Supreme Court Issues Historic Judgment Affirming Collective Rights of Palestinian Minority in Israel


Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a historic 92-page decision on a petition filed in June 1999 by Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), against the mixed Arab-Jewish cities of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ramle, Lod, Akka, and Natserat Illit. The petition demanded that these municipalities add Arabic to all traffic, warning and other informational signs in their jurisdictions. 

The three-judge panel, composed of Chief Justice Aharon Barak, Justice Dalia Dorner and Justice Mishael Heshin, ruled 2-1 in favor of the petitioners' request. The majority opinion concurred with the petitioners' argument that Arabic is an official language, and must be respected as such. Further, the Justices stated that, based on the rights to equality, dignity and freedom of language, the mixed cities must use Arabic on public signs. The Court ordered the respondents to immediately begin including Arabic text on all new signs, and to add Arabic to all existing signs within four years. This is the first time that the Israeli Supreme Court has issued a ruling clearly affirming the status of Arabic as an official language of the State. The official status of Arabic was originally codified under the British Mandate by Article 82 of the Palestine Order-in-Council (1922). 

In the petition, Adalah Staff Attorney Jamil Dakwar and ACRI Staff Attorneys Yousuf Jabareen and Auni Bana argued that Arabic is an official language of the State and that as such, according to the right to equality, the mixed cities must include Arabic on public signs. In support of their arguments, the petitioners also cited the right to dignity, protected by the Israeli Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty; and the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel, as a national minority, to preserve their culture, based on Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

The Attorney General, who joined the case as a respondent, argued that although Arabic is the second official language of the State, Hebrew is the primary, leading language. As such, the Attorney General claimed, no obligation should be placed on the cities to use Arabic on public signs; rather, the use of Arabic should be left to the discretion of each city. The Attorney General recommended that Arabic be included on signs next to main roads in the mixed cities, and in neighborhoods with high Arab populations. The petitioners rejected this recommendation, however, arguing that such an approach would further aggravate the discrimination against, and inferiority of, the Arabic language. 

The minority opinion, written by Justice Heshin, argued that there is no legal basis for obliging the mixed cities to use Arabic on public signs. In his 60-page opinion, Justice Heshin disagreed with what he saw as the "the petitioners' request that [the Court] admit that the Arabs in Israel are a national minority that is different in language and culture from the national majority in Israel." He argued that Adalah and ACRI's request has political dimensions and should not be dealt with in the Court but in a political forum. In his view, the petitioners sought the Court's recognition of a collective right that does not exist in Israeli law. 

Adalah welcomes yesterday's ruling and considers it an extremely important decision, that not only affirms the status of Arabic as an official language of the State, but is also a significant step towards legally acknowledging the collective rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Nonetheless, Adalah is concerned by the opinion expressed by Justice Heshin, which denies the relationship between individual and collective rights, and poses potential problems for future attempts to bring collective rights cases before the courts. 

In a similar case filed in 1997, H.C. 4438/97, Adalah, et. al. v. The Ministry of Transportation, et. al., Adalah and the Arab Association for Human Rights petitioned for the use of Arabic on all national road signs. In its February 1999 ruling on the case, the Supreme Court ordered that town names and directions be printed in Arabic on all national road signs within five years. 

H.C. 4112/99, Adalah, et. al. v. The Municipalities of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, et. al.