Have you ever winced or wiggled uncomfortably at the sight of a bi- or trilingual sign in a public place in Israel whose message in English was either full of misspellings or couldn’t be understood without reading the Hebrew first? No need to answer. Moreover, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that a country deeply immersed in American culture, that welcomes millions of tourists every year and has many new (and old) immigrants who have not mastered Hebrew, would ensure that all public material be in good English?
Until I started writing this piece, I was convinced that English was an official language of the State of Israel, along with Hebrew and Arabic, so whenever I ran into a sign in poor English I would feel a national shame. However, it turns out that one of the first ordinances of the government in 1948 was that “Any provision in the law requiring the use of the English language is repealed.” This repeal refers to the law of the government of the British Mandate from 1922, which decreed English, Arabic and Hebrew (in that order) as official languages. But this British law is still the only law addressing the issue of official languages in Israel. Confused? No wonder. Although its official status was not formally canceled, the use of English today is not mandatory (except for warnings about dangerous substances) but it may be used in official documents.
In this article I survey the use and abuse of English in public space, that is, texts created by official bodies (state, local government, public institutions) for the public. The survey is by no means exhaustive; I include mainly websites and signs, although printed material like flyers, brochures and booklets could be included as well. The scope of this article is limited; I mostly look into spelling, grammar, syntax and usage but not into other aspects of language.
The first place to explore was the official website of the Israeli government (www.gov.il/en). Surprisingly, some ministries have only a very brief English page. I browsed mainly the websites of ministries that are likely to be visited by non-Hebrew speakers: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Aliyah and Integration, and Tourism (the Ministry of Interior and that of Religious Services have no English pages at all). All in all, the English is excellent and professional editors were clearly employed. Chinks in this professionalism are seen on some recently added pages as, for example, in these two news items from the Ministry of Tourism: spot the minor problems and the major ones (third paragraph).
To examine local government, I visited the websites of the major cities. The Tel Aviv Municipality website is very good, but apparently updates added to the site are not always checked professionally for spelling and grammar, as for example this page (see near the end). The Haifa Municipality website offers nothing to write home about. Visitor are greeted with poor English already on the homepage, and deeper probing brings up additional carelessly worded pages. In contrast, I found no fault with the Jerusalem Municipality site. It contains dozens of pages and sub-pages and all those I checked were well-written, accurately spelled and punctuated.
In the public sector there are innumerable authorities and organizations; I only looked at those that are likely to attract the average foreign visitor. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority site reads clearly, although most English speakers will recognize that the texts were written by a non-native speaker. I found several instances where a site’s name was spelled in two different ways on the same page: Zippori and Tsippori; Yehiam and Yehi‘am, and several misspellings, such as “The Arc of the Covenant.” The site of the Civil Aviation Administration is highly professional and contain texts in excellent English, including downloadable documents that are updated periodically. Its sibling, the Israel Airports Authority, is less professional. I spotted several typos and traces of changes that were not cleaned up, such as “Telematics is responsible forin charge of the field of information and computerization.” The site of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) — temporarily down as of writing, May 2018 — is especially bad. As an employee of this organization, I am familiar with the website and contributed to it. Although the IAA has a highly professional publication department, the contents of the website have been mostly uploaded without any serious editing or proofing.
As a last example I bring a site brought to my attention by Susan Holzman: Israel is renowned for its medical tourism, and no less than nine medical centers and clinics vie for the attention of the potential foreign patient. The mistakes are not always easy to spot: inconsistently spelled names, misspellings (“tetriary” healthcare), bad grammar, typos and meaningless sentences (“treats the complete spectrum of ophthalmological care”). Maybe the average patient will not notice, but if I were a physician referring my patient to treatment abroad, I would be wary of a medical center that presents itself through a poorly worded advertisement.
It takes some reading to spot mistakes or poor language on websites. In contrast, signs are brief and mistakes stand out like a sore thumb. While nothing beats Chinese ‘English’ for hilariously nonsensical signs, Israel puts up a good fight. Although official, and the responsibility of local government, I will not survey street signs. There is no end to embarrassing or absurd varieties of these, and that is even before touching on transliteration issues. In addition, some of the absurd street signs to be found on the web were created by Photoshop, so I don’t want to take a chance.
I am not sure whether the temporary signs found at road construction sites are supplied by the Ministry of Transport and Road Safety or by municipalities, but they seem to receive a good share of negligence. When nearing a construction site, be sure to follow the orange stiping, and be care full of trucks Passover (if it’s after April). There may be ignorance on the road, but you are surely smart enough to avoid it.
Ordinary road signs have something to offer too. After you pass a danngerous curve, you’d better find an emergency gulf to stop and get your breath back. That is, if there are “no strong cross winps” that might blow you away (seen along the shores of the Kinneret). In the Negev, be sure to visit the Small Makhtesh Katan.
At the airport they apologies for the temporary inconveniece due to constructing works, and one Magen David Adom committee put up plaques in recogination of the devotion of three donors. On the Ashkelon beach, “do not enter the sea life” if there is no lifeguard, and avoid this swimming pool unless you are accompanied by a Hebrew translator. Incidentally, this is not Google Translate, but a completely original creation.
Most people in Israel speak English to some extent, and it stands to reason that employees of state and local government, and certainly those who are in charge of creating English texts, have a better than average command of the language. I suspect that this actually may be one reason for the sloppy texts. Looking at the major websites, it is clear that for most, the texts were carefully revised and edited when the website was originally created. However, when updates are needed, these are formulated by the officials who instigate them, with just maybe “the guy in the next office, who speaks good English” going quickly over the text. Although in some offices there may be regulation requiring professional proofreading, the typical Israeli attitude would be to skip this and upload the update as-is. Admittedly, Hebrew texts often suffer from the same negligence, but for sites directed at a foreign readership, especially those with an economic agenda (tourism, medical tourism), I would expect much tighter quality control.
Updating a website can be accomplished by a single person on a computer. I have no idea how many people it takes to make a sign, but certainly more than one. At the very least, there is the person who formulates the text in some office and the one who figuratively sticks the letters onto the sign in the sign shop, although today this is probably done by a machine. Is it a case of mistyping when transferring the original text? A worker in the sign shop who “knows better” than the person who wrote the text? Simple negligence?
The fact that sloppy official signs and texts can be found even in countries where English is the official language is of little consolation. The fact that there are ministries without an English language website suggests that this is of little concern to the state. Would things be different if English was an official language of Israel?
Credit for the title is due to Datya Sheinfeld, my fellow student. All the hyperlinks in this article were live on May 22, 2018. However, links do break, and it may happen that some of the linked pages will be gone—or corrected. The illustrations are mostly by unknown photographers and appear on multiple sites.
 Law and Administration Ordinance No 1 of 5708—1948, clause 15(b). Official Gazette No. 1 of 5th Iyar, 5708; as per authorized translation in Laws of the State of Israel, Vol. I (1948) p. 10. Taken from Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Israel).
 The English site can be accessed only from the Hebrew homepage.
 I thank Yael Sela-Shapiro for permission to use the photograph from her blog.
© Danny Syon, 2018. All rights reserved.