Speaking in Tongues

Last week's conference on bilingualism came to the undisputable conclusion that Hebrew dominates the lives of Israeli Arabs, while Arabic has failed to permeate Jewish culture.

The word "occupation" was hardly mentioned in Jerusalem's Mishkenot Sha'ananin auditorium. Evidently the speakers didn't want to ruin the party commemorating 40 years since the foundation of the Jerusalem Fund and the inauguration of the new domicile for the city's bilingual school. It's inappropriate to mention killjoys such as "the demographic threat" or "bi-national danger" in this microcosm of bilingualism, not to mention the "transfer" of Israeli Arabs. But a kind of occupation could nevertheless be discerned in the auditorium: the Israeli occupation of the Arabic tongue. Prof. Amnon Cohen, a Hebrew University expert on Oriental Studies, speculated whether bilingualism narrows gaps and blurs disputes between speakers of both languages, or whether it widens distances and sharpens differences of opinion.

Attention moved from these weighty issues to the question: Does bilingualism pose a threat to the unique cultural qualities of Arab Israelis living in a sea of Hebrew speakers? What has the alt-neu language of the six million citizens in this young country done to the language spoken by 250 million people? In today's Israel, command of Hebrew is a prerequisite for Israeli Arabs to succeed in almost any area, and fluent English is a must for advancing in academia. Their mother tongue, Arabic, the tongue of their Palestinian homeland, is gradually being relegated to third place and to the margins of society.

Historian Dr. Adel Manna, the director of the Center for the Study of Israeli Arab Society at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute, says his first encounter with the minority experience was in university. Before entering academia, he studied and spoke in Arabic. "The reality at university was a far cry from the promises of the Declaration of Independence," the Arab lecturer fires his first shot at the mostly Jewish audience. "Not that fluency in Hebrew and excellent studies guarantee success for Arabs in Israeli academia," he continues, and says that to date not one Arab has been promoted to the post of senior lecturer in the Oriental Studies faculty, or even in the Arabic school at the Hebrew University. "What would you say if the faculty of Israel History at Princeton or Yale had no Jewish lecturers?" he wondered.

Manna says an increasing number of Arab intellectuals think in Hebrew while speaking Arabic. He recently witnessed an embarrassing incident when an Israeli Arab doctoral student lectured before an Arabic-speaking audience in Nazareth, and couldn't issue a single sentence devoid of Hebrew phrases. The event's host reminded the speaker that the audience included guests from the territories who don't understand Hebrew, but the speaker was unable to find the corresponding words in Arabic. Finally he folded his papers and left the dais.

The victory of the Hebrew language is even more obvious in the mixed cities and among the Druze and Bedouin minorities. The Druze journalist Rafik Halabi recounted how his father, who would sell goods to farmers in Kfar Yehoshua in the Jezreel Valley, knew five words in Hebrew: chicken, coop, hen, eggs and oranges. Yet his own children can't complete a sentence without using Hebrew, Halabi said. They even pronounce sababa, the Arabic word for "great," as sababi, which is a slangy Hebrew distortion of the original. Halabi confessed that he himself is guilty of not a few Hebraicisms.

Halabi once screened an interview with a well-known 45-year-old Arab who also serves as a lieutenant general in the reserves. The conversation was conducted entirely in fluent Hebrew, and contained exactly one Arabic word: intifada. Halabi says he begged the man to speak Arabic, but he couldn't even say a few coherent sentences in his mother tongue.

The inhabitants of one Circassian village, Halabi says, pray in Arabic at the mosque, and then conduct their lives in Hebrew. The village stores bear signs in Hebrew only and "not because of Jewish visitors." Halabi sees this as part of the Israeli-Arab tragedy: Israeli Arabs groan under the Israeli cultural and lingual hegemony while in Jordan and Egypt they're spurned for being Israeli. "Sometimes I tell myself it's impossible to live this way any more," Halabi says emotionally, "but we have no other country. This is my homeland, this is my land and Hebrew is my language, too." Yet he believes losing one's mother tongue means losing part of one's identity. "A person who has lost his identity is a lost person," he says.

Not only is the Jewish tongue conquering the Arabs, says Halabi: music, fashion and cinema impact, too.

Next on the dais is a fair-haired young woman in jeans: Safa Abu-Rabia, a doctoral student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's faculty of Oriental Studies. Her father is a Bedouin from the Negev and her mother is an Arab from the North. She has a little girl and is debating how to shape her baby's identity: externalize her Arabic traits or prepare her to cope with the Judeo-Hebraic hegemony? As for herself, Abu-Rabia attests that she curses in Hebrew and counts in Arabic.

Salman Natur weaves his way between the tongues and says he has managed to separate the issues of language and identity, and of politics, too. "I have no problem with Hebrew being more prevalent than Arabic," says the Druze writer and translator. "I don't speak Hebrew in order to gratify the Jews. For me, Hebrew is a tool I need to shop at the mall and not feel alien in Rehovot or Kiryat Shmona."

Instead of competing with Hebrew, Natur suggests that Arabs deepen their knowledge of Arabic. "When I decided to live in peace with bilingualism, I decided to live in peace with the other, with his belligerence and fears. Life will be easier when there's no contradiction between the other's language and culture and my Arabic," he says.

What about bilingualism among Jews? Natur thinks that learning their neighbors' culture and language would alleviate their alienation and make them feel that the Middle East belongs to them, too, and install a feeling that they belong, instead of being foreign occupiers. In saying this, he doesn't mean being able to order houmous in Abu Ghosh.

Dr. Hannah Amit-Kochavi, who teaches translation, nods in agreement. "The Jews don't like living in the Middle East. They don't see or hear the Arabs," she says ironically, with an undertone of sadness. "What could a Jew gain from knowing Arabic?"

Dr. Manna rather soured the mood of the bilingual school's inauguration ceremony. His final answer to the Hebrew speakers at the conference titled "Bilingualism: Reality or dream?" was, "Pipe dream." Despite all the promises, the number of Jewish children studying Arabic isn't growing. Even at the few bilingual schools, the higher the grade, the less Jewish pupils attend. For the Jewish neighbors of the Jerusalemite school, "It isn't a dream, it's a nightmare to consider that - heaven forbid - an Arab might wind up marrying a Jew."