Israeli Arabs Should Be Free to Speak Arabic Everywhere

Tel Aviv University repealed its directive barring student-services employees from using Arabic with Arabic-speaking callers, but the larger issue remains.

Students on the campus of Tel Aviv University.
Nir Kafri

Tel Aviv University recently forbid employees at its student services call center for tuition matters to speak in Arabic with Arabic-speaking callers. Haaretz reported Tuesday that workers were informed in an email that “Tel Aviv University permits the receipt of information and the conduct of academic business only in Hebrew.”

A former employee at the call center told Haaretz that she would speak Arabic with callers who addressed her in the language. She said that in December she was explicitly told to stop doing so. She noted that there was no ban on speaking with callers in English.

As a result of the report in Haaretz, the university announced later on Tuesday that it was retracting the ban. But one must ponder why such a bigoted rule did not raise objections from more-senior university employees, such as the director of the call center manager, the shift supervisor or the registrar. They argued with the employee who complained and did not provide a satisfactory answer even when she stopped reporting for work and quit the job earlier than expected.

The university’s draconian rule is typical of the current period; Israeli Arabs have become a target of ceaseless attacks, exclusion and humiliation. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of Tel Aviv University students are native Arabic-speakers, and the institution at times even boasts of the high rate of Arab enrollment. Arabic is an official language of the state, which has declared as a goal the greater integration of Israel’s Arab citizens into society.

The university’s directive to call-center employers that they not respond to callers — students and prospective students — in the callers’ own language smells of the racism and aggression that are characteristic of Israeli society, which and attempts to exclude Arabic speakers from the public space.

Israel’s public space contains many places where Arab citizens of the state are hesitant to speak in their language. In addition, many institutions do not honor the law making Arabic the state’s second official language, conduct that reinforces the norm of intolerance toward and fear of Arabic-speakers.

This is an intolerable situation. No one who seeks to intensify Israeli Arabs’ sense of belonging to the state and to reduce their understandable alienation from it can accept a situation in which they are prevented from freely speaking their language. Educational institutions, including the country’s universities, should demonstrate particular sensitivity and permit to all students what should be taken for granted: the freedom to converse in their respective language, including of course Arabic. It’s a pity that so few Israeli Jews are fluent in Arabic, but Arab students should be free to speak in their own language.