Is Arabic truly an official language in Israel?

The CEO of the state-owned Israel Railways has rejected calls for announcements of upcoming train stations to be made in Arabic, in addition to Hebrew and English

By Issa Edward Boursheh

Regrettably, the CEO of Israel Railway has chosen to ignore calls for train stations to be announced in Arabic, claiming it would “make the train ride noisy.” Currently, announcements are in Hebrew and sometimes in English.

The CEO’s claim about the purported noise would have made sense if there were no announcementds at all, with passengers forced to rely solely on signs in the train stations and the trains. That is not the case: All train stations are announced, via a PA system loud enough to drown out conversation, as the trains approach each station. Israel Railways is a state-owned company, which means it is obligated to provide information in all of Israel’s official languages, just as all government offices are obligated to do. Any other decision by the CEO requires an immediate reaction from the office of the Minister of Transportation.

I fail to understand why any for-profit company would refuse to provide Arabic speaking customers with services in their native language for the sake of customer service and higher profits. More than 20 percent of Israelis are native Arabic speakers and their full profit-making potential is clearly not met – mainly due to disregard and ignorance.

In December 2009, Dr. Avshalom Kor, a linguist and expert on Hebrew grammar and semantics, submitted a report to the joint governmental-municipal task force overseeing the light rail project to give Hebrew names to the 19 station in Jerusalem, including those in Arab neighborhoods. In March 2011, Transportation Minister Katz, Israeli Railway CEO Superior, suggested changing the Arabic names to identically suit their Hebrew version; e.g. Nazareth (English) and Al-Nasra (Arabic) would become Natzeret (Heb.). In November 2011, Avi Dichter’s “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People,” which proposed to redefine the status of the Arabic language from official to “special” status. These are just minor examples of repeated attacks to challenge, modify and even abolish the Arabic language from the public sphere in Israel.

In an op-ed published by former MK Moshe Arens, he expressed his sincere thought about the recent attacks and suggested that:

…the study of Arabic should be made compulsory in the school system, and mastery of the language should be a requirement for graduation from high school. The study of Arabic by adults should be encouraged; and for civil servants, knowledge of Arabic should be a factor when being considered for promotion.

The reality in which the Arabic language is constantly pushed aside is just absurd.

The demand for social justice this past summer must not overlook the basic bridge to knowing the other. Mutual understanding and equal rights must be brought to the forefront for truthful mutual understanding and integration of Israel’s minority. I do hope that the Ministry of Transportation will take appropriate action, and that there will be no more despicable legislation.

Issa Edward Boursheh is a graduate student at Tel Aviv University.