Israel’s one in five citizens, whose mother tongue is Arabic, are increasingly fearful of using it in public as hostility has mounted towards the language from both officials and the Jewish public, human rights groups warned this week.
The alert comes as lawyers have threatened the , Israel’s largest city, with a contempt of court action for failing to include Arabic on most of the city’s public signs – 14 years after the Israeli supreme court ordered it to do so.
According to the leaders of Israel’s large Palestinian minority, Tel Aviv’s policy reflects a more widespread antagonism towards Arabic, despite its official status as the country’s second language.
According to Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, few public bodies produced documents or materials in Arabic, and many companies and public institutions warned workers not to speak Arabic with other staff or customers.
In recent months, there has also been a sharp rise in reports of Palestinian citizens being physically assaulted in Israeli cities, with Jewish mobs roaming the streets shouting “Death to the Arabs”.
Recent investigations have found an absence of Arabic in the literature, websites and signage of almost all public services, including government ministries, welfare offices, hospitals, universities, the inland revenue, the national electricity company, the post office, and sports and leisure centres.
When the head of Israel Railways was questioned in 2012 on why station stops were announced in Hebrew and English only, he replied that adding Arabic would “make the train ride noisy”.
Israeli courts have also ruled that in civil proceedings Arab litigants, who do not understand Hebrew, must pay for translation costs.
According to a survey, one in four Palestinian citizens struggle to read Hebrew. Farah, of Mossawa, noted that even when public bodies such as the transport ministry included Arabic, it was often so poorly translated from Hebrew that the information was unintelligible.
“The political elite in Israel wants to stop integration and normalisation with the Middle East at all costs, and Arabic is suffering as a result,” Farah said. “Israel is terrified to be part of region.”
“The hostile attitude of official bodies, including municipalities like Tel Aviv, encourages a general climate that treats Arabic as an alien and despised language,” Zahalka told Al Jazeera.
“How can one expect anything else when the Israeli parliament itself refuses to give proper recognition to Arabic?”
Zahalka and others noted that over the past few years there had been a raft of private bills from members of Israel’s ruling parties to downgrade Arabic’s status. He said it was only a matter of time before one succeeded.
Last week Palestinian members of Knesset switched from Hebrew to Arabic as they gave speeches protesting at the first reading of a bill widely seen as paving the way to banning Zahalka’s Balad party from the legislature. Zahalka and two other Balad MPs are currently suspended from the parliament.
Most Jewish MPs, like the rest of the Jewish population, cannot understand Arabic, and the parliament provides no translation services.
Jafar Farah, of the Palestinian advocacy group Mossawa, said Palestinian legislators had “long sacrificed their right to speak Arabic” in parliament in the hope that they could influence the Jewish public by speaking to them directly. “The sad reality is that they are not being heard anyway, and the political climate is becoming ever more hostile,” he told Al Jazeera