Signs in Jewish-Arab Cities Must Be Bilingual, Court Rules

Street signs in mixed Arab-Jewish cities must be written in Arabic as well as Hebrew, the High Court of Justice ruled yesterday.

However, due to logistical difficulties created by this decision, the court gave the municipalities two years in which to replace signs on main thoroughfares and four years in which to add Arabic to all other signs.

The court's 2-1 decision was aimed particularly at Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ramle, Nazareth and Lod. Acre has already shown persuasive evidence of its intent to add Arabic to its street signs, the court said, while other large mixed towns have at least promised to post signs that have Arabic.

The ruling was in response to a petition by Adallah, the Legal Center for the Rights of the Arab Minority in Israel, against a number of cities that have a significant number of Arab residents. The petition demanded that the cities post signs that include Arabic within their municipal limits, arguing that the current situation in these cities, in which most street signs are only in Hebrew, represents a form of discrimination that harms the dignity of Arab citizens. Adallah also argued that the current situation runs counter to both international law and Arabic's status as an official language of the state of Israel.

In response, the cities, supported by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, argued that they have no binding legal obligation to post signs in Arabic.

The language of the signs should be left to the municipalities' discretion, they said. Rubinstein said he had no objection to the use of bilingual signs along main streets, by public institutions and in neighborhoods that have a large number of Arab residents, but he opposed compelling a city to use bilingual signs within the entire area under its jurisdiction.

Rubinstein also argued that should the state require cities to put up Arabic signs, this would harm Hebrew's status as Israel's principal language. Furthermore, he said, adding languages to the signs could cause confusion.

But Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, with Justice Dalia Dorner concurring, ruled that the municipalities are required to provide equal treatment to Arab and Jewish residents, and this includes posting signs in both Arabic and Hebrew. Arabic is the language of a large minority in Israel, Barak wrote, and the minority's cultural needs must be recognized.

He also denied that the court's decision infringed on Hebrew's status as Israel's leading language, and said he would reject any move that would have this effect, such as a petition by residents of an Arab community demanding that Hebrew be removed from street signs in their area.

Justice Mishael Cheshin, in his dissent, argued that the court's tasks do not include the promotion of a minority's political status.

Cheshin argued that the majority decision essentially creates a new right - the collective right of the Arab minority to preserve an independent identity and a separate culture via recognition of its language. "Such a right," Cheshin stated, "does not exist in Israeli law."

The entire issue is political rather than legal in nature, Cheshin concluded, and therefore, it should be resolved by the country's political institutions rather than the court.