World Arab Language Day was observed December 18, a date that not coincidentally didn’t spark much interest in Israel. Most Israeli Jews fear Arabic, and this fear leads to silencing.
It happened with the nation-state law, which undercut the status of Arabic as an official language. It happens in workplaces that forbid their employees to speak Arabic among themselves. It happens with Hebrew-only street signs and, most importantly, with the lack of desire among the vast majority of Israeli citizens to know the language that dominates the region in which they live.
According to the Jewish-Arab NGO Sikkuy, only 8.6 percent of Israeli Jews say they know Arabic. Just 1.6 percent of them studied Arabic in school. Many of them who report knowing Arabic would struggle to write an email or read a newspaper article in this language.
Instead of improving the situation, the Education Ministry took a step backward in 2014 by rescinding the requirement of high schools to teach Arabic, which anyway wasn’t being enforced. Consequently, the number of Jewish high school students studying Arabic was cut by two-thirds. Instead of using Arabic as a bridge between peoples, it became a language to avoid. If you’re learning the language of the enemy, it’s to join Military Intelligence, the undercover unit in the West Bank or the Shin Bet security services.
Jewish parents find it much more important for their children to study Chinese than Arabic. The result is the Jewish public’s total ignorance not only of the Arabic language but of Arabic society in general, with the language being perhaps the most vital tool to understand it.
The abandonment of Arabic is particularly noticeable among those whose families came from Arabic countries. Research by the Van Leer Institute showed that while the rate of knowledge of Arabic among first generation immigrants from Arab lands was 25.6 percent, that level dropped to 14 percent for the second generation and plummeted to 1.3 percent among the third generation, which is apparently running for its life from Arabic and from any identification with it.
With all due respect to integrating our children to the great big world, they first of all should understand what is happening in their neighborhood, and Arabic is the bridge to their neighbors. While Hebrew has been woven into the Arabic of Israeli Arabs, who drink halib amid (half-Arabic, half-Hebrew for unrefrigerated milk), eat hiyyar hamutz (half-Arabic, half-Hebrew for pickles) and are careful not to be a shoter al-tnuah (half-Arab, half-Hebrew for traffic cop), Jews suffice with a little Mizrahi slang, and at most get used to jib al-hawiyyah (“hand over your identity card”), which they learned at the border crossings. Most of them even avoid saying shukran, the Arabic word for thank you, to an Arab salesperson and dismiss her with a todah, lest she heaven forbid realize how poor their Arabic is.
The time has come for Jews in Israel to stop being afraid and to start loving the beautiful, rich language of Arabic. It is a language of poets and writers, such as Gibran Kahlil Gibran, Emile Habibi, Mahmoud Darwish and many others. Graduates of the Israeli education system should finish their studies knowing Arabic exactly as they know English. They should get to know their Arab neighbors just as their neighbors are familiar with them.
The mission of the next Knesset and government will be not only to repeal the nation-state law due to the damage it causes, including to the Arabic language, but also to reinstate the requirement of Arabic studies – and, unlike in the past, also to enforce its implementation.
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