Sixty Thousand Words, Bringing Jews and Arabs Closer Together

Dr. David Sagiv, who died this month at the age of 91, came from Iraq and worked for 50 years on the most comprehensive Hebrew-Arabic dictionary published to date

A Bulgarian Jew and a Palestinian Arab talking in Jaffa, Israel, 1949.
Kluger Zoltan/GPO

David Sagiv’s life’s work, lasting half a century, was completed a decade ago, when he was 80 years old. It was a bi-directional Hebrew-Arabic and Arabic-Hebrew dictionary called the Sagiv Dictionary, published by Shocken. The dictionary is 1,160 pages long and includes 60,000 words, expressions and sayings.

The decision to bind the two languages together symbolized for Sagiv a bringing together of hearts, something he strove for his entire life. “For many generations, Jews and Arabs lived together in all Arab and Muslim countries, from Iraq in the east, to Syria and Egypt, all the way to Morocco in the west. The daily and cultural lives of the two nations were intertwined,” he wrote in the introduction to his dictionary.

“It’s sad to see that at the advent of the 20th century Arab hostility toward Jews grew, leaving the latter feeling alienated and threatened,” Sagiv wrote. At the same time, the continuing conflict in our region caused “a rise in hostility toward and contempt for Arab culture in Jewish society.” One way of bringing the two groups closer, he said, was to foster a common language. “Knowing the other side’s language will contribute a lot and become a bridge for communication.” The two old and rich languages were very close to each other, Sagiv reminded readers, “Anyone who is interested can find many words that are very similar in both languages”, and this includes sayings and expressions.

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David Sagiv was born in 1928 in Basra, Iraq, under the name Daoud Sigawi. “I grew up in an Arabic-speaking country and absorbed its culture and literature. It was forbidden to study Hebrew at school, but we did study the Bible,” he said. On the eve of the establishment of Israel, Sagiv was active in the Zionist underground in Iraq, and was arrested. In 1951 he came to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. He started working for the Arabic section of Kol Yisrael radio service in 1957. In 1979, he was appointed head of the station’s Arabic department and was also the head of the Jerusalem Journalists’ Association.

Dr. David Sagiv with his wife Marcelle reading the Sagiv Dictionary in their home in Jerusalem, 2008.
Tess Chaplain/Genie

Already at his job at Kol Yisrael, Sagiv found that it wasn’t always easy to find an Arabic parallel for Hebrew words. At that time, people were using the Ayalon-Shinar dictionary, which was published in 1947. Sagiv started collecting items in preparation for an updated dictionary, but found it difficult to publish the first dictionary he compiled. For him, this attested to the gap between the two peoples. Only in 1985 did his dictionary come out, albeit in a small edition.

Professor of Arab Literature Sasson Somekh wrote that the dictionary was ground-breaking. It was widely embraced across the Arab world, both by public libraries and by universities, as well as by private libraries.

In 1990, Shocken published the dictionary in two volumes. Shocken then published an extensive and significantly upgraded version of the Sagiv Dictionary in 2008.

The dictionary offers an extensive vocabulary of both languages, including from the Bible and Quran, Talmud and Hadith, alongside contemporary Arabic and Hebrew words. Collected in it are hundreds of sayings comprised from many dialects, foreign words that were assimilated into the Semitic languages with mention of their etymological origins, as well as slang and popular expressions in spoken Arabic.