The 'B'seder' Arabs

Linguist Mohammed Omara says Israelization of Israeli Arabs is shaking them 'to their very foundation.'

The televisions in the smoke-filled cafe of one of Israel's Arab towns are always tuned in to Israeli or world sports channels, usually soccer games. About three weeks ago on a Thursday night, the cafe's patrons were watching the tense UEFA cup game between Spanish side Getafe and Bayern Munich. The favorite among the locals was clear: Bayern just had to make it to the next stage.

A minute before the final whistle, it seemed all over for Bayern. The cafe was quiet and the men had switched to playing cards. Then the unbelievable happened. The crowd was on its feet.

"Yesh! We did it!" shouted a fan on one side of the cafe, in Hebrew.

"Allahu Ahkbar! Allah is great!" responded another fan, from the opposite side of the cafe.

"Yesh!" cannot be translated literally into Arabic, but the influence of Hebrew on Israeli Arabs is so great that they often prefer Hebrew words over Arabic ones, even when a phrase does exist in Arabic. This is true for sports cheers, which are answered with the well-known Islamic cry, but also in many other areas of life.

Independent identity

The interaction between speakers of different languages occurs all over the world. Historically, Jews have actually excelled in mastering other languages, but in Israel there are obstacles and very few learn Arabic well. Israeli Arabs, on the other hand, have a good command of Hebrew.

Social linguists stress that every interaction between languages in the world is unique in its own way. Concerning Arabic and Hebrew in Israel, one is the secondary language and the other is dominant.

Dr. David Mendelson, a social linguist who works at Givat Haviva, is fluent in several languages, but the focus of his work is on Hebrew's influence on spoken Arabic in Israel. A few months ago he took some children from the Arab village of Arara on an outing to Gan Shmuel.

"Ma'anyen, shuff hunach, b'vakasha, halkit bidi ochel glidah, b'seder," ("Look here please, now, I want to eat an ice cream, okay,") said 8-year-old Raena, interspersing the Hebrew words she knew in her request for a treat.

She has not yet begun learning Hebrew at school, but still managed to construct a sentence that was half Hebrew.

Mendelson says that this is not a purely technical matter.

"Israel's Arabs are developing their own independent identity, different from that of the Palestinians in the territories and other Arabs. Israeli Arabs' use of language is just one indication of this," he says, explaining that the Israeli Arab phenomenon is one of the few instances in the world in which a native minority adopts the majority language even when the native language contains alternatives.

The Arabic use of the Hebrew words for asterisk and traffic light are two common examples.

The Hebrew words for traffic light and roadblock have also become part of the vernacular among Palestinians in the territories, with slight bastardization. The Palestinians, however, like Arabs in other Arab countries, used to view their brethren in Israel as "Judaized Arabs." Epithets such as "sweet-cream Arabs" or "the b'seder Arabs" (referring to the adoption of the Hebrew word for okay), indicate the tension between Israeli and territory Arabs, due to the Israeli Arabs' unique identity. Mendelson's theories might outrage politicians in the Arab parties, who constantly emphasize the connection between the Israeli Arab public and the other parts of the Palestinian people.

Linguistic landscape

Linguist Mohammed Omara, of Bar-Ilan University, researches the reciprocal influences of Hebrew and Arabic. He believes language is not only a means of communication but rather an integral part of identity, and losing a language means losing one's identity. Omara says that the deep influence of Hebrew on Arabic has led some researchers to call the Arabic spoken by Israeli Arabs "Arabrew."

About 10 years ago Omara was visited by a friend, a former Palestinian refugee who had been living in Europe for many years. During a trip to the Arab town of Tira, the friend commented that he did not understand why this Jewish town looked like an Arab town. "He looked at the signs in Hebrew and was convinced [Tira] was a Jewish town, not an Arab one. Indeed, the linguistic landscape shows the tremendous influence of Hebrew," says Omara.

A drive through most of Israel's Arab towns will reveal a similar situation. The road leading to Iksal, near Nazareth, leads nowhere else. Anyone in Iksal presumably intended to be there. The signs in the village, however, leave no doubt: Hebrew is the dominant language.

The sign for the French bakery is only in Hebrew, even though the overwhelming majority of the clientele are locals. Why is the sign not in Arabic, too?

"Everyone understands Hebrew and reads Hebrew," replies the owner, with a shrug.

This holds true not only for the coffee shops, but also for the electrical appliance and eyewear stores. The excuse that the signs are intended to make life easier for suppliers is not convincing.

The optician, Mohammed Jarar, keeps all his records in Hebrew, including memos to himself. His cellular telephone's ringtone is a popular Arabic song, but the names of his business contacts are keyed in in Hebrew letters, transliterated from Arabic.

Forgetting their Arabic

A truck from the local bakery wends its way through Iksal, a loudspeaker atop the car announcing the sale of baked goods in half Hebrew, half Arabic. The local print shop accepts orders for receipt books, signs and business cards. Almost all the shop's work is in Hebrew (sometimes with spelling mistakes). Only some of the orders include Arabic text.

"We don't know how to say decorative wrought iron work in Arabic and the Arabic word for motorcycle is complicated," explains Imad Yichya, the owner. "The receipt books are in Hebrew so that we can show them to the tax authorities or the accountants, and as a result, we are forgetting our Arabic."

Yichya's office is adorned with Arabic calligraphy. "Mohammed" and "Allah" are embellished in the finest Arabic tradition. Yichya jokes that at least those words cannot be said or written in any other language. Omara says that religion is a heavy cultural anchor that prevents the loss of the language. Arabic has a special place in Islam, thanks to its richness and power in Islam's holy book, the Koran.

Is there a unique Israeli Arab identity? Omara says there is an Israelization process "that is shaking the Arabs to their very foundations." Still, he says the change is "functional.

"Arabs cannot afford not to develop a broad association with Jewish society unless they want to cut themselves off completely, and I don't think they want that. They need Hebrew from the moment the step out of their homes, but this is not an Israelization of their Palestinian-Arab identity. They share none of the sentiments in Israel's Jewish symbols, and feel no connection to them." Omara figures that if there is peace, Israel will not be able to continue as a mono-lingual island in an Arabic sea, and Jews will also learn to speak Arabic. "Then they will see the richness of Arabic language and culture, and there is no way they will not be affected. Even today every Jew knows hundreds of words in Arabic, without even realizing it."