Why Israel’s Jews Do Not Know Arabic

Though native-born Jews in the early 20th century sought a Hebrew-Arabic cultural connection, European immigrants sought a separation - and over time the latter 'vision' won.

Hebrew lesson at Kibbutz Maabarot, 1943.
Zoltan Kluger / GPO

In December 1920, the mayor of Jerusalem, Raghib al-Nashashibi, organized a large event in honor of British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel. When he invited Prof. Abraham Shalom Yahuda to speak at the event, there was no need to say the lecture would be given in Arabic. For both of them, sons of distinguished Jerusalem families, one Arab-Muslim and the other Arab-Jewish, Arabic was the local language. It was the language in which members of all religions here wrote, spoke, traded and argued.

Arabic was viewed as the language of the land also among the Zionist movement, which acted to renew the Hebrew language. David Yellin and Yosef Meyouhas, two of the founders of the Hebrew Language Committee and Hebrew education in the land of Israel, could not have imagined that their project for the rebirth of Hebrew would serve one day as a tool to displace Arabic.

Meyouhas translated dozens of stories and fables from Arabic to Hebrew. In the Havatzelet newspaper he declared in 1895: “The more I continue to research the roots of the Arab people and its qualities, language and literature, the more I discover Israel and the secrets of its language.” Yellin spoke at rallies and conferences in Arabic, and taught Arabic in the teachers’ seminary in Jerusalem. The connection between Arabic and Hebrew stemmed from the place of Arabic in Jewish thought and writing for centuries.

In the early 20th century, with the growing Jewish immigration from Europe to Israel and the development of Hebrew and Arab nationalism, the fragile fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and between Hebrew and Arabic, was weakened.

The roots of the Hebrew language that the immigrants brought with them were related to the rebirth of Hebrew in Eastern Europe. It was based mostly on the link to Yiddish and Russian, as opposed to the rebirth of Hebrew in the land of Israel, which was based on the connection to Arabic, which in turn was viewed by many as a foreign and unimportant language of local residents, Arabs and Jews, and they did not learn it as a spoken language.

This stance aroused harsh criticism back then among the native-born intelligentsia. They recognized the arrogance of the new immigrants’ attitude towards Arabic as undermining their own political and cultural status.

The equation seemed clear to them: Contempt for Arabic meant contempt for the history of the land and the history of its Arab residents. Yosef David Maman described it during an argument with Ashkenazi modernists: “You, the eternal wanderer, come to France and learn French, Germany and learn German, go to America and learn English; so why when you want to come to Palestine, which is dearer than all those countries, do you not learn Arabic, the language of the people of the land who you meet every day?”

Moreover, they saw Arabic as a language with special significance in Jewish history, and only by connecting to it could a Hebrew national culture in Israel be created. In an article in the Ha’herut newspaper in 1913, Dr. Nissim Malul wrote: “If we, the inheritors of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides, wish to follow their path, we must know the Arabic language very well and integrate with the Arabs as they would too. As a Semitic people we must build a foundation for our Semitic nationalism and not hide it in European culture, and through Arabic we can create real Hebrew culture.”

Abraham Shalom Yahuda raised similar claims (in Arabic) on that same wintery night back in 1920, to an audience of Muslim, Christian and Jewish intellectuals and public figures, few of whom needed a translation. He described the golden age of Arab culture in Spain, the achievements in science, architecture and poetry, and the flowering of Jewish culture alongside it. At the end of his lecture, Yahuda called on the Palestinian and Jewish leadership to build a Mizrahi modernization with Arabic-Hebrew cultural as its joint foundation. His dream did not come true, and instead of a joint culture, the wall between Jews and Palestinians, and between Hebrew and Arabic, only grew higher.

A few months ago Prof. Yehouda Shenhav presented, in a lecture he gave in Arabic at Tel Aviv University, a report he wrote with other researchers on the knowledge of Arabic among Jews in Israel. Many in the hall needed a translation to understand the worrying findings: Very few Jews today know Arabic. While some 10 percent of Jews said they have a good knowledge of Arabic, only 6 percent can recognize the letters and 1.5 percent can read and write Arabic. Some 49 percent of Ashkenazim want Hebrew to be the only official language in Israel, and almost 60 percent of Jews whose background is in Arab countries want the same, and oppose the status of Arabic as an official language. This figure is especially troubling because it signals a desire to erase the existence of the Palestinians in Israel, in the past and present, and points out how effectively the notion of an Arab-Jewish culture has been erased from Israeli consciousness.

There is no more appropriate moment to ponder this than now, when the Knesset is advancing the law on suspending MKs, which indicates the fragile status of Arab lawmakers, and, in a symbolic way, the fragile status of Arab citizens. This marks the culmination of the process of removing Arabic as the language of the land and the Arabs as its residents. In practice, there is now a need for a redefinition of the status of Jews in Israel, one that is not based on such disinheritance but on the acceptance of Arab residents of this place and their language as an important component in shaping our shared future in Israel.

The writer is a sociologist and researcher of culture, and a member of the faculty of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership.