Opinion

Why Israeli Jews Are Terrified of Arabic

Most Israelis are only willing to accept Arabic when it's spoken by undercover Jewish commandos, like the ones portrayed in 'Fauda'

A still from the new, second series of Israeli hit series 'Fauda.'
Ronen Akerman / YES

On May 24, 2016, the Knesset commemorated the country’s first Arabic Language Day. Among the Jews who gave speeches in the plenum – people who learned Arabic at home, or perhaps from an intensive course in the Shin Bet security service – Likud MK Anat Berko stood out. She urged Arab MKs not to make improper use of the “magical power” of Arabic. Perhaps that call echoed in the ears of the advertising people who decided to promote the second season of the television series “Fauda,” which has just been launched, with the aid of roadside billboards in Arabic.

The signs, containing threatening-sounding messages devoid of any context, such as “Get ready!” “The action is about to begin!” And “Heading your way!,” met their mark beyond all expectations: People in the Haifa suburb of Nesher and in the northern Negev town of Kiryat Gat were furious, and in no time municipal officials ordered the removal of the signs. (“Let’s not play innocent here – this looked like something from ISIS,” one Nesher councilman said.) The danger had, for the time being, passed.

This is not the first time that an ad aimed at Jews has employed Arabic text, on the assumption that the target audience will be incapable of understanding it. The aim is to generate fear, to create resonance.

In 2010, during the period of public debate over the conclusions of the Sheshinski committee – which made recommendations regarding the fiscal and tax policies to be employed in development of the country’s natural gas and oil finds – a group calling itself the Forum for the Land of Israel published a threatening ad with text in Arabic and alongside it, in Hebrew, the words: “Somebody doesn’t want you to understand.” Explanatory remarks, in Hebrew, accused the politically progressive – and much derided – fundraising organization New Israel Fund of encouraging a dependence on “Arab gas,” because it had come out in favor of higher royalties on natural gas. Ironically, someone really didn’t want people to understand the ad: The Arabic lacked any syntactical sense, to the point where it was clear it could not have been written by a speaker of the language.

'Fauda' ads in Arabic spook Israelis, spark calls for billboards to be removed
Edan Ring

How did Arabic, the mother tongue of about one-fifth of the country’s citizens – and the language in which many Jews throughout the world wrote, spoke and created for many generations – become frightening and intimidating? As always, one’s first instinct is to blame the Jewish-Arab conflict. Arabic is the language of the enemy, and as such most of us want to keep it far away from our eyes and ears. If we distance it, we will thereby distance the enemy.

In a study conducted in 2015 by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute in conjunction with the Dirasat Arab Center for Law and Policy, and Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, only 10 percent of Israeli Jews reported that they speak or understand Arabic at a reasonable level. Only 2.6 percent were capable of reading a newspaper in Arabic, and only a puny 1 percent of Jews in the survey said they were able to read literature in Arabic.

Yonatan Mendel, who studies the language’s status in Israeli society, maintains that from the 1930s, and more intensively after 1948, what was in effect a new language – “Israeli Arabic” – was created by the country’s educational and security establishments. The rationale was that Arabic is a language of the weak, perhaps the language of exile, and of course a foreign tongue. It’s a language that’s taught almost like Latin, mainly to prepare people to know enough Arabic to understand the Arab enemy – but not so much Arabic that they will come to resemble that enemy.

Fear of excessive resemblance to Arabs, or over-successful assimilation in the enchanted (but degenerate) Orient, troubled thinkers and activists in the Zionist movement from its inception. Many studies have dwelt on the connection between the development of Zionism in Europe, and the effort to peel away from the Jews the “Oriental” label that had stuck to them over the centuries. On the other hand, in order to return to their historic homeland, the Land of Israel, the Jews were enjoined to rediscover their roots there, and those roots were embodied in the land’s present inhabitants, the Arabs – the shepherds, the farmers, the fighters – and in their living language, Arabic.

These relations of attraction-repulsion vis-a-vis the East became a motivating force in the history of Zionism’s consolidation in Palestine, and also part of the prodigious efforts to transform Hebrew into a spoken, everyday language. An example is presented in the article “Protecting the Jewish Throat: Hebrew Accent and Hygiene in the Yishuv,” published by the historian and sociolinguist Marco Di Giulio in 2016, in English, in the Journal of Israeli History.

Di Giulio shows how the intra-Zionist debate during the era of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) about the correct pronunciation of the guttural phonemes – het and ayin – invoked arguments from the world of medicine. There were those who warned, without any scientific evidence, that pronunciation that was too close to the Arabic (the spoken language that most resembles Hebrew) was liable to damage the delicate tissues of the Jewish throat – that is, the European-Jewish throat, of course. In addition to all the other troubles, Arabic also posed a health hazard.

Arabic-free space

“Fauda” is not just another series about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a series about the mista’arvim, the undercover units of the Israel Defense Forces whose members pose as Palestinian Arabs. They have a place of honor in Israeli society. From the period of the Palmach, the elite commando force of the pre-state Haganah, down to our time, the Jew who disguises himself as an Arab – who lives among Arabs and succeeds in fooling them into thinking he is a genuine Arab – has stirred interest and excitement.

In the past it was the recounting of the proud exploits of the Palmach’s “Arab Department” in the villages in the years before and just after independence; these days it’s the heroic infiltration of Channel 10 TV journalist Zvi Yehezkeli into ISIS groups in Europe. Sociologist Gil Eyal, of Columbia University, views the mista’arvim as distinct “hybrids,” who ostensibly exemplify a situation in which the Jew becomes an Arab and actualizes the dangers of the Orient, but in practice are impersonators, able to shed their disguise instantaneously and return to being normal Jews at will, so that they don’t pose a threat to the social and political order. As such, according to Eyal, the mista’arvim make it possible to sharpen the separation between Jews and Arabs. They are positioned on the boundary line and distance it from us, and thus help to create a safe space – free of Arabic and free of Arabs.

It is highly symbolic, then, that when a public discussion, however toxic it may be, finally takes place about the presence of Arabic in the public domain, it revolves around billboards promoting a TV series about mista’arvim (and it’s immaterial if the series is praised for its balanced presentation – relatively – of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). The advertisers’ cynical ploy succeeded. After all, even the article you are reading is part of the buzz surrounding the new season of “Fauda.” The use of Arabic for the purpose of scaring people will continue to govern the public dialogue in Israel as long as that language remains a foreign, enemy language and a threat to Jewish identity.

Arabic is the language of the region we live in. It’s foolish to flee from it, and cowardly to be its consumers only by means of the heroic tales of those who pretend to be its native speakers. Israel’s Jewish citizens need to become familiar with Arabic not as a mysterious, magical and dangerous language, but as one that is part of their everyday life, not to mention their identity.

Amit Levy is a doctoral student in the history department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.