demand can solve not only a cultural need in Palestinian Arab society but also a financial one. By renovating beautiful, abandoned buildings in Palestinian Arab neighborhoods, it opens a door for businesses to set up shop in the area, providing a solution to the unemployment problem and lifting families from poverty.

A reduction of poverty rates can be the answer to the big question the government is failing to answer nowadays: how to stop the crime rates and the black market in Palestinian Arab society. It all starts by first and foremost recognizing Palestinian Arabs, their culture, their heritage, and their language.

Alya Zoabi is the Legal and Parliamentary Coordinator of the Mossawa Center, advocating for the civil and democratic rights of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel in the Knesset and Israeli government