An Israeli Law That Seeks to Humiliate Arab Citizens

The nation-state law changed the status of the Arabic language - by defining Jewish tradition as superior the law ranks the cultural values of Jews from the Arab world lower than those from Europe

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Protesters against the controversial nation-state law, August 11, 2018.
Protesters against the controversial nation-state law, August 11, 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal

Article 4 of the nation-state law, which addresses the Arabic language, is the key to understanding the legislation’s essence. This article – as its supporters admit explicitly, and contrary to what its drafters try to claim – isn’t meant to raise the status of Hebrew, but to lower the status of Arabic.

In the absence of any reasonable justification, this change in the languages’ status reveals the desire that underlies the entire Basic Law – to hierarchically rank Israel’s citizens on the basis of race. This is a desire that is fundamentally racist and separatist.

Various position papers, as well as discussions in the Knesset committee responsible for passing the law, show that there’s only one motive for this change in Arabic’s status. In several cases that have reached the Supreme Court, the justices have addressed the question of whether only Hebrew should appear in public spaces, or whether another language can or even should appear alongside it.

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Some justices have accepted the assumption that Hebrew’s status as the language of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel may well justify enforcing its exclusivity. Thus the question they addressed was whether another language has the right to appear alongside Hebrew based on considerations relating to individual rights (as derived from the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty).

Consequently, the Basic Law’s drafters argue that because Hebrew’s special status hasn’t been enshrined in a Basic Law, the legislator had to assert its uniqueness in such a law and thereby enable its exclusivity.

Given this, it’s worth examining the validity of the fundamental assumption underlying the law’s enactment – that Hebrew’s status as the language of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel necessitates its exclusivity, so that it alone will be the state’s official language. To examine the validity of this assumption, we must answer the following question: Is the social and cultural value of a language indeed determined by its exclusivity?

To do this, we must figure out what determines the cultural value of a language. The scientific field that addresses this question is sociolinguistics, which studies the connection between linguistic facts and societal developments.

The relevant issue is diglossia – a situation in which a given community has more than one language. In this context, researchers seek to examine what one can learn about the community’s social values from the way these various languages are used.

It’s important to note that scholars of Hebrew’s history insist that in practice, it has always been in a diglossic situation. Is the fact that Hebrew has never been in exclusive use – i.e., that it has always functioned alongside other languages in both public and private spaces – undermined its special, exalted status in comparison to other languages?

Hebrew, throughout its existence, has been the exalted language of the Jewish people, its holy tongue and the language of its culture. Hebrew’s national and traditional value has remained high despite the fact that it was never used exclusively. The various groups that comprise Israel’s population share culture and traditions in various non-dichotomous ways. While many Jews who came from Arab states or the Middle East largely share in the history and national longings of their brethren who came from Europe, when it comes to many cultural issues – for instance, musical and literary traditions – these Mizrahi Jews share Arab culture and traditions.

Thus by defining Jewish tradition as superior the law ranks the cultural values of Jews from the Arab world lower than those from Europe. Negative social developments, like the contrast cultural figures draw between “Mizrahi” and “Israeli” music, have now been bolstered by the Basic Law.

Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal is a professor of linguistics who specializes in the Hebrew language. This essay was adapted from the opinion he submitted to the High Court as part of a petition by Mizrahi Jews against the Basic Law

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