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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.

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    1. sh

      How come the CEO of Israel Railways has the right to choose to ignore? Arabic is and should stay one of Israel’s official languages. As such the public transport announcements both written and oral should automatically have been made in Arabic too.
      If ever that elusive peace should come to pass Israelis will be bemoaning the fact that they can’t read the signposts in neighboring countries. It’s nuts to choose to live in a geographical area the language of which you scorn.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Sinjim

      When I visited Palestine, I had a chance to go to Haifa and a see the Baha’i Temple. I don’t remember the name of the street right in front of the gate (French Junction or something like that), but its name was given in Hebrew first, English second, and Arabic third. The English name was a translation, while the Arabic was nothing more than the transliteration of the Hebrew name.
      I noticed this throughout my visit. Time and again, the Arabic name of places and streets was only the Hebrew words written in Arabic letters.
      The Arabic language, and by definition its speakers, is treated with disrespect by the state as a matter of course. This is one of those aspects of discrimination and oppression that mostly only Palestinians are aware of, while those with privilege carry on blissfully unaware of it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Essendi

        That´s too bad. The people of culture should change it as soon as possible.

        Reply to Comment
    3. @sinjim – while I agree with you that Arabic is treated with disrespect intentionally, you are a bit wrong about the English. Signs in English are usually transliterations as well, not translations.
      Probably the most notorious of them all is the huge sign on the Ayalon freeway for the “RAKEVET”.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Moriel Rothman

      The best is the Sheikh Jarrah stop on the light rail here in J’lem.

      (shim3on hassadiq)

      Reply to Comment
    5. Sinjim

      @Ami: Oh of course. My point though was that often, signs that did have English translations had nothing more than Nothing more than the Hebrew words in Arabic letters, as if translation were impossible — not to mention the signs that had no Arabic at all (like on the highway along the coast).
      Maybe I’m wrong, but rather than being about disrespect, it seems to me that the use of English is strategic, aimed at tourists and visitors, most of whom are likely to be (American) Jews or Christians interested in seeing and experiencing the authentic culture of the “holy land.”
      I think that’s why you won’t hear anyone say that English announcements on Israeli trains are just too noisy.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Steve

      Is Hebrew an official language in any Arab country?

      Why not?

      And what happened to all the Jewish populations of Arab countries?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ali

      Hebrew was never a spoken language in the Arab countries even when their Jewish populations were larger.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mikhael


      Maybe Hebrew was never a widely spoken language in Arab countries, but various Arab countries also have linguistic minorities. I believe that Kurdish is now official in post-Saddam Iraq alongside Arabic (and the Kurdish regions are de facto independent anyway), but I am not so sure about the status of Turkmen, Assyrian, Aramaic, etc.

      Syria, I’m pretty sure, never gave any official status to the Kurdish, Aramaic or Turkish dialects that are still spoken there.
      I’m pretty sure that in North Africa, where Berber/Amazigh dialects are still widely spoken, only Algeria grants it any sort of legal status, although many North African countries still grant French official status.

      NB: I think Arabic should remain an official language in Israel and should be more widely and intensively taught amongst Israel’s Jewish population whether there are good relations between Israel’s Arab neighbors and the Jewish and Arabic-speaking populations in Israel or or not. It’s foolish to discourage the teaching and use of Arabic.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Brian

      Deut. 10:19
      And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.
      When 20+ percent of the population speaks Arabic, surely the God of Moses should expect kind consideration of “the other” in His land.


      Reply to Comment