Israel’s nation-state bill, which just passed its first round in the Knesset, erases Arabic from our consciousness is yet only one more attempt to distant us from the DNA of the Middle East. As a Jewish-Iranian Israeli and fluent Arabic speaker, I want to stand on the rooftops and scream: Without my Arabic, I am lost here. And we are indeed, lost in the wider Middle East without its native language.
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Professor Yehuda Shenhav’s recent research found that less than 1% of Jewish Israelis have a level of Arabic sufficient to read a simple news article. That is insanity. We literally do not speak the local language.
Make no mistake, way before this bill’s passage started, Arabic was transmitted to us as the idiom of the enemy, a language to be mocked, a language of low-status Mizrahi grandmothers, of Israel’s security forces, particularly its intelligence units. It is not ours. For many of us second or third generation Jews whose families arrived from Arabic-speaking countries - we literally do not speak our mother’s tongue.
When I was seven, my parents decided to move to Neve Shalom-Wahat Al Salam, a mixed Palestinian-Jewish community, and put me in its bilingual school. My mother’s native tongue is Farsi and ironically, learning Arabic so early on has allowed me to read to my mother in Farsi even without really understanding what I am reading to her. Arabic brought me back, in a way, to my own mother’s language.
I learned Arabic very quickly and I soon realized how many Jews I interact with not only dislike its sound, ,but find it alternately amusing and frightening that I speak it so naturally.
Every time I open my mouth to speak in Arabic, there are always only two options: “Is it from home? Or from working in intelligence?” I always take a deep breath and answer: None of the above.
Both being fluent in Arabic and having Middle Eastern roots have played a huge role in shaping my identity. I could not imagine living my life here and dreaming about a better future without embodying myself how I envision it. That future is one where Jews, and Jewish Israelis, should, even must, know Arabic. Visiting our region - Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Morocco - as I have done and witnessing Israeli Jews who have to communicate in English is not something we should consider “normal”, especially when those visitors are Jews whose origins lie in the Middle East.
After years of being patronized and ridiculed for speaking Arabic, years of the Israeli intelligence services trying and failing to recruit me (time and time again I told them I had no interest in using my Arabic for spycraft), when I travel today to these countries along with non-Arabic speakers, they see my mobility in the shared space that a common language creates, and are more likely to respond by saying: “ “I wish we all did that. You are so lucky”. But there’s nothing extraordinary about me or my Arabic. But I am lucky that I took the language seriously, and I made it a priority to resist Israeli policies intended to change our linguistic DNA.
The narrative of a younger Middle Eastern Jew who speaks Arabic not for military purposes does not exist in our Israeli landscape. It is an ongoing tragedy. After the long silencing of a previous generation, many of us choose now to speak, write about and reconnect to Arabic. It’s not a foreign language for us: our families spoke Arabic, it was around us all our childhood, we were raised within it. We don’t need elite army units or fancy university degrees to reconnect back to it. Each of us in our own little corner in life can change the tragic uprooting of this language from our DNA, it is in our hands.
Perhaps now is the time to shout from the rooftops towards the Knesset: Arabic is not the enemy. Arabic is not an obstacle to the identity or functioning of the state, it is a partner. Arabic signifies one of the last remaining options for a shared future here.
Noam Shuster Eliassi is the coordinator of Interpeace’s Base for Discussion program in Israel. She is a Brandeis University graduate and was awarded the Davis Peace Prize for developing peacebuilding programs for HIV positive youth in Kigali, Rwanda.