14 Years After Court Ruling, Arabic Signage Remains Rare in Tel Aviv

Repeated orders and warnings have resulted in little progress toward the inclusion of Arabic on Tel Aviv's signs and a civil rights group is threatening further legal action.

A new electronic, Hebrew sign at a Haifa bus stop, February 2016.
Rami Shllush

It has been 14 years since the High Court of Justice ordered the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality to add Arabic to its municipal signage, but many municipal signs in the city remain just in Hebrew and English.

Tel Aviv’s municipal boundaries include Jaffa, once a separate predominantly Arab city, which today still has a substantial Arab presence. Arabic is the native language of about half the population of Jaffa, about 5% of the entire population of Tel Aviv-Jaffa as a whole. Tel Aviv is one of five cities with a mixed Jewish-Arab population that had been ordered by the court to add Arabic to its signage.

The case was filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Adalah legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, and they are now threatening to seek a court order finding Tel Aviv city hall in contempt for not complying. In a letter to Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, the two groups said just a portion of the municipal signage in the city now includes Arabic.

“The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality has in fact added Arabic to street signs, traffic signs at intersections and some of the [other] signs in public spaces, but a large number of signs around the city and at its institutions remain in Hebrew alone or in Hebrew and English,” the letter to the mayor stated. Among the locations in the city in which Arabic signage is lacking are traffic signs, public parks, playgrounds, beaches, wireless public Internet locations and parking lots as well as at Ichilov Hospital, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the opera house and at various educational institutions, the letter stated.

Last week, Haaretz also reported the absence of Arabic on new electronic bus stop signage in Tel Aviv. The Transportation Ministry has said Arabic will be included on the solar-powered electronic bus stop signage throughout the country by August.

In its 2002 ruling, the High Court of Justice ordered Arabic to be added to all municipal signage in the mixed cities, and rejected the state’s position that the matter should be left to the discretion of the local governments. Speaking for the court, Justice Aharon Barak said Arab residents of the towns should be able to orient themselves even in areas of the city where they don’t live, and doing otherwise would violate the right to equality in the provision of city services.

The state comptroller has also cautioned the city for failure to follow the ruling.  In an annual report on local government in 2013, the comptroller noted that parking signs in Tel Aviv are written only in Hebrew, and called this "a serious infringement of the rule of law and the principle of equality." The municipality replied that it avoided adding extra languages to parking signs "due to the abundance of verbiage that characterizes the sign," and that adding more words was liable to render it "too complicated, difficult to understand and ineffective."

The comptroller rejected that claim and instructed the municipality to abide by the High Court's ruling. The  Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Adalah said some of the signs that have not been translated into Arabic deal with direction of traffic and other safety regulations which to violate would lead to punishment, such as parking, public traffic lines, banning lighters and requiring the collection of dogs' poop. In a letter to the mayor, they point out that other cities with mixed population, such as Jerusalem and Haifa post parking signs in both Hebrew and Arabic. In response the municipality said the Arab population of Jaffa constitutes only about 4.3  percent of city residents, it follows a policy of naming streets in that area historic Arab figures,  that all the city's lit up directional signs are also in Arabic, and that it is "the other complaints will be thoroughly reviewed."