Israel's Service Ethic Doesn't Include Service in Other Languages

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IllustrationCredit: Haaretz

Nidal Badarna and Hasan Taha became an instant hit in 2008, when they entertained an audience in the church hall of Reineh, a village near Nazareth in the Galilee, with a spoof of a telephone conversation with an HMO clinic and the unsuccessful attempts of a grandson to translate the nurse's medical instructions to his grandmother.

Since then, Badarna has become a well-known standup comedian in Israel's Arab community, but the difficulties experienced by adults who are not fluent in Hebrew still exist. Most institutions in Israel still speak only Hebrew, including the health system, city halls, public transport, the post office and the electricity, water and gas companies. Bills and other documents are sent only in Hebrew, even from those companies that take pride in their relatively high level of accessibility, such as the cellular phone and Internet companies.

TheMarker, along with the consumer group Emun Hatzibur (Public Trust,) conducted a test this week of the municipal call centers of a number of cities with mixed Jewish and Arab populations - Jerusalem, Haifa, Acre, Ramle, Lod and Jaffa - and came back empty-handed. Only Jerusalem had an interactive outgoing message system in Arabic. In Acre, the call center offered us service in English or Russian, but not in Arabic - in a city where almost a third of the residents speak Arabic as their native language. Ramle acknowledged that the English of its employees was not good enough to provide service.

To make things worse, even when the call center has Arabic speakers, as in Lod and other cities that say they provide service in Arabic, the outgoing message is only in Hebrew, so many people can’t even navigate their way to the service representatives who do speak their language.

Sometimes we have Russians working the shift

The problem, and the need to provide services in languages other than English, is nothing new in Israel, or in Western countries in general. Many countries consider service provision in languages other than the official one to be part of the basic right of accessible services, and government services in particular, and consider the problem to be one of a “language disability.”

When it comes to medical services, the right to professional translation is considered an inherent part of the treatment provided in most Western countries, and has been for decades. Health Ministry regulations from 2011 explicitly require medical information, including administrative information and appointment booking, to be provided in the most common languages in Israel.

In the TheMarker test, the country’s four health maintenance organizations, Clalit, Maccabi, Meuhedet and Leumi, received high marks for their provision of services in a range of languages - Hebrew, Arabic, English and Russian. Some provided services in the Ethiopian langauge Amharic (Clalit) and French (Meuhedet.)

But the hospitals were a different story. The impressive call routing systems at Wolfson Medical Center, Kaplan Hospital and Schneider Children’s Medical Center provided a long list of options - emergency, clinics, appointments, etc. - but only in Hebrew. Only Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem and Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva had an automated call system in the three most commonly spoken languages in Israel, Hebrew, Arabic and Russian.

The rest of the hospitals that we checked transfered the call to a call center representative, from which point success depended on their language skills and good will. At Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, we were told that it depends on who is working that shift. “Sometimes there are Russians on the shift,” said the representative. But for an Arabic speaker we were told to call back the next day.

Yoseftal Medical Center in Eilat also asked us to call back the next morning. At Hillel Yaffe Medical Center in Hadera, we were reprimanded: “Hebrew, darling, speak Hebrew.” At Beilinson Hospital the representative decided to hang up after being unable to understand us. Only on the third attempt did we reach someone who tried to find someone to translate for us.

Four hospitals made a real effort to help us; Poriya, Laniado and Assaf Harofeh all acted quickly to connect us to employees who spoke Arabic, while Meir Hospital displaye goodwill, but we wound up being passed between people and waiting for a long time.

In any case, what all this points out is the lack of an official policy and procedures.

Where there’s competition, there’s accessibility too

Emun Hatzibur says that, outside of health care, there is no formal, explicit legal requirement to provide service in other languages. In addition, there is no legal recognition of a “language disability” that meets the criteria of the law on equal rights for those with disabilities.

The Israel Electric Corporation, a government monopoly that provides an essential service to the entire population, offers service in Hebrew and English. It used to be that in order to reach the menu where you chose the language, you first needed to go through preliminary menus only in Hebrew - but that was changed after TheMarker spoke to the company. We found a similar situation at Paz Gas and 012 Mobile.

“The fact that Israel, a country that accepts immigrants and with a large Arab minority, is lagging behind Western nations on such a basic matter is serious and embarrassing,” said Ronen Regev Kabir, the director of Public Trust.

“The findings show that even in the area of health services, language accessibility is often lacking and does not meet regulatory requirements. In other public institutions, the general response to speakers [of other] languages is even more inadequate and it is clear that there is no guiding policy. Some provide a response in Russian, but not in Arabic, others in English and some only in Hebrew,” he said.

“It is interesting to see that it is actually in the communications sector that there is a wider range of language solutions in most companies, while in the gas companies, water corporations, IEC and even municipal call centers, the response is thin or even nonexistent,” Regev Kabir added. “ This shows that companies who face competition understand better the need for responding to the public. Public Trust’s policy is that there is a need to legislate a requirement to provide services for those who have problems with Hebrew."

Responses: There is no legal requirement

The Be’er Sheva municipality said all its call center representatives speak English, and there are a number of Arabic speakers who provide service in that language. Haifa said its municipal call center was always staffed by speakers of different languages, 24 hours a day. The city is now installing an automated call system with English, Arabic, Amharic and Russian. Ramle said that seven of its 13 representatives spoke Arabic at a mother tongue level. In Tel Aviv, the city said it is now moving to a new telephone system and adding additional languages would be considered.

The Be’er Sheva water corporation said it acts as required by law, and there is no legal requirement for additional languages. However, they provide responses in Russian and Amharic, when needed.

The Israel Electric Corporation said it would be adding Arabic to its call routing system in the next few weeks and is planning to add Russian and Amharic in the future, as well as providing the language choice menus first.

The Israel Postal Corporation said the vast majority of calls are in Hebrew, but in special cases it provides a response in other languages. The post office website also provides customer service in English.

Israel Railways said that in general it provides service in Hebrew and English, but its call center employs speakers of other languages such as Russian and Arabic. The railways website also has timetables in English and Arabic, as do the schedules available in the train stations.

Bank Mizrahi Tefahot said its call system identifies customers and transfers them directly to their personal bankers or the relevant support staff, who know them and speak their language. Customers can be assigned to bankers based on the language they speak, if they wish.

A number of hospitals responded to this report: Ichilov Hospital said its information and appointments center has staff that speak Hebrew, English and Russian on the various shifts. Other staff is available to help out in other languages and, if necessary, it is possible to leave a message in another language for response by a service representative who speaks the appropriate language.

Beilinson said that it provides service in five languages directly, and is now preparing a solution for other languages. In addition it provides translators and mediators in a range of languages.

Hillel Yaffeh Hospital said it is making a great effort to ensure that most of its services are culturally and linguistically accessible, including establishing a language accessibility committee to improve the service provided to patients. The committee has established a list of staff who speak various languages.

Wolfson Hospital said the medical center is a unit of the Health Ministry, operating according to the ministry’s instructions and budget allocation. If the Health Ministry was to instruct the hospital to add additional languages and provide the budget, the hospital would certainly carry out the instructions, the hospital said.

Yoseftal Hospital said it also follows ministry rules and has a list of 40 translators for 23 languages, including sign language. In urgent cases, a translator is called immediately. The hospital said the specific case mentioned in this article was a one-time incident and it would act as soon as possible to remind employees of their instructions on the matter.

Kaplan Hospital said it provides immediate service in a number of languages through its switchboard and call center and is now in the process of expanding its automated calling system to include Arabic and Russian.

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