The language wall

Bureaucracy is always bad. Waiting in lines and filling out infinite, indecipherable forms, while a gum-chewing clerk offers you no help at all, just so you can pay a steadily growing debt, is bad enough. Imagine doing it in a language you do not understand. 

Israel’s Enforcement and Collection Authority (Rashut Ha’Achifa Veha’Gviya), the government body in charge of collecting money and ensuring that winners in legal cases get their restitution, mails its documents to people in Hebrew – only in Hebrew. As if there weren’t over a million Arabs in the country. As if Arabic were not an official language. As if the documents were about something trivial, like an invitation to a lecture and not a warning that if you do not pay within thirty days your license might be revoked or your bank account frozen.

Since the documents are not translated into Arabic, and since not everyone is lucky enough to have a Hebrew-speaking neighbor who can help translate, many people simply go with their notices to the Enforcement and Collection Authority’s bureau. There, they assume, real people will assist them and things will make more sense. As a part of a Human Rights Clinic project at Hebrew University, I went to the bureau to see whether this assumption was grounded.

The Jerusalem bureau is in the Clal building on Jaffa Street, and no – there is no satellite bureau in East Jerusalem. Above five floors of locksmiths and law firms, I discovered a form-filling, fine-paying kingdom. After two guards checked my bag and asked whether I had anything sharp, I walked through a metal detector and into harsh fluorescent lights, shining on uniformed people and chairs uninvitingly inviting me for a very long wait.

Although everyone who came in bearing a form seemed somewhat puzzled, the confusion of those who did not speak fluent Hebrew was amplified and obvious. One man, grey-haired and bent, stood silently in front of the woman at the booth. By chance, two Arabs standing nearby saw him and walked over to translate. The old man and the woman at the desk did not interact with each other at all. The men, who had come with forms of their own to sort out, had become translators. Because Arabic, apparently, is an esoteric tribal language that nobody speaks.

I watched the ridiculous situation from afar, still hesitant to address anyone directly. Finally, I mustered enough courage to introduce myself to a woman who had just left one of the booths. Before I even had a chance to tell her my name, she asked if I could help her. “I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do here,” she said in uncertain Hebrew with a clear Arabic accent.

I sat down next to her as she showed me her forms. She had a fine amounting to a few thousand shekels from Route 6, the toll-road. Since she was incapable of paying the whole fine at once she wanted to get permission to pay it back in installments of 500 shekels a month. In order to do so, she had to fill out a stack of forms detailing every financial aspect of her life, which included the zip code where her husband works and the sum of her monthly telephone bills. The forms were all in Hebrew, of course. Intended for Hebrew speakers like me and not for people like her. But still, I had trouble understanding them.

The Enforcement and Collection Authority’s smiley logo

I tried to fill out the forms with her but quickly realized that it could take all day and that my help would probably be ineffective, since I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was doing. I walked over to the clerk with her. In the manner of a skilled bureaucrat, the woman waited a minute or two before raising her eyes from the screen. When she finally did, she glared at me in a way that felt a lot like a punch in the stomach. It was a look of surprise and animosity at once.

I explained that neither the woman – nor I –understood what she was supposed to do with the various forms and numbers. She was silent for a moment, indicating that her job was in fact over, and that any help we would now receive was solely a product of her magnanimity, before she fired off a tirade that left us more confused than we were before. “All you have to do is fill out this and this and this,” she snapped. She pointed fervently at the different sections and flapped the forms around, sputtering words and terms and directions. “You see,” she spat at me. “She understands.” When the woman beside me mumbled a word she did not understand, the clerk whined, “Oh come on,” as if the woman was only pretending, and in fact spoke fluent Hebrew.

“Is there an Arabic-speaking clerk?” I asked. No. Not one. The woman and I walked back to where we were before, passing a sign offering legal assistance to those in need. The sign was only in Hebrew.

Instead of hiring Arabs to work in the bureau, and not just as cleaners, the Authority apparently teaches its employees that translation consists of saying the same thing, in Hebrew, only louder and more slowly. Instead of the Authority translating the few standardized documents it sends to so many befuddled people, it issues warnings and vital messages in one language only. And while the government shirks its most basic duties, and people are unaware of the legal actions being taken against them, interest charges rise, debts grow, and feelings of embitterment and despair swell steadily.

About the Author
Danya Kaufmann is a third year law student at Hebrew University.