Opinion

The Arabic Language in Israel: Official but Inferior

The Knesset is telling the Arab community that their language’s standing is in jeopardy, so they should be careful not to make any unexpected moves

The Arabic language street sign in Jaffa for Arab Renaissance Street, May 2017.
Daniel Monterescu

The nation-state bill will apparently be brought to a vote during the current Knesset session. Granted, our country is called Israel, its flag is blue and white, its emblem is a seven-branched menorah, the Law of Return exists for Jews only and the Arab parties have never been members of any governing coalition, but even so, cabinet ministers and Knesset members from the coalition – and perhaps also enough populist MKs from the opposition – deem it urgent to pass a law which states that Israel belongs primarily to the Jews.

The nation-state bill has many meanings, which are naturally related to a series of laws that seek to sharpen Israel’s identity as more Jewish and less democratic. But my goal here is not to analyze the bill, which will apparently pass, but rather one specific provision that will apparently be removed from it: the one dealing with the Arabic language.

The original bill had a provision stating that Israel would have only one official language, Hebrew, and that Arabic would lose its status as an official language and instead become a language “with a special status.” This provision is in an ongoing dialogue with previous attempts to weaken Arabic’s status in Israel. Arabic is a language that has official status on paper, but in practice is greatly inferior to Hebrew and even to English, which isn’t an official language.

In an article titled “Official But Not Recognized” that was published in the scientific journal “Gilui Daat,” Dr. Dafna Yitzhaki, Dr. Meital Pinto and I noted that Arabic is an official language in Israel by virtue of a British Mandate-era regulation, that attempts to revoke this status began soon after the state was established, and that recently there has been an escalation in proposals in this vein. What’s new about the latest bills is the desire to create a legal hierarchy between Hebrew and Arabic.

In other words, these bills seek to leave Hebrew with its official status while demoting Arabic to “a secondary official language alongside English and Russian” (former MK Robert Tiviaev, Kadima party, 2009), a “language that will receive special attention” (former MK Arieh Eldad, National Union, 2009) or “a language with a special status” (MK Avi Dichter, Kadima in 2011 and Likud in 2017).

In the end, these bills didn’t pass, and Arabic “preserved” its status: official but inferior. The current nation-state bill will apparently also preserve this shaky status, and the bill’s sponsors will “agree” to remove the language provision from the bill.

But then we’re liable to make the mistake of thinking that Arabic “won” when in fact, one more victory like this and we’re done for. For even if the language provision is removed from the nation-state bill, the Israeli legislature has already sent the message that Arabic was close to losing its official status, and in the end retained it only as an act of grace.

The Knesset will thereby send a clear message to members of the Arab community via its own language: It was saved from losing its official status only at the last minute, so all those who support equality among Israel’s citizens and their languages should be very careful not to make any unexpected moves, since at any moment the ground is liable to collapse under their feet.

Thus the language provision’s removal from the nation-state bill can’t be interpreted as having granted any real power to Arabic’s status. Rather, its preservation hangs by a thread, waiting for the next time the establishment needs to threaten some cruel edict and then later discover “the goodness of its heart.” This is a chronic state of weakness.

Tomorrow the Knesset will hold an Arabic Language Day – a welcome initiative by MK Dr. Yousef Jabareen of the Arab parties’ Joint List – for the second year in a row. The MK who came up with the idea of a day to discuss promoting the Arabic language also heads a lobby for promoting coexistence between Jews and Arabs is no surprise. Jabareen understands that the threat to Arabic’s official status has a direct impact on the possibility of promoting coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

For this reason, and to avoid a chronic situation in which Arabic will have to be “grateful” every year anew to Knesset members who graciously allow it to retain its official status, Jabareen, his party colleagues and those who share his idea, along with civil society, must fight for Arabic not only to remain alive, but also to have a full life – in schools, the media and public service. This is the only way it can remove the threat of revocation hanging over its head. And it’s also a chance to advance the coexistence of Hebrew and Arabic, and of Jews and Arabs.

Dr. Yonatan Mendel is head of the Center for Jewish-Arab Relations at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and a research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking.