Government Office in Largest Bedouin City Has Just One Arabic Speaker

Most of Rahat's 60,000 residents struggle, at best, with Hebrew, but the National Insurance Institute office there doesn't reflect the demographic.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The branch of the National Insurance Institute serving the residents of Rahat – Israel’s largest Bedouin city – and the Bedouin villages nearby has four windows where employees provide services to the public, but only one of those employees is an Arabic speaker.

Citizens’ complaints about language difficulties and the gap in the provision of services have been on the rise recently as segments of the population have been unable to receive the services they are entitled to.

“Every month we deal with 400 cases, 70 percent of which are linked to the NII,” said Etidal Abu-Ayyish, director of the Rahat branch of the Yedid Association for Community Empowerment. She said that because of the volume of calls, her office coordinated its opening hours with those of the NII so that they can help residents with their problems as they arise.

“We reached a level where we write the questions that need to be asked in Hebrew on slips of paper, and the people take them to the NII, because they don’t understand the residents there. They even have difficulty obtaining a form or a request for a PIN code, which are basic things.”

Abu-Ayyish said that the situation harms mainly older people and women – many of whom do not speak Hebrew – and many times, people approach Yedid directly instead of going to the NII. “But we don’t have the NII’s authority,” she said. “We can provide legal assistance, write letters to employers and help on the technical end, but we are not a replacement. It is inconceivable that the NII should rely on a non-profit organization that provides services.”

The NII branch in Rahat was opened early this year, ending many years during which roughly 60,000 residents of the city and the nearby villages received services at the window of an old caravan that was open only a few hours a day. Fadi, a social worker in Rahat, says that this lack of access deepens the gaps between Arabs and Jews. “Most of the population that goes to the NII comes from the weaker sectors and has difficulty speaking Hebrew, and that prevents them from receiving service,” he says. “This is not a mixed city. It is a Bedouin city, and the state’s services should be made accessible on a cultural level. The current situation is keeping people away from the national institutions.”

NII officials say that while there is a shortage of Arabic speakers, there is also a shortage of positions. “The new branch in Rahat, which opened recently, provides a variety of services to the area residents,” an NII spokesman said. “It is true that some of the service representatives do not speak Arabic, but a respectable portion of the people who come to the branch speak Hebrew and receive service in that language. Within the limitations on the number of people it may hire, the NII puts emphasis on recruiting Arabic speakers to solve the problem in this area.”

Ran Melamed, deputy executive director of Yedid, said, “It is too bad that after an eight-year struggle during which we fought to establish an NII branch in Rahat, it did not occur to anyone that they had to ensure language accessibility by hiring Arabic speakers for the good of the population.”