Opinion |

What You Talk About When You Talk About Arabs Speaking Hebrew in Israel

Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
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Schoolchildren in the Israeli Arab city of Tamra.
Schoolchildren in the Israeli Arab city of Tamra.Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

For Arabs in Israel, Hebrew will never be just a “language.” It carries political, social and national significance, and therefore cannot be examined from a neutral perspective.

In one of his columns in this newspaper, Sayed Kashua wrote about his personal experience and how Israeli Jews relate to a Hebrew-speaking Arab: “I’ve always felt more comfortable – relatively speaking, of course – writing Hebrew than speaking it. I hate the Hebrew that comes out of my mouth. I picture it landing on the attentive ears of the Israeli who looks for the nuance of the accent, who justifies the wall of language.

Kashua reveals the inner feeling that often goes unseen, the power relations that are woven into the language: "When I’m compelled to speak Hebrew aloud, I am reminded of skits of the Hagashash Hahiver comedy troupe and the late entertainer Dudu Topaz, 'hummus ya ibni' from the satirical program 'Zehu Zeh,' and the Arab woman pharmacist from 'A Wonderful Country.' And now the teacher from Taibeh who is not even aware of her accent, bringing satisfaction to the owners of the ruling accent.”

Many Arabs feel distanced from Hebrew and hesitate to speak it. After all, it’s not their native language and never will be. Kashua referred in his column to a viral video of an Arab female teacher giving a Hebrew lesson with the aid of a darbuka goblet drum: “What appalled me the first time I saw the clip of the teacher from Taibeh was the way Hebrew is being taught to young children. The kids repeat in a chorus the teacher’s mistakes, mistakes that will stay with them for life and be a source of ridicule from the average Israeli, exactly according to the manual of occupier-occupied, of native and foreigner.”

That’s precisely the elephant in the room that we all avoid discussing – the politics behind teaching Hebrew, when some Arab students squirm uneasily in the face of the fact they don’t have a choice in the matter. They are required to learn Hebrew.

Language is cultural capital, and its mastery is an important starting point for integrating into society. But for Arab citizens of Israel, the starting point is different. Young Arabs carry their lack of confidence in using Hebrew from school into the wider public sphere, knowing that they have little chance of overcoming all the disparities. This pedagogic and systemic failure is reflected in the numbers – for example, in Arab students' college dropout rates.

Without a deep understanding of the problems Arab students encounter in acquiring the language and the emotional baggage involved, they won’t have a real opportunity to learn Hebrew. After all, speaking Hebrew doesn’t involve just using vocabulary. It requires adopting the worldview that the language dictates to its speakers.

The truth needs to be put on the table: On one hand, the long-standing policy of segregating Israel’s Arab citizens, who in practice live far from Jewish society, without the chance to learn Hebrew from native speakers; and on the other hand, the silence in Arab society and a political ideology that encourages a certain distance from the Hebrew language.

Those who actually pay the price are among the younger generation that has been thrust into the Israeli labor market without language skills – certainly not those required in white-collar jobs or those in which verbal expression is critical to their long-term success.

Sheren Falah Saab is part of Haaretz 21, an initiative aimed at amplifying voices and stories from Arab society in Israel.

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