Opinion

Arab, Speak Arabic

How can liberal Jews complain about the nation-state law when Israeli Arabs themselves treat their mother tongue so disdainfully?

Israeli Arabs rallying for a right of return for Palestinian refugees, Atlit near Haifa, April 19, 2018.
Ammar Awad / Retuers

Near the exit from one of the Arab villages in the Galilee, the local council put up a sign reminding drivers to buckle up. The sign is entirely in Hebrew, as if only Hebrew-speakers left the village every day on their way to work or school.

Further down the road, on the busy street that passes through one of the big Arab villages, all the businesses – the grocery stores, the beauty salons, the car dealers and the restaurants – have Hebrew signs and Western-sounding names like “Aphrodite in the Village,” “America Restaurant,” “Fashion Attraction” and “Très Jolie.” Most are written just in Hebrew; a few are also written in Arabic.

The only signs that are in Arabic alone are those advertising doctors or lawyers. Those aren’t meant for Jews. Jews generally don’t frequent the clinics of Arab doctors or the offices of Arab lawyers. (Many would also prefer to be served by Jewish pharmacists, but those seem to be fast disappearing from the landscape.) So there’s no point spending money on Hebrew signs for the small number of Jewish customers.

The signs and posters aren’t the only evidence of the weakening of the Arabic language. Ordinary conversations on Arab streets resemble conversations between Hebrew-speakers and new Jewish immigrants. But in that case, Arabs are speaking a Hebraized Arabic to each other. It feels rare to hear an entire string of thoughts that doesn’t bounce back and forth between Arabic and Hebrew.

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The poor state of knowledge of Arabic is one of the greatest failures of the Arab public schools. When Arab college students can’t phrase an answer in proper Arabic, or understand scholarly literature written in Arabic, the question of Arabic’s standing – whether it’s an official language or only has “special status” – becomes secondary.

The outcry from liberal Jews against the section of the nation-state law that demotes Arabic from an official language is certainly heartwarming. But how can we complain about the law when Arabs themselves treat their mother tongue so disdainfully? What point is there in holding up the language banner when just about all matters of livelihood, business, studies and communications are conducted in Hebrew?

If Arabic’s status symbolizes the equality enjoyed by Arab citizens, or at least their recognition as a minority, the fight over it can’t be a monopoly of liberal Jews making the Arabic issue part of a broader struggle against the government and its racism. Above all, this cause belongs to the Arabs, and it has to go further than replacing Hebrew signs with Arabic signs, using Arabic words for Hebrew words that have crept into the language, and having Arabic-language forms in government offices.

Arabic’s status is closely linked to the Arab community’s status. And an Arab who isn’t willing to fight for his language’s prestige in his own community can’t then complain about his language’s inferiority nationally.

>> Arab citizens want to integrate into Israel but refuse to be a trampled minority | Analysis

Last year, for example, 47,000 Arab students were enrolled in colleges and universities in Israel, about 15 percent of the total. How many courses (aside from Arabic language courses) include an Arabic reading list? How many courses are taught in Arabic? Did any Arab Knesset member or other Arab leaders, the Arab student council or Arab chambers of commerce call for a strike at the universities or a boycott of the banks until they treated Arabic as an integral part of their Arab identity?

If Israel’s Arabs are ready to leave it to liberal Jews to worry about their identity, they shouldn’t be surprised by the state that things have come to.