What Are You Afraid Of?

When advertisers used Arabic to advertise a new season of Fauda, they confirmed a new cliché – the greater the incitement, the better

A billboard with Arabic and Hebrew writing promoting the new season for a hit Israeli television series "Fauda" in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2017

Flooding Israel’s highways with black signs featuring a large, ISIS-style inscription in Arabic, which hint (or threaten) that something big is about to happen, is how the McCann advertising agency chose to arouse interest in the debut of the new season of “Fauda,” a Yes cable TV series about the IDF counterterrorism units.

Without thinking twice they aimed as low as possible; and we’re not talking only about racism or the traditional Israeli suspicion of Arabic – but about the mass opportunism of local politicians and social network activists copying the style of the extremist right-wing political activist “The Shadow,” whose cynicism can compete only with that of those copywriters and creative artists. They figured on what sort of reaction the campaign would get, and at the end of the week it turned out that they were right, too.

The universal cliché “sex sells” has been replaced in recent years in Israel with a new cliché – the greater the incitement, the better. The advertisers saw it work in the campaigns of the security mavens and of right-wing organizations, and brought it to the commercial playing field. They stimulate the general public’s hatred and hostility glands with a few anonymous signs in Arabic (because after all, how many Jews know how to read Arabic?) – and something will happen sooner or later.

The result is guaranteed, not because the level of racism or fear of Arabic rises (although there are actually signs that the opposite is happening – among adults, courses in Arabic became a trend in the past year), but because of the constant presence of those who are only waiting for the first opportunity to create another newspaper headline or viral post by exploiting the public’s fears.

This time the belligerents were the politicians in the towns of Nesher and Kiryat Gat, who instantly demanded the removal of the signs so as not “to scare the residents.” A member of the Nesher city council even tweeted that he “wouldn’t allow anyone to make political capital” at the expense of the residents; maybe he should look in the mirror.

The high price of the advertisers’ ugly, cynical partnership with right-wing politicians and social network activists will continue to be paid by all the citizens who live here. Arabic is an official language in Israel, and for many of the country’s citizens it’s a mother tongue – of course for the Arab citizens (who constitute one fifth of the population) as well as for many Jews with origins in Arabic-speaking countries.

Designating Arabic as the language of the enemy and a threat to the public sphere only continues to push off the day when the prolonged conflict between Jews and Arabs becomes a thing of the past, and is replaced by an egalitarian, prosperous, shared society for Jews and Arabs. In today’s Israel, where the school system doesn’t exactly consider the study of Arabic a supreme value, the demonization of Arabic and emphasis of it in terrifying, ISIS-style contexts only worsen the situation, conveying a demagogic message to young people and harming all of Israeli society, Arab citizens in particular.

The year 2017 will be remembered as the one when those who objectify and harass women suffered a decisive blow. Advertisers will think twice before using another sexist joke or a deep décolletage to sell a car or a beer, and it’s already rare to see a men-only panel at a conference or on an interview program.

But in the past year several other things happened – electronic signs in Arabic were installed on most of Israel’s bus routes and at train stations, there was an increase in the percentage of Arab employees in government ministries, and the representation of Arab interviewees on radio and television increased by tens of percentage points. Maybe in 2018 even the advertisers will realize that Arabic can no longer be a tool for taunting and fanning the flames.

Yet it is the Education Ministry that needs most to finally understand the importance of Arabic and its place in Israeli society, ensure that it becomes a compulsory subject, and that not a single student leaves the school system without being familiar with all its letters.

We will all only profit from that.

* "What are you afraid of?" is the translation of the Arabic words that were advertised throughout Israel 

The writer is director of public affairs at Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab organization that promotes civil equality and a shared society.