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