Israel's Campaign Against Arabic

The Knesset bill to demote Arabic will have ruinous consequences within Israel and in the region. When will Israel start seeing Arabic as an asset, not a threat?

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Jews and Muslims ride the Jerusalem Light Rail.
Jews and Muslims ride the Jerusalem Light Rail.Credit: Emil Salman

On Wednesday the Knesset gave its approval for the Jewish nation-state bill to move forward. The bill seeks to enshrine as a Basic Law (the closest Israel has to a constitution) that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. The bill includes sections intended to reinforce the state’s Jewish character: Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Hebrew as the official state language and Arabic as having a special status. In other words, it revokes Arabic’s official language status.

Arabic in Israel is a special and complex case. It has undergone many upheavals, shifting from the majority language prior to the state’s founding to the minority language of the Palestinian Arabs, all while remaining the dominant language of the region.

Until now, Arabic was legally recognized as an official language on a par with Hebrew. But the State of Israel and Israeli society as a whole are still very far from being de facto bilingual. The status of Arabic as an “official language” under Israeli law has been largely devoid of practical content when it comes to public life. Practically speaking, Hebrew is the exclusive language of the overall public arena: It dominates the public sphere, it is the language of government bureaucracy, higher education, the vast majority of public written and electronic media in Israel, and the vast majority of the labor market.

In short, despite Arabic holding the mantle of an official language, it still holds a marginal place in the public sphere. There is no clear policy as to where it is supposed to appear and be available, and civic associations often have to go as far as the High Court of Justice to ensure that Arabic speakers are able to exercise their right to use their language in the national public sphere and access services in Arabic. The main significance of Arabic’s official status lies outside the national and social consensus in Israel. In effect, it protects the minority community and especially the ability of this community’s children to be educated in their language.

Throughout the years since Israel’s founding, there have been many attempts by Knesset members from different parties to annul the official status of Arabic and make Hebrew the country’s sole official language, but they never amounted to anything. This time the initiative is originating at the highest political levels and seems possible given the current radical right-wing government.

What would be the implications? Let me say right away that nearly 70 years since Israel’s founding, the notion of Arabic as a “problem” rather than a (human and material) resource is still widespread. Many Jews perceive Arabic as a language that threatens the Jewish hegemony in the country, as the language of the enemy more than the language of a neighbor. Therefore the study of the language is mostly encouraged for intelligence and military purposes.

Carmit Bar On, an Arabic teacher at a Jewish school in Rosh Ha'ayin. (Illustrative photo). Credit: Alon Ron

The negative, security-centered attitude toward Arabic reveals a disregard for the Arab’s presence in the region, and a lack of respect for him and his culture. What the situation in Israel really calls for is not the revocation of Arabic’s official language status, but rather a boost to it in order to effect a positive change. Israeli Jews should strive to make Arabic an integral part of their lives, their culture and their Middle Eastern identity, just as Israeli Arabs recognize Hebrew and the part it plays in their daily lives. The time has come to civilianize Arabic in Israel.

There is another aspect too. For there to be a historic reconciliation between Jews and Arabs, Jews in Israel must have some knowledge of Arabic as well as show respect for the language and for Arab culture. In this sense, Arabic is a vital Jewish national interest and an assurance for Jewish continuity in the region.

But the view of Arabic as a threat to the Jewish hegemony in the country and the use of this pretext to cancel its status as an official language can only do damage to the emergence of a two-way, Hebrew-Arabic bilingualism. Only when Arabic is seen as an asset and linguistic difference is not perceived as a threat to Jewish hegemony will there be a chance for a genuine linguistic mosaic that is truly two-way and bilingual to arise. Such a situation would help build true bridges between Jews and Arabs in Israel and beyond.

Attempts to legislate the annulment of Arabic’s official status through ethnic and racist bills like the nation-state bill are seemingly indicative of a desire by the Israeli Jewish majority to shut out others and an expression of alienation toward Arabs in Israel and the surrounding Arab world. If the current attempt succeeds, the Israeli establishment will have made a dire mistake with ruinous consequences for Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and for relations with Arab nations in the region, with the dubious ‘benefit’ accruing only to those who already hold political and cultural power in the state.

Professor Muhammad Amara is President of the Israeli Society for the Study of Language and Society and co-chair of the executive board of Sikkuy.