Israel: Arabs upset at bill demoting Arabic

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jun 2 12:37:11 UTC 2008

Arabs upset at bill demoting Arabic

A Knesset bill that would demote Arabic from an official language to
"a secondary official language" is evoking protest from Israeli Arabs
and civil rights groups. The bill, drafted and introduced last month
by Likud MK Limor Livnat, would make Hebrew the primary official
language in Israel while designating Arabic, English and Russian as
secondary official languages. Hebrew and Arabic currently have equal
status as official languages though in practice there are significant
gaps in how they are treated. The Knesset's Constitution, Legislation,
and Law Committee is also considering a draft constitution that would
make Hebrew Israel's sole official language and give Arabic a special
status. While it is early to gage support for these proposals, many
are concerned for both symbolic and practical reasons.

"Arabic represents the identity of this population, this great mass
who are proud of their past, their present," said MK Ibrahim Sarsour
(United Arab List). "I think our identity cannot harm Israeli security
and stability." Livnat's bill calls for legislation, court rulings,
and official meetings, discussions, and services to be provided in
Hebrew, which is largely the norm today. Official signs, ceremonies,
speeches, public documents and announcements would only use Hebrew
except in those areas where half of the population speaks one of the
secondary languages; then that secondary language would also be used.

Schools would use Hebrew as the language of instruction, except where
"all pupils" speak a common secondary official language. Today, the
vast majority of Arab pupils are taught in Arab schools in Arabic.
Government forms for the public would be provided in all four official
languages. "Israel is a Jewish state and a Jewish state needs to have
an official language that portrays the character of the state," Livnat
told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. "In the last three or four years,
groups were formed under Israeli-Arab leadership that have the goal
of... erasing its Jewish character and turning it into a binational

While road signs needed to be in Arabic where there was a high
concentration of Arabs, Livnat said, "there is no justification" to
have Arabic signs all over the country. In addition, she argues, there
is no need for Knesset ceremony invitations to be both in Hebrew and
in Arabic. Despite the current law, Arabic is largely confined today
to Arab population centers, activists said. Except for teacher
training colleges, no Israeli universities teach in Arabic and the
language is used minimally in the executive, legislative and judiciary
branches, said rights activist Yousef Jabareen.

For example, he said, major Supreme Court opinions in Hebrew are often
translated into English but not into Arabic. "So far we have a good
law for languages with bad implementation," said Jabareen, director of
the Nazareth-based Dirasat: The Arab Center for Law and Policy. "Now
Limor Livnat wants to promote a bad law, which would definitely
increase the problem by increasing the feeling [among Arab-Israelis]
of not belonging, of isolation and distrust with the authorities."

Israel would do well to follow the Canadian example in which both
French and English are recognized by the country's constitution as
official languages and actually treated as such, he said. "This has
been implemented with much success" in Canada, Jabareen said. "Even
the national anthem is in two languages, English and French." The
Association for Civil Rights in Israel has also criticized the
Livnat's bill, and is waiting to see whether it passes its preliminary
readings in the Knesset.

"It is the duty of the majority to treat the minority with equal
rights and equality and a part of that is recognizing the language" of
the minority, said Rachel Benziman, the association's executive
director. But Dafna Yitzhaki, a doctoral student in linguistics at
Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said that even if Livnat's proposal
were to become law, it would have much more of a symbolic rather than
a practical impact.

"On the ground, it's not going to be different" because the law
requiring that Arabic and Hebrew be treated as equal languages "is not
implemented" today, she said. The bill, which has yet to be scheduled
for a reading, is being cosponsored by MKs Yuli Edelstein (Likud),
Otniel Schneller (Kadima) and Ya'acov Margi (Shas).

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