Israeli Nursing School Rescinds Ban on Speaking Russian and Arabic

School of Nursing in Ashkelon tells students 'it is absolutely prohibited to conduct a conversation in a foreign language' on school grounds; Health Ministry instructed the school to withdraw the order.

The Health Ministry has instructed the School of Nursing in Ashkelon, part of the city's Barzilai Medical Center, to withdraw an order banning students from speaking any language other than Hebrew on campus.

The order, printed on nursing school and ministry letterhead and bearing the stamp of the school administration, reads: "Students, it is absolutely prohibited to conduct a conversation in a foreign language during studies and in school corridors. The official language of the school is Hebrew."

The majority of the school's 250 students are from the south of the country, with a smaller number from the center and north of Israel. Many of the students speak Russian or other Eastern European languages, and quite a few are Arab.

According to one student, who asked to remain anonymous, the directive was posted about two weeks ago and drew many angry responses from students.

"It's an incomprehensible decision," he said. "I don't think anyone has seen anything similar in another public institution.

The order even includes conversations in the corridor between students, irrespective of whether there are patients present. As students, we had no choice. No one wanted to tangle with the administration, so we were forced to comply with the directive."

Some students photographed the announcements with their cell phones and published the images, but the matter did not reach the Health Ministry until Haaretz intervened. Civil rights lawyers told Haaretz that the order is a clear violation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression, and pointed out that Arabic is an official language of the state, with High Court of Justice rulings explicitly forbidding such prohibitions.

In an initial, unofficial response to Haaretz about the ban, the nursing school administration justified the prohibition on the grounds that patients were bothered by the use of foreign languages near them. Yesterday afternoon, however, a few hours after Haaretz brought up the issue with Health Ministry officials, the announcements were taken down.

The school said in a statement that the obligation to speak to patients in their own language had been misinterpreted in the announcement, which was removed. Ministry officials confirmed that the announcement was removed due to intervention by the ministry, and that its posting was the result of a misunderstanding.

The nursing school administration, ministry officials said, had intended only to keep people from speaking in front of patients in a language the patients did not understand. The administration said the announcement had been prompted by complaints from patients.