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Getting the environment lost in translation

Israel has some significant environmental legislation, but understanding those laws is hard for those who aren't experts in Hebrew 'legalese'
Illegal waste dumping site in a field in Israel, Nov 21, 2008. (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash 90)
Illegal waste dumping site in a field in Israel, Nov 21, 2008. (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash 90)

A significant factor holding back social progress in Israel is its nature as a society for insiders, something that keeps well-meaning organizations and individuals in the dark on what is occurring in the field. This was recently highlighted when the Citizens for the Environment in the Galilee filed a petition against the Environmental Protection Ministry in the Jerusalem District Court earlier this month arguing the ministry violated Israel’s Freedom of Information Law by refusing to release data regarding pollution caused by five Haifa area factories.

Unfortunately, the incident displays the public’s main recourse to ensuring the bureaucracy fulfils the role it is tasked with: legal action. The general unwillingness of local and national government officials to provide information that should be publicly available is one of the reasons that former Civil Service Commissioner Itzhak Galnoor described the Startup Nation several years ago as a modern economy with a Third World bureaucracy.

However, this problem is even more acute for individuals who are unable to read the professional or academic-level Hebrew needed to access and read most government regulations, for the environment or other topics. Most glaring is the lack of translation into Arabic, an official language of Israel and primary language for 20 percent of Israelis, and English, today’s lingua franca in a globalized world.

Israel has many laws and regulations dedicated to protecting the environment, including wildlife. Not that you would know about it if you do not read Hebrew
Israel has many laws and regulations dedicated to protecting the environment, including wildlife. Not that you would know about it if you do not read Hebrew.

It is not just an issue of being able to read the fine print. For example, the Environmental Protection Ministry launched a new website last year that was supposed to make information on environmental issues, projects and regulations more accessible to the public. However, the English version of the website only lists eight categories of environmental regulation, while the Hebrew site has 26. In a graduate school review I conducted of both sites, I discovered that the majority of environmental legislation, including more than 40 laws and 200 regulations on the Hebrew website were nowhere to be found on the English website. Even the names of untranslated Israeli regulations were not provided in any language besides Hebrew, such that a non-Hebrew speaker would be forgiven for thinking that Israeli environmental regulation is quite lacking and Third World.

Actually, Israel has quite a substantial amount of environmental legislation. Unfortunately, much of it is inadequately enforced, an issue that could be mitigated if the government were more open in sharing information with concerned civil society groups. On a larger scale, foreign awareness of Israel’s environmental laws is necessary to facilitate international cooperation on environmental issues. The environment in particular an area with many cross-border issues, such as air and water pollution.

Beyond issues of regulatory enforcement, a major avenue for developing and diffusing best environmental practices is through academic research. However, foreign researchers are impeded by the inability to read Hebrew and lack of English-language material., which prevent them from studying Israel’s environmental regulatory regime and determining its relative successes and failures.

Translating Israel’s environmental laws into English will not only benefit policy professionals and academics, but also environmentally conscious English-speaking laymen in Israel and abroad. English is the language spoken by the largest segment of the Jewish Diaspora. Immigrants from English-speaking countries already have played a significant role in establishing environmental groups dedicated issue-specific campaigns, continuous programs and even educational institutions. Such institutions range from well-known Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V’Din) and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies to smaller non-profits such as the urban agriculture group Earth’s Promise in Be’er Sheva. Moreover, Jews in English-speaking countries, are a significant source of funding for many environmental non-profits in Israel. Increasing the English-speaking Jewish community’s knowledge of Israel’s environmental issues will translate into improved effectiveness of activists and supporters from this community, who already plays an outsized role in promoting environmental initiatives in Israel.

The Environmental Protection Ministry could claim that it simply does not have the budget to fund such a project, as the ministry’s total budget is less than a quarter of one percent of the government spending. However, there already is a piece of legislation in the Knesset that would resolve this issue without taking a dime from the ministry’s stretched budget. It is called the Language Accessibility of Internet Sites Bill and was drafted with the help of two civic empowerment non-profits Yedid: The Association for Community Empowerment and Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel. The bill had broad support and was sponsored by Knesset members from across the political spectrum, including Jews and Arabs, native-born Israelis and immigrants, religious and secular and those considered on the political right and left. Parliamentarians from the Labor Party, Kadima. Likud, Shas, Habayit Hayehudi, Meretz and Hadash all came out to advance the bill.

The proposed law would obligate every public body to translate its website into Arabic and other additional languages or provide a link to translation software that will enable translation of the material at user’s request for free. To comply with the law, 90 percent of a website’s static content and 50 percent of its dynamic content must be translated. Public bodies would also be obligated to regularly update information on their websites in Israel’s official languages and additional languages determined by the justice minister. The translation of dynamic information on websites must be done within 48 hours of the original Hebrew information being uploaded onto the site.

However, for reasons that remain unclear the bill was not to put to a preliminary Knesset vote that would have transferred it to a Knesset committee for discussion and then a plenum vote, either when it was proposed in July 2012 during the 18th Knesset or when it was reintroduced last April during the term of the current Knesset.

This is certainly a cause that should be taken up by pro-environment Zionist organizations abroad as well as politicians representing Israel’s Anglo community.

The writer is a journalist and graduate of Tel Aviv University’s Masters Program in public policy. He can be reached through his website: http://ronenshnidman.wix.com/journalism

About the Author
Ronen is a journalist as well as an experienced Hebrew-English translator. He has also written for JTA, JNS, Haaretz, The Forward and The Jerusalem Post.
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