Tel Aviv University Tells Call Center Workers Not to Speak Arabic

'When candidates call from overseas or new immigrants call and speak English, we are required and allowed to speak to them in English, so what is the difference?'

Yarden Skop
Yarden Skop
In this Jan. 27, 2016 photo, students walk throughout the Tel Aviv University campus in Israel.
In this Jan. 27, 2016 photo, students walk throughout the Tel Aviv University campus in Israel. Credit: AP
Yarden Skop
Yarden Skop

Tel Aviv University has told employees in its call center for tuition matters not to speak Arabic with Arabic-speaking callers. The new rule was announced in December. The reason behind the change is not clear.

Employees were told in an email from a call center shift supervisor that “Tel Aviv University allows the receipt of information and academic affairs in Hebrew only, and as a result the instruction has come to us as [call center] receptionists providing service.”

In practice, the only Arab employee in the center in recent years was Alaa Haj Yahia, who 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. Haj Yahia was replaced by another Arabic-speaking woman, who she recommended for the job.

As of Monday, the rule was still in effect, and it applies to the only Arab employee now working in the call center.

Haj Yahia has a law degree and is scheduled to start her internship soon. She had worked in the call center since 2013. She told Haaretz that she often spoke Arabic with Arab students or applicants when they asked her, without any special instructions or being spoken to about it, until two months ago when she was told to stop by one of the supervisors. She told the supervisor she was unwilling to speak Hebrew with an Arab student and had previously spoken Arabic with them. An argument broke out between them, and Haj Yahia asked to speak to the head of the call center on the matter.

Alaa Haj Yahia.Credit: Courtesy

Haj Yahia said the manager and supervisor got back to her and made it clear that the matter had been discussed and she was to stop. “I asked how they could hold a discussion without my being there, with only one side present. I told them: ‘You say all the time we are for the good of the student, and if an applicant called me and it is convenient for him to speak in Arabic, why not speak to him in Arabic?’”

She said she was told that the head of the registration department, who oversees the call center, is the one who decides. “We went to the department manager and he repeated the same sentences: the language of Tel Aviv University, the language of instruction is Hebrew and that is why we will speak Hebrew here.

“I asked what is the connection between the language of instruction and the spoken language, and added that when candidates call from overseas or new immigrants call and speak English, we are required and allowed to speak to them in English, so what is the difference? After all, English is not an official language.

“His claims were technical and not acceptable to me, such as ‘the regulations on tuition are in Hebrew, if you translate them to Arabic it is not certain it will be precise, it is not certain you will pass on the same message.’ But this still does not explain why it is allowed to be translated into English.”

Haj Yahia said she was told these are the regulations of every university and if an Arabic call center is funded it will be possible to speak Arabic. After that the email instructing all call center employees to speak only Hebrew was sent out, she said.

A spokesperson for Tel Aviv University said: “We are grateful the matter has been brought to our attention. The university will examine the matter in depth and formulate recommendations for the good of the public who calls the registration center.”

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