Tel Aviv University Retracts Ban on Arabic in Call Center Following Haaretz Report

Arabic-speaking call center employees were instructed to stop speaking in their native language with Arabic-speaking callers.

Students walking at Tel Aviv University.
David Bachar

Tel Aviv University backed down from its ban on the use of Arabic in its tuition call center on Wednesday following a report on Haaretz. An instruction handed down in December banned the use of Arabic, even when both the employee and the caller were Arabic-speaking.

"The instruction not to provide call center service in Arabic was mistaken, was not approved by the university administration and is contrary to the spirit of the institution," the university said in a statement on Wednesday.

The university added that it was "working to rectify the situation immediately."

Call center emplyees received in early December an email that "Tel Aviv University provides tuition information in the Hebrew language only, and as a result the instruction has come to us as [call center] receptionists providing service.”

The email followed a dispute over the refusal of one of the workers in the call center, Alaa Haj Yahia, to comply with an instruction by the call center management that she desist from speaking Arabic with callers.

Haj Yahia left her job at the beginning of January, two months earlier than planned, because of the new rule and what she said was the attitude of her supervisors.

Wednesday's about-turn followed the university's refusal to retract the instruction on Tuesday and widespread criticism of the instruction over the past two days.

In a letter to the university, Adalah, the legal center for minority rights, wrote that the university's call center dealing with tuition fees "provides basic and necessary information for students and potential students, irrespective of whether they are Jewish or Arab, and without discrimination, particularly about their mother language. The ban on speaking Arabic is even more surprising in light of the fact that the call center employs workers from the Arab community."

The letter was written by Rabia Agbariya, a graduate who had contacted the call center and spoken with an Arabic-speaking receptionist who refused to speak Arabic to him due to the instruction.

Knesset member Yousef Jabareen also demanded that the university change its instruction. "At a time when the Council of Higher Education has declared a program to widen access to higher education among the Arabic community, it's unacceptable that one of the main universities decides to make life difficult for those who speak Arabic, which is a national language.

"Such behavior is demeaning and abusive."

Jabareen added that the "initial response by the university was outrageous. Instead of clarifying clearly and with no hesitation that there is no reason to ban conversations in Arabic, the university chose to 'look into the matter.'

"It should be understood that the ban is manifestly wrong and racist. I am glad that the university has admitted its mistake."