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The Status of Arabic in Israel

Haseeb Shehadeh
2008 / 6 / 9

The Status of Arabic in Israel?
Prof. H. Shehadeh
Helsinki University

The linguistic policy in the State of Israel is complex and expressed in more than one law. According to article no. 82 of the year 1922 Privy Council of the British mandate in Palestine there were three official languages: English, Arabic and Hebrew and English had legal priority. This priority was cancelled in article no. 15b in 1948. Arabic is still the second official language in the State of Israel. It should be mentioned that this is in prima facie, because in reality Modern Hebrew has been the only official and dominant language in the ethnic national state of Israel since 1948. The number of Palestinian Arabs living in Israel is estimated at 1.4 million. More than half of the Jews in the world approximately 13 million, do not speak Hebrew. It is interesting to mention that Arabs (Palestinians of 1948 and of 1967 and Syrians of 1973) form a remarkble percentage of Hebrew speakers of today. Several dozens of languages are spoken in Israel due to the fact that Israel is a destination of Jewish immigrants from all over the world. Among the languages spoken by one hundred thousand speakers or more the following may be stated: Modern Hebrew (6 million); Arabic (1.4 million); Russian (one million); modern Judaeo Arabic-Morrocan, Tunisian and Algerian (more than 300 000); Romanian (200 000); Yiddish (200 000); Ladino (100 000); Polish (100 000); Iraqi Judaeo Arabic (100 000),
Learning Hebrew is compulsory in Arab Israeli schools starting from the third grade whereas Arabic is taught in very a small number of Jewish schools since it is elective. As a rule almost all Israeli Jewish students of Arabic get good jops after graduaation in the foreign ministry, intelligence, and the IDF. Learning Arabic in Israel by Jews has been basically carried out on the basis of “know your enemy” in order to defeat him, rather than to try to know him better, or benefit from his culture and heritage, in order to coexist with mutual respect. Here is an example of what an Israeli Jew says about learning Arabic “It is a military asset to have a good command of arab (sic!) language: Eli Cohen, our master spy, had a perfect knowledge of Arabic. Sefardim in Israel are growing old, and we need people to manage our intelligence. Let us be their 5th column. Raphael, Netanya, 21.03. 2007”. The same thing holds true with regard to teaching Arabic in the USA after the attacks of 11th of September 2001. Great ammounts of money are being spent in USA in order to teach Americans how to have a good command of spoken Arabic and MSA (Modern standard Arabic). Unfortunately this emphasis on practical knowledge, mainly speaking, is not implemented with regard to the policy of hiring new professors of Arabic and Islamic studies. Consequently, it is but natural to come across such professors with reputation at least in their countries but whose active knowledge of Arabic (or Hebrew) is very poor! Usually such professors are the only sources of information and knowledge about Arabic culture, literature and Islam!
Recently a draft of a law aiming at abolishing the status of Arabic as second official language in Israel was included on the Knesset agenda by the member of the Knesset, Limor Livnat, who was a minister of education, Likkud party, and a group of other members of the Knesset. “It cannot be, it is not appropriate or reasonable that the status of one language or another in the Land of Israel is identical to the status of the Hebrew language," said Livnat. She adds ”Precisely in these times, when there are radical groups of Israeli Arabs trying to turn the State of Israel into a binational state, it is most urgent to put into law the unique status of the language of the Bible - the Hebrew language." (Haaretz, 19/5/2008).
This proposal intends to have Hebrew as the only official language in Israel and English, Arabic and Russian asunofficial or secondary languages. Not all readers know that Arabic was a dominant language in Palestine starting from the year 634 until 1948. On the other hand Hebrew has been a written language only for 17 centuries and has been “revived” as a spoken vernacular only towards the end of the 19th century in Palestine by a group of scholars and nationalists among whom Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1858-1922) was the most famous one. This was a unique phenomenon, emergence of a new vernacular on the basis of ancient written language, Biblical Hebrew.
