When the Israeli cabinet committee approved the so-called nation-state bill, which revokes the status of Arabic as an official language, it marked an ironic departure from the legacy of Israel's Zionist founders.
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One prominent pioneer was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the famed Jewish lexicographer widely hailed as the reviver of modern Hebrew, and whose revivalist legacy rested on a genuine recognition of the essential role of Arabic in the rebirth and resurrection of modern Hebrew.
When Ben-Yehuda arrived in Palestine in 1881, Hebrew had not been a spoken language among local Jews since the time of the Bible. Instead, Jews in Ottoman Palestine spoke a mishmash of languages: Sephardim spoke Ladino and Arabic, Ashkenazim spoke Yiddish, while the rest conversed in several secular pidgin languages that evolved in various Jewish quarters. In Jerusalem, for example, Jews spoke Yiddish, French, or Arabic vernacular. To Ben-Yehuda, none of these dialects or lingua francas qualified as a mother tongue, let alone national language, for the Jews in Palestine.
Ben-Yehuda was a cultural nationalist who perceived the birth of Jewish nationalism in the revival of the Hebrew language. To accomplish his nationalist vision, he sought to transform Hebrew, which for centuries had been all but dead, into a modern spoken language. In reimagining the Jews as a modern nation, Ben-Yehuda also aspired to create a Jewish nation where Jews could adopt Hebrew as their national language. "The Hebrew language can live only if we revive the nation and return it to the fatherland," he wrote.
But Ben-Yehuda was also a humanist who envisioned the revival of modern Hebrew on the shoulders of classical Arabic. To revive Hebrew, he reasoned, "I have turned to her sister, Arabic, following the deeds of our ancient scholars."
His method rested on a brilliant logic of acculturation, which served more like a rhetorical device than a historical fact: He claimed that Arabic roots had been borrowed from ancient Hebrew, and hence must be reclaimed and resurrected into a modern national language. In Ben-Yehuda's own words: "The roots of Arabic were once a part of the Hebrew language . . . lost, and now we have found them again!"
True to his method, Ben Yehuda identified hundreds of Arabic roots in local Palestinian and Levantine dialects that he found in the Mishnah and the Talmud, but hardly existed in other Arabic dialects.
To accomplish his revivalist mission, Ben-Yehuda advised the Committee of the Hebrew Language: "In order to supplement the deficiencies of the Hebrew language, the Committee coins words according to the rules of grammar and linguistic analogy from Semitic roots... especially from Arabic roots."
Many of these Hebraized roots soon pervaded national terminology. For example, the Hebrew root higger (to migrate), a key word in Zionist discourse, was derived from the Arabic root hagar; the Hebrew root harash (to plow), from which was derived the name of the pre-state pioneering Zionist organization Ha-Horesh (the Plowman), was borrowed from the Arabic root harath. Even the word sabra (cactus), which came to designate native-born Israelis, was taken from the Arabic root sabr.
Thanks to Ben-Yehuda's quixotic revivalist efforts, by the Mandate period, Jewish pioneers in Palestine had adopted Hebrew as a national language, forcing the British Mandate authorities to recognize it as the official language of Jews in Palestine, and one of three official languages in the country, along with Arabic and English.
During the Mandate, Ben-Yehuda co-founded Va’ad Halashon, or the Language Council, leading to the creation of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which was founded on his legacy. By the time of his death, Hebrew had become a language of instruction in Jewish schools, Hebrew periodical flourished, and modern Hebrew dictionaries were available in local bookstores, including Ben-Yehuda's own monumental Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew.
This grand achievement is vividly captured by Herbert Samuel, the High Commissioner of Palestine, who wrote in 1920:
"The Hebrew language, which, except for purposes of ritual, had been dead for many centuries, was revived as a vernacular. A new vocabulary, to meet the needs of modern life, was welded into it. Hebrew is now the language spoken by almost all the younger generation of the Jews of Palestine and by a large proportion of their elders. The Jewish newspapers are published in it. It is the language of instruction in the schools and colleges, the language used for sermons in the synagogues, for political speeches and for scientific lectures."
In tracing the roots of modern Hebrew in an early Semitic culture that extended beyond its Jewish past, Ben-Yehuda can be seen as precursor of the subsequent Canaanite movement which, while claiming Hebrew as the dominant language in Palestine, still embraced Arabs as members.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda did not live to see the creation of the State of Israel and the loss of Palestine, having passed away only one month after the British authorities recognized Hebrew as an official language. Yet his dream of the rebirth of modern Hebrew from the embryo of its Semitic sister, Arabic, should be a lesson in ethnic coexistence. It should also remind us that encounters between Arabs and Jews in Palestine were not always grounded in conflict or zero-sum games, but extended to the realm of cultural borrowing and acculturation.
While its inclusivist foundation is nearly forgotten today, Ben-Yehuda's revivalist legacy can serve as a reminder to his Israeli descendants that Arabic and Hebrew are not each other's nemesis, as widely imagined, but are woven from the same cultural cloth.
Seraj Assi holds a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Georgetown University, Washington DC, where he currently serves as a visiting scholar.