Study shines spotlight on status of Arabic in Israel

Abraham Fund finds many official government websites don't provide adequate information, services in Arab.

Man reads Arabic newspaper in J'lem (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Man reads Arabic newspaper in J'lem
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Abraham Fund announced on Sunday that it has found that many official government websites do not provide adequate information or services in the Arabic language.
The websites of 11 government ministries and key institutions fail to provide any information in Arabic.
The following ministry websites were found to have no Arabic-language information: Interior; Welfare and Social Services; Communications; Religious Services; Culture and Sport; Development of the Negev and Galilee; and Science and Technology.
Prof. Yoni Mizrahi from Jezreel Valley College conducted the study for the Abraham Fund Initiative, which promotes the integration and equality of Arab citizens.
Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu, the coexecutive director of the fund in Israel along with Muhammad Darawshe, told The Jerusalem Post that there are two reasons the government websites need to be in Arabic as well, arguing that Arabic is an official language of the state and “it is the obligation of the government to Israel’s Arab citizens to recognize the Arabic language and offer services.”
Beeri-Sulitzeanu added that there is a large demand for Arabic-language services, especially from older Israeli Arabs. Providing these services, he says, is a practical step that will help people and will be seen as a positive statement by the government to its Arab citizens.
The press release by the Fund further noted the importance of some of the ministries that do not provide full translations. The initiative’s co-directors also called for legislation forcing government websites and documents to be translated.
In an interview with the Post, Dr. Aviad Bakshi, an academic and the director of legal affairs at the Kohelet Policy Forum, argued that Arabic is not an official language in practice, and that subsequent laws had negated the language’s legal standing.
The academic worked with the Institute of Zionist Strategies on the intellectual groundwork for the proposed Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which then-MK Avi Dichter submitted as a bill in 2011.
The proposal sought to establish Israel as a state for the Jewish nation, and called for demoting Arabic from its official language status, and instead giving it a “special” status.
Arabic’s position as an official language comes from law established during the British Mandate era.
Bakshi pointed out that if it were an official language, one would be able to submit paperwork in Arabic or speak the language when addressing the Supreme Court, and that state ceremonies would be held in Arabic as well. However, he said, this is not the case.
In addition, he argued that later laws passed by the Knesset had, in effect, abrogated the Mandate-era law. Bakshi cited as an example a procedural law in criminal courts that states that if someone wants to submit evidence to the court or be a witness, he or she must use a translator if the material is not in Hebrew.
Laws on non-Jews acquiring Israeli citizenship also make this point, Bakshi claimed, stating that according to the law, the person has to show some knowledge of Hebrew. This law was directed toward Israeli Arabs who marry Arabs from other countries and want to get them citizenship.
Asked by the Post about the Abraham Fund study and its call for full Arabic services on government websites, Bakshi said that he agrees with the premise that government services and websites should be accessible to minorities and that the level of Arabic-language services needs to be improved. He pointed out that the Basic Law proposal also calls for an improvement in the availability of Arabic.
However, he differed with the Fund on the issue of Arabic being an official language because it is something symbolic, which deals with the identity of the state.
“If someone gives papers to the court in Arabic and has a translator, this is one thing, but for the judge to write the decision in Arabic is another,” he said.
Beeri-Sulitzeanu reacted to this argument by stating that “it would send a negative signal to Arab citizens and it would tell them that their language and cultural heritage are of a lower status.”
“The government should refrain from passing such a law as it will not promote a sense of belonging,” he said.