How Do You Say ‘Erasure’ in Arabic?

חנין מג׳אדלי - צרובה
Hanin Majadli
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File photo: A sign at an entrance to Jerusalem with the Arabic text covered by a sticker.
File photo: A sign at an entrance to Jerusalem with the Arabic text covered by a sticker.Credit: Emil Salman
חנין מג׳אדלי - צרובה
Hanin Majadli

This coming Saturday is World Arabic Language Day. The day will be marked in Arab countries and other, mainly European nations with large populations of Arabic speakers. Their numbers have been growing since the Arab Spring and the beginning of the waves of migration to Europe. Indeed, the attitude towards Arabic is on a positive trend in countries such as Germany and Sweden, which have made institutions and schools more accessible to Arabic speakers.

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Israel too, where Arabic is the language of 20 percent of the population, wishes to join the celebration. The menu of the festive meal includes delicacies prepared by the chefs of the Foreign Ministry’s information department. These consist of cute videos, showing how this day is marked in Israel and how Israel elevates the status of Arabic and its Arab motifs. Avichay Adraee, head of the Arab media division in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, will go on a mission behind enemy lines, asking Israelis what their favorite Arabic words are, pointing out to them that sababa (cool) is actually an Arabic word! Do you know the favorite Arabic word of Israeli soldiers? Turns out that wassakh (showing off), a real hit in army slang, comes from Arabic.

But while information wizards try to do some “Arabic-washing” to show the world, and particularly the Arab world, how progressive and enlightened Israel is, with its Arab citizens having the good fortune to live in a state that respects them and their language, as well as the entire Arab sphere of existence – in fact, reality on the ground is less attractive and promising. One need only look at the country’s roads and see how Arabic names are deleted from road signs, even in areas where a significant portion of the population is Arab. One can also go to the Interior Ministry and see how Arabic has been removed from official forms, with no public service provided in Arabic. When they do translate something into Arabic, the translation is sloppy and full of errors.

All these examples indicate a wish to see an erasure of Arabic in Israel, an attempt to uproot and humiliate it. This attests not just to the attitude toward the language, but mainly to its speakers. Since 2014, Arabic has been undergoing a consistent downgrading, wrapped in constitutional language. The pinnacle was the passing of the nation-state law, which turned Arabic from an official language, which even then did not enjoy the privileges reserved for such a status, to “a language with special status.” It’s so special here that it’s on the way to being eviscerated.

The downgrading of Arabic is not happening as part of a drive to place the country’s Palestinian citizens within some imaginary and inclusive “Israeliness.” On the contrary, the downgrading of Arabic, which has long been the language of this place, is meant to sever the link between the Arabic language and this land. The goal is to equate it to the rest of the main spoken languages in Israel that are not Hebrew.

But in contrast to Russian and Amharic, Arabic is the native language of this region. It didn’t arrive here from other places around the globe and was not brought here for demographic purposes. It’s always been here and always will be. The downgrading of its status is designed to treat its speakers as “migrants,” or “citizens by grace of the state,” needing help to fit in to the host country, even though the opposite is true.

All this of course doesn’t prevent Israelis who back the nation-state law from exploiting the symbolic capital of Arabic, giving their restaurants exotic Arabic names and taking videos showing Israelis saying two words in Arabic (it’s good for public relations). Sababa? Sababa.

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