December 18th marked World Arabic Language Day and offers a good opportunity to reflect on the status of a language that is spoken by around twenty percent of the Israeli population, mainly by the country’s Arab citizens, but also by Mizrahim, Jews of Middle Eastern descent. According to a 2018 study conducted by Sikkuy, a nonprofit that promotes Arab-Jewish coexistence, only 1.6 percent of Israeli Jews credit the Israeli education system with giving them the ability to communicate in Arabic (compare this to the 40.5 percent who learned English in school). This is likely due to the fact that Arabic is not a mandatory subject in Israeli high schools (students in most junior high schools have the choice of studying Arabic or French). In addition, those few who do opt to take it in high school follow a curriculum that is security focused and aimed at preparing students for future military service.
And yet, the last decade has seen a renaissance in Arabic that extends from music and art to language classes. This surge is taking place outside of the classroom and is a grassroots movement led by Israeli youths.
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Top of the pops
Arabic music has become all the rage in recent years as some young Israeli musicians of Mizrahi descent have embraced their roots and begun singing in Arabic. The prime example is the chart-topping music of A-WA, a pop band of three Yemenite sisters, Tair, Liron, and Tagel Haim, who sing in a Yemenite dialect of Arabic. They first made a splash in 2015 with their single, "Habib Galbi," ("Love of My Heart") which became the first-ever song in Arabic to top the charts in Israel. The group’s latest album released this year delves into Mizrahi remembrance of state discrimination during much of Israel’s history. In “Hana Mash Hu Al Yaman” (“Here is not Yemen”) the sisters tell the story of their great-grandmother, a Yemenite Jew who like other Mizrahim was settled in ramshackle transit camps known as ma’abarot upon arriving in Israel.
Another popular singer to rediscover his roots and the Arabic language is Dudu Tassa. Tassa is the grandson of Daoud al-Kuwaiti of the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers, a musical duo that was one of the most famous and respected in Iraq and a favorite of King Faisal in the 1930s. His grandfather lost everything when he immigrated to Israel in the 1950s. Tassa’s journey of rediscovery of his grandfather’s Arabic music is conveyed in the 2011 documentary Iraq n’ Roll, which traces the shame Iraqi Jews felt over using their native tongue.
During the early years of the state of Israel, speaking other languages beside Hebrew was highly discouraged. Hebrew was seen by leaders such as David Ben-Gurion as a tool to unite Jews from across the world with different languages and cultures who had little in common. To Ben-Gurion, linguistic purism was necessary for nation building. And although this attitude was enforced for all languages, including Yiddish and German, Arabic speakers faced more humiliation because their language was held as being associated with an inferior and enemy culture.
Now, Tassa, a third generation Mizrahi, has begun to release music in Arabic. His Arabic rock band Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis has released two albums and has performed across the world.
But it is not only Mizrahim who are taking part in this movement. Twenty eight year-old Gilad Sevitt of Jerusalem discovered a passion for the Arabic language. Frustrated by the Israeli education system’s failure to teach its students how to communicate in Arabic, Sevitt and his friends created a website to teach colloquial Arabic to Hebrew speakers for free. The website called Madrasa has 20,000 learners and teaches the language though videos filmed by Sevitt and his friends who are both Palestinian and Israeli. This initiative is only one example of a boom in popularity for Arabic language classes across the country. Fittingly, in response to the controversial 2018 Nation-State Law, which officially downgraded Arabic from an official language in Israel, thousands gathered in Tel Aviv’s main square for an especially creative protest – a mass Arabic lesson.
Arabic has even entered the realm of design and aesthetics recently. Liron Lavi Turkenich, a typeface designer and Shenkar graduate, created a new type script, a hybrid of Arabic and Hebrew called “Aravrit," a hybrid of the Hebrew words for the two languages (“Aravit” and “Ivrit"). Aravrit’s letters are composed of Arabic on the upper half and Hebrew on the lower half of the script, which can be read in any chosen language. Although Turkenich does not speak Arabic, she created the font out of the feeling that she was ignoring the Arabic on street signs in her native city of Haifa. “I believe Aravrit sends a message that we’re both here, and we might as well acknowledge each other,” she said in one interview. Turkenich has begun selling t-shirts, bags and necklaces with Aravrit words including ‘dream,’ and ‘Jerusalem’ which she says are selling out fast.
Arabic entrepreneurs like Sevitt and Turkenich have found a strong advocate in Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin. Although the president’s role is ceremonial, Rivlin has used his position to publicly support hundreds of projects promoting co-existence and the Arabic language including Madrasa and Aravrit.
This is a cause that is close to his heart, perhaps due to his Arabic-speaking father, Yosef Yoel Rivlin, who produced the first Hebrew edition of the Quran. It is also part of his larger goal of bringing together what he calls the four “tribes” that constitute Israeli society: Arabs, ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular.
Earlier this month, he reiterated his support for Arabic and called on Jewish Israelis to learn it because “shared language lowers walls, evaporates foreignness and is able to deter misunderstanding.” Rivlin is right, but given the Israeli government's ongoing efforts to shun Arabic and exclude it from the education system, it seems that this teaching will be taking place outside of the classroom.
Anat Peled is a senior at Stanford University. She was recently awarded the Rhodes Scholarship for graduate studies at Oxford University. Twitter:@AnatPeled1