Opinion |

Undermining (Arab) Equality

Israel Harel
Israel Harel
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Demonstration against the nation-state law, Israel.
Demonstration against the nation-state law, Israel.Credit: Moti Milrod
Israel Harel
Israel Harel

A student and teacher, both Palestinian citizens of Israel, petitioned the High Court of Justice. Their claim was that the maps for the matriculation exam in geography hadn’t been translated into Arabic (the questions were translated in full). The High Court, being committed to equality, rebuked the Education Ministry (which hastened to translate them) and established the principle that “full weight” must be given to “the status of the Arabic language in Israel.”

Had the court not been biased a priori in favor of the petitioners – who dressed up this political petition in the guise of a cry for civic equality – it should have considered whether, in a Hebrew-speaking state, studying in Arabic promotes equal opportunity for Israel’s Arab community, or actually makes it less achievable. After all, difficulty in understanding Hebrew texts reduces Arab students’ ability to achieve true equality of opportunity. Most importantly, this is a barrier that prevents them from obtaining a high-level college education, especially in sought-after departments.

Their difficulty in finding suitable, well-paying work, an outgrowth of their inability to understand the country’s language, is then interpreted as discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin and causes frustration and even hostility. More than once, this has ended in violence. These language difficulties also lead to ethnic seclusion and prevent social and cultural integration.

Granted, the matriculation exams are also translated into Russian, Amharic and French. Yet this necessary practice is gradually shrinking. The communities that need those translations aspire to assimilate, socially and culturally, into Hebrew-speaking society.

Among the Palestinians, encouraged by their political and religious leadership, this practice has had the opposite effect: It distances the Arab community from the Jewish majority by preventing it from acquiring full mastery of the country’s language.

If civic equality were the guiding principle of the Arab Israeli leadership – or of the High Court, in the translations case – it ought to demand that the main language of instruction in schools be Hebrew. Preserving Arabic, which in any case is the language spoken at home and on the street in Arab communities, could be done through “Saturday schools,” similar to the Sunday schools run by Jews in the United States.

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee’s “Education Ministry” is, to a large extent, the body that determines the curriculum in Arab schools. This curriculum promotes Arab narratives – religious and, above all, national – via religion, history, civics and geography classes. It is surprisingly similar to what is taught in the Palestinian Authority.

Thus, Israel’s Education Ministry is abetting – and above all, funding – a school system that educates its students to treat the state as an enemy that expelled their people and is preventing them from returning to their country and their homeland.

And here, in its great zeal to preserve “equality,” the High Court has once again put itself into a bind. On the specific issue of the maps, it indeed granted assistance. But when it comes to long-term, substantive equality, equalizing the status of Arab and Hebrew causes damage – above all to Arabs. And if this weren’t enough, in the process, it once again took sides in a political argument over values on one of the most loaded issues in Israel.

The Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People says: “The state’s language is Hebrew.” And what about Arabic? To that, the Basic Law replies explicitly, “Arrangements regarding the use of Arabic in state institutions or vis-à-vis them will be set by law.” But along comes the High Court (in a hint of how it will soon rule on the petitions against the nation-state law?) and challenges one of the law’s key articles by saying the state must give “full weight to the status of the Arabic language in Israel.”

Indeed, the state must give it full weight. But, as emphasized in the Basic Law, it must do so via a law enacted by the Knesset of its own free will, not on the High Court’s orders.

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