Israel's Airport Has Nearly No Signs in Arabic

With most signs and verbal announcements in Hebrew and English, a civil rights NGO is working to bring Arabic to Ben-Gurion Airport

The electronic departures listings in Hebrew and English at Ben-Gurion International Airport, October 12, 2017.
Eyal Toueg

Since the nation-state law was passed, the status of Arabic in the country has been widely discussed. Now Sikkuy – the Association for Civic Equality in Israel, has discovered that use of the language at Ben-Gurion International Airport leaves much to be desired. As part of a project entitled "The presence of Arabic in public transportation in Israel,” the NGO, which promotes equality between Jewish and Arab citizens, examined the situation at the airport, and a problematic picture emerged.

When conducting their visits in July, Sikkuy representatives found that most of the permanent signs at the airport are in Hebrew and English only – including various warning, no-entry and informational signs. Moreover, electronic signs including the arrivals and departures listings, as well as all verbal announcements over the PA system, are also only in those two languages.

Attorney Hanan Marjieh, project coordinator of Sikkuy's Department for a Shared Society, says: “The airport is a tense and confusing place for everyone, especially someone for whom Hebrew is not his mother tongue. A visit to the airport reveals that there are almost no signs in Arabic, not even the most essential signs. Arab citizens are one-fifth of the population in this country, and the airport must take them into consideration too.

“We at Sikkuy are working to bring Arabic to the airport and to the public domain in general," added Marjieh, "and we aspire to turn it into an integral and normal part of that domain. We have contacted the Israel Airports Authority and asked that they add Arabic to the signs and announcements, and although there has been some recent progress in this regard, it’s still not enough. There’s still a lot of work to be done in order to ensure reasonable access to services and information at the airport in Arabic, in addition to Hebrew and English.”

Following its examination, Sikkuy created and posted a video clip in Arabic, revealing the problems Arabic speakers are likely to encounter at Ben-Gurion. The narrator of the video is none other than well-known Israeli foodie and TV personality Gil Hovav, who for a long time had recorded the announcements at the airport, but was replaced by and about a year ago by veteran TV journalist and presenter Gilad Adin.

Hovav says that his relationship with the IAA began when he drew their attention to Hebrew mistakes in previously recorded public-address announcements, whereupon the authority invited him to record the corrected messages, on a voluntary basis. However, when asked again to record announcements for this summer, he conditioned his participation on their being taped in Arabic as well. The idea was welcomed by the IAA, he says, and they were recorded in Arabic – but they have never been aired.

“The answer I received about the fact that they didn’t play the announcements in Arabic," he says, "was that the airport is overburdened [in terms of information], and therefore adding more messages would only make things worse. Of course I thought the reason was different; that’s why I felt that there’s something missing ... That’s also why I agreed to participate in the present [Sikkuy] video clip.”

IAA officials explained that they are not attempting to distance the Arabic language from the public space at the airport, but noted that a great deal of information is already being conveyed there, in Hebrew and English. In addition, they claimed that Arabic appears on many signs there, such as those directing people to public transportation, border control, customs and the baggage claim area.

"The IAA," the officials added, “has improved and is continuing to improve the integration of the Arabic language at the authority’s facilities, including the new Ramon International Airport in Timna [near Eilat]. The authority's website is accessible in Arabic. The number of employees who speak Arabic is one of the highest in the public sector. In the new wing at Ben-Gurion airport there’s a place in which Muslims can pray, and in the context of the renovation efforts and at the new terminal that is due to be built, there will be an improvement in Arabic signs, and additional ones will be added. Ben-Gurion International Airport serves over 23 million passengers and meets international standards of public signage.”