Demand for Arabic in Tel Aviv city council sparks furor

Recently elected Tel Aviv councilor Omar Siksik says many of the city's Arab residents don't know Hebrew well enough.

A demand by recently elected Tel Aviv councilor Omar Siksik that Arabic be used in spoken and written communications at City Hall has aroused the ire of Knesset member and Tel Aviv resident Limor Livnat (Likud), among others, reports Livnat, who has been working in recent months to introduce a law that would make Hebrew the sole official language of Israel, branded the demand as "provocation" and said that Siksik was trying to create a bi-national country, and that this should be prevented. According to the report, Siksik, who was elected on the "Yafa" (Jaffa) Arab list in the November municipal elections, chose to give his maiden council speech in Arabic, and has demanded that council meeting protocols be written up in Arabic, as well as in Hebrew. Siksik wrote to Mayor Ron Huldai saying that while Arabic is one of Israel's official languages, this is not expressed by the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, which does not write to Arabic-speaking residents in Arabic and does not offer Arabic language services in its public offices. Siksik also said the failure to write up council meeting records in Arabic was "harmful to the democratic process" and should be corrected. "It is my legitimate right to speak Arabic... More than 23,000 Arabs live in this city and not all of them know how to read Hebrew. There is a not insignificant slice of the Arab population in this city that cannot manage in the Hebrew language," Siksik said. But the city responded that while there was nothing to prevent Siksik from making speeches to the council in Arabic, the city was under no obligation to provide public services in Arabic or to fund translations from Hebrew to Arabic. A municipal spokesman said that Siksik had "decided on his own accord" to speak in Arabic, and there was no place for providing or funding translations of council meetings. And now Livnat, a former education minister, has weighed in against Siksik's demands. "It is clear that there are people trying to create provocations and to turn Israel into a bi-national state, and this should be prevented," she said. The report said that Livnat has been working in recent months to introduce a law that would make Hebrew the sole official language of Israel, and would make Arabic, English and Russian semi-official languages. The current law, giving official status to Hebrew, Arabic and English, dates from the British Mandate. Livnat said the aim of the legislation was to enshrine the right of the Jewish people to use the language of their ancestors in their own country, and to prevent attempts by nationalistic Arabs to change the culture. "It is not possible, not appropriate and not logical that the status of this (Arabic) or any other language be equal to that of the Hebrew language," Livnat said. Siksik responded that Livnat's proposed law was racist and "in my opinion buries democracy in Israel."