It is a situation in which new immigrants often find themselves: Signing a document in Hebrew that they can barely read or fully understand and years later finding themselves in an impossible legal or financial bind.

That, however, could all change soon, if legislation requiring all government and public bodies to translate their official websites into the myriad of languages spoken by the country’s citizens is approved before the Knesset breaks up for its summer recess.

The bill, which is being proposed by Kadima MK Ruhama Avraham-Balila and is supported by at least 22 lawmakers from across the political spectrum, is only one part of a new campaign by a coalition of social empowerment groups to make sure that language accessibility for every citizen is put firmly onto the country’s agenda.

“Israel is a pluralistic society and as such it must pay special attention to the needs of all its various citizens,” said Avraham- Balila, who hopes the legislation will receive preliminary approval as early as next week. “This includes enabling all individuals, even veteran immigrants, the chance to properly understand their rights and duties as citizens in their native language.”

US-born veteran immigrant John Daly, co-chairman of the English Speakers Association of Ashkelon, recalls that when he first moved here he was astounded at the number of documents he was asked to sign in Hebrew, without being able to understand a word of what he was signing.

“Everyone just told me, ‘It’s fine, just sign it,’ and I did,” he said on Thursday. “However, so many people end up getting letters from lawyers because they have signed something they did not understand and it leads them to some sort of trouble.”

Daly, who ended up deep in debt via a misunderstanding with one of the Internet service providers, dedicated his master’s degree thesis in public policy and administration to the problem of language accessibility for immigrants in Israel.

“I found out that even though all government buildings are legally required to be accessible to the disabled, they are not required to be accessible to those who do not speak Hebrew,” he said. “In a country where roughly half the citizens are not fluent in Hebrew, it seems absurd that you can go into a government building with a wheelchair but once you are inside you cannot understand what is going on.”

Based on Daly’s research, in which he found the problem of inaccessibility to information to be widespread among new and veteran immigrants, local Ashkelon rights group Power to Influence – Residents Make Change; Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality; and Yedid – The Association for Community Empowerment took up the cause.

In addition to working to encourage government and public bodies to translate their important documents, contracts and bills at least into the country’s other official language, Arabic, and several other widely spoken languages, the NGOs carried out a survey of linguistic accessibility for government websites.

The results showed that numerous central government offices and services either failed to provide their information in any language other than Hebrew or, if they did, failed to update the translated information on a regular basis. Moreover, when contacted and urged to provide other language options, several government offices and official bodies responded that Hebrew is the only official language of the country and translations should not be required.

“For Israelis it’s not a big issue; they are given a document or a contract, they read it and understand it, but when I went around to immigrant organizations and asked them if they knew of people who had signed papers and faced problems afterward, they all laughed and said it happens all the time,” Daly said.

“What needs to be understood is that even for a person who has been here many years but whose mother tongue is something other than Hebrew, reading and writing in Hebrew is usually still a problem,” pointed out Ran Melamed, deputy director of social policy and communication for Yedid, who was involved in drafting Avraham-Balila’s private member’s bill.

Explaining why the initial legislation is to focus exclusively on the language accessibility of official websites, Melamed said that with the bulk of important information available today on websites, it is essential that all citizens – even those who do not read Hebrew – can access information about their basic rights.

In the introduction to the bill, this point is highlighted: “A large portion of country’s population is able to understand Hebrew at a basic level, sometimes even speak the language satisfactorily, but when it comes to reading official letters, manuals relating to their rights or even contracts rules and regulations the difficulty is great, and it often leads to mistakes that, in some cases, can be disastrous.”

Melamed, who believes that the bill will be approved because there is no great spending requirement, said it will require the websites of all government ministries, government companies, local authorities, economic and consumer organizations and other official bodies to appear in the country’s official languages, Hebrew and Arabic, as well as languages where there are large numbers of speakers. The bill includes a list of languages widely spoken in Israel such as English, Russian, Amharic, Yiddish, Romanian and even Arabic dialects spoken by Jews from North Africa and Iraq.

Daly said additional legislation will be proposed at a later date requiring all contracts dealing with financial obligations to be in a language that people can understand before they sign.

“Our goal is to raise awareness that there is a serious problem out there that affects many people,” he said.

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