Opinion |

Arabic Isn’t Being Erased From the Israeli Public Sphere. Quite the Opposite

Ron Gerlitz
Ron Gerlitz
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A bus in Tel Aviv with the destination written in Arabic.
A bus in Tel Aviv with the name of the destination (Holon) written in Arabic.Credit: Noga Malkin
Ron Gerlitz
Ron Gerlitz

How do you say “erasure” in Arabic? The answer is محيّ. And how do you say “nonexistent erasure” in Arabic? Despite the tremendous linguistic wealth of the Arabic language, it has no word for it.

The article by Hanin Majadli in Haaretz (“How do you say ‘erasure’ in Arabic?,” December 17) described a process of erasing Arabic from the public space in Israel. She has a right to feel that way, but the facts are just the opposite, and disseminating a distorted description of the reality damages the struggle for equality.

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Majadli writes that “one need only look at the country’s roads and see how Arabic names are deleted from road signs. One can also go to the Interior Ministry and see how Arabic has been removed from official forms.” That’s a dramatic description, but it has no relation to the reality. Happily, in recent years the presence of Arabic in the public space in Israel has been growing at a rapid pace. It’s not only a matter of private initiatives by lovers of Arabs and Arabic, but a result of broad governmental and public initiatives.

On public transportation, for example, there has almost been a revolution with Arabic, which is seen and heard on buses and in bus stations all over the country. The same is true of the physical and electronic signs at the railway stations (since 2013) and at the airport. Arabic is constantly being added to signs, information pages and digital pages at national parks, as well as in cultural and artistic institutions, in government services and more.

Is there enough Arabic in the Israeli public space? No way. Is its presence constantly on the rise? Absolutely. Did the Nation-State Law downgrade the status of the Arabic language, as Majadli claims? Of course it did, and that’s a shame and a disgrace to the country and to all of us. However, the use of Arabic accelerated unexpectedly following passage of the law. It is certainly possible that this has been a worthy response on the part of decent officials and decision-makers in the ministries and public institutions in the face of the political attacks conducted by the governments of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Israel’s Arab citizens.

Israeli Arabs’ anger at the exclusion of Arabic is understandable and justified. A policy of erasing Arabic from the public space in Israel left many Arab citizens feel like strangers in their own home. And that’s a terrible feeling. But the situation is changing, and not by chance. Many civil society l organizations conducted a systematic campaign to ensure the public presence of Arabic, and these efforts have borne fruit and led to a change in policy.

A sign welcoming passengers at Ben Gurion airport, written in Arabic and Hebrew. Credit: Ron Gerlitz

And that’s not all. In many instances, the names of places used in public are the original Palestinian names, using Palestinian transliteration. If you don’t believe me but know how to read Arabic, look for the Lod and Acre stations in the signs and information systems of the public transportation system.

The Basic Law on the Nation State should be revoked. The legal status of the Arabic language should be made equal to that of Hebrew, and it should be equally present in the public domain. There’s still a long way to go. Jews and Arabs have to continue to fight together to achieve that.

At the same time, the way to fix the situation is not by denying the reality and the positive changes that have taken place. Ignoring and denying positive developments, as Majadli did in her article, cause damage and distort our ability to properly assess the situation. That’s a very bad foundation for change because it leads to missed opportunities for learning from successes.

Majadli conveys a message of despair to Arab society. It discourages those who are working for change, instead of charging them with energy. We who are fighting for equality and partnership will continue to fight against this viewpoint. In the end, we will win.

The writer is the CEO of aChord – Social Psychology for Social Change

A trilingual street sign in Tel Aviv.

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