Israel: Why is Arabic scary?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jun 9 15:19:39 UTC 2008

*Why is Arabic scary?

Proposal to cancel Arabic's status as one of Israel's official languages
Marzuk Halabi

  Knesset Member Limor Livnat's racist proposal to annul the status of
Arabic as one of Israel's official languages has several aspects – legal,
practical, cultural, and political. As we cannot "blame" the former
education minister for over-sensitivity to the law or to culture, we can
assume that her motives have to do with political aspects alone. These
motives were at the base of a similar proposal submitted to the Knesset in
1999 and rejected.  Just like everything else in the country, the decision
about the Arabic language's legal status was taken back at the time of the
British Mandate. At the time it was decided that three languages – Hebrew,
Arabic, and English – will be granted official government status. A slight
amendment cancelled the status of English as an official language and left
us with Hebrew and Arabic.

The decision had political significance, that is, determining the country
bilingual nature. This meant the State must use both languages when it comes
to government ministries, the publication of laws and regulations, and legal
discussions.  In practice, Arabic was marginalized, not just because of
government practices that granted blatant preference to the Hebrew language,
but also because of the silence of the Arab minority, which was busy
surviving and reinforcing its civilian status. Bilingualism in Israel
remained an option for the Arab minority, but not for the whole country. The
Arab minority must speak Hebrew at mother tongue level if it wishes to
"integrate" into Israeli society. Meanwhile, for the Jewish majority,
knowledge of the country's second official language is merely an option.

The cultural marginalization of the Arabic language highlights the exclusion
of the Arab minority from Israeli society and limits the ability of young
Arabs to become integrated within in. For example, academic studies are only
available in Hebrew, a fact that constitutes an obstacle and prevents tens
of thousands of young Arabs from acquiring higher education.  The gaps
between the Arab minority and Jewish majority in Israel reinforce a
relationship of misunderstanding and fear of the "other," whose language
most Jews in the country do not understand.

Cultural oppression The attempt to completely erase the Arab language would
serve to sharpen the sense of fear and horror Jews feel in relation to
Arabic. There are countless documented cases where Arabs at workplaces or
other forums were asked to only speak Hebrew. One of the arguments repeated
in that context is that the Arabic language is perceived as threatening and

Therefore, MK Livnat's proposal would only make existing gaps greater and
erase the little that was done over the years to promote a multicultural
society in the country. Granting legitimacy to a language spoken by about
20% of the country's citizens would contain a little the cultural oppression
felt by the Arab minority. Another education minister, Shulamit Aloni, was
wise enough to understand this, and thanks to her we saw the establishment
of the Arabic theater in Haifa. At the time we thought that finally Israel
was moving