This fresh attempt of Livnat was preceded by others, such as that of member of Knesset, Michael Kleiner, a decade ago. The same attitude was adopted also by the so called “the Isreali Centre for Democracy”. This proposal like many laws of discrimination against the national Arab minority in Israel reflects the main line of the Zionist ideology claiming that Israel is “Jewish” and therefore Arabic should not enjoy any official status, the main token of Arab identity, mirror of culture. Subsequently, terminating Arabic as an official langauge in Israel means among other things ignoring the existence of the native speakers of this national language who remained in their homeland in 1948. It is obvious for any one aquainted with the present situation in Israel that Arabic is being widely marginalized and ignored by the authorities as reflected in official treatments, names of streets and villages (often erroneous), mass media, and electronic sites. There is no one single University in Israel in which Arab students of the Arabic language and culture can learn that in Arabic! Arabic is taught by using Hebrew even by almost all teachers, Jews and Arabs alike. Another example may be required in this context. After finishing my M. A. studies in Hebrew language at the Hebrew University in Jeruslaem in 1967 I applied for a teaching job in the secondary school of my village, Kufur Yasif in Western Galilee. That school then was in a need for new qualified teachers. I wrote a short letter asking for this job and delivered it in person to the person in charge in the ministry of education for Arabs in the Prophets’ street in Jerusalem. I was astonished to hear that my application was automatically turned down because it was written in Arabic and at the head od the letter the word “al-Quds” (Arabic for Jerusalem) was stated. My response was: Is it not true that Arabic is an official language?
In the light of a poll conducted last year by the Israeli Institute for Democracy it is clear that 50% of the Jewish society are frightened and apprehended when hearing Arabic spoken in public places. Arab speakers of Arabic are considered as enemies. Modern Hebrew in its revival drew also in Arabic and its slang borrowed a great ammount of Arabic curses .
It is true the influence of Hebrew on Arabic in Israel during the last six decades has been great in all linguistic features, especially in using Hebrew words in every conversation, semantics, calque, and structure. Fortunately this impact has not penetrated Arabic morphology yet. In many cases one witnesses that this manifestation of spoken Arabic and also written Arabic by many Palesinian Israeli Arabs is amibigous for any one who does not know Hebrew well. Arabic words and sentences in the spirit of Hebrew are not very rare. This linguistic phenomenon reminds us of the written Hebrew mainly in Tibbonian translation from Arabic in Andalus. One example suffices in spoken Arabic: haada mish maqbuul ‘alayy = this is not accepted by me, and this is a calque from Hebrew ze lo mequbbal ‘alay”. In written Arabic the term “laqab”(title) meaning an academic certificate, B. A., M. A. and Ph.D. is a loantranslation from Hebrew “to’ar” and especially accompanied with “first, second, third”. This manifestation of Arabic under the impact of Hebrew has recieved the designations “al-‘Irbiyya” derived from the names of Arabic and Hebrew in Arabic and on the same basis we have: ‘Aravrit, ‘Irbaaniyya. This language is particularly utilized by Arabs in mixed cities, university students, Bedoins, Circassians and Druze (the last two sections are subject to the draft in the army).
Most Israelis and especially in the right wing will say that Israel is “Jewish and democratic” and it has a positive attitude towards Arabs and their national language. This attitude is reflected, they say, by the Knesset approval of an Arabic language academy in Israel in the Spring of 2007. The minister of science, culture and sports (presently an Arab, Ghalib Majadlah) appoints the founder members of the academy and the government approves that. The emergence of this academy goes back to the end of the year 2001.
Such an academy should be welcome when it works independently and its main duty is to serve Arabic and mainly protect it from the sweeping wave of Hebraization. It couldhelp in improving its teaching since the first grade, in finding new words and expressions instead of the Hebrew ones often used in Arabic conversation, and in playing an active role in developing Radio and TV programmes. Finally, it would be useful in preparing modern textbooks and reducing the flood of linguistic errors in the Arabic press and particularly in the electronic one! The Israeli official policy towards the Arab minority is positively presented inside and outsideIsrael’s borders. A few examples are in order: Arab minister, Arab ambassador, Arab members of Knesset who can speak Arabic there; Arab professors at universities (not in the Hebrew University); it is possible to add Arabic letters on the slip of voting (article 76b of the year 1969). No doubt that such facts are positive though they are few and have come too late and do not resolve the main issue: Arabic should continue to be an official language and mainly in reality and not on paper only. A mention should be made of the fact that the Arab youth in Israel look at Hebrew as a symbol of high status and as key for modenism and progress. The decline of Arabic in Israel is a central cultural and national problem that needs help from the Israeli ministry of Education, local Arabic councils and perhaps UNISCO. This issue should be raised in all possible occasions and teachers of Arabic have to act with patiently, professionally, and actively in cooperation with the local councils. Speech and alnguage define the essence of man and woman.
The well known national Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, wrote “I am my language. I am what the words said” (in his poem “a Horse of the stranger”.”

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