Opinion

With the Nation-state Bill, Israel Is Committing Suicide in the Region

The history of mankind is rife with failed attempts by one determined nation to suppress another’s national language

Israeli Arabs enjoy the Mediterranean sea during the Eid al-Fitr holiday, in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2016. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.
Oded Balilty, AP

More than anything else, the nation-state bill approved this week by the government ministers looks like an act of fear and impotence. What country that is sure of itself and its identity has to pass a law to that effect?

We could forgive the insistence that this has been the exclusive country of the Jewish people ever since Abraham sent away his wife and child to die behind a bush in the desert, or the nightmare that our eternal capital will be kidnapped in the middle of the night by masked men, if it weren’t clear that this is a process that typifies aggressive regimes that are terrified before the weakening of their power.

In such processes symbols are of profound significance. Revoking the status of Arabic as an official language in Israel is an example of such a callous and foolish symbolic act. The history of mankind is rife with failed attempts by one determined nation to suppress another’s national language. What they all actually succeeded in doing was to strengthen the adherence of the national or ethnic group to its language, and even to reinforce the status of the suppressed language as a central symbol of the national struggle.

If there is any nation in the world that should identify with this point better than anyone it is the Jewish people, of course, who for thousands of years, although they didn’t speak their language, preserved it zealously in prayers and texts. And if there is a national movement that should understand the power of language as a symbol it is Zionism, whose revival of the Hebrew language is its most impressive and revolutionary achievement.

No Arab citizen in Israel believes that Arabic is really the “second official language.” The country never implemented this clause in the law seriously and failed to internalize it. With the exception of road signs – some of which are full of embarrassing mistakes and most of which express mainly the Zionist dominance in the Arabic transcription of the names of Hebrew cities and communities – and with the exception of a few popular Arab expressions (mainly curses), Arabic was never accepted by the Israeli establishment.

Instead of a natural bilingualism between the Hebrew embraced by the establishment and the language of the minority, a one-way bilingualism developed: The Arabs speak Hebrew and the Jews, who at most have studied some useless literary Arabic, “security-related” Arabic or the inarticulate and corrupt Arabic of the checkpoints, are deaf to the language and blind to the culture, in spite of the fact that so many Jews have a heritage (which was quite thoroughly suppressed) of Arab language, culture and music.

But behind the establishment’s back a revolution is taking place: The language in flourishing in Arab society in a process that could be described as “national pride.” The presence of Arabs and Arabic in places of work and leisure, in the academic community, in cinema and art, is growing, and the waiting lists for bilingual schools are getting longer. The president of the Israel Association for the Study of Language and Society is Prof. Muhammad Amara.

All these are threatening the extremist ultranationalist government and its lifelong project – to weaken society and democracy by means of paranoiac separation. But how pathetic they are. After all, as Amara asserted in his study “Arabic Language in Israel, Contexts and Challenges,” Israel is only a small linguistic island in an Arab ocean.

So a small and fragmented ethnic group is dwelling in the heart of a region that lives, speaks and breathes Arabic, and is entrenching itself in its conflicted local situation. As far as it is concerned, the sea is the same sea, the wind isn’t blowing, and the sun rises in the west, and in its tragic foolishness it is committing suicide in the region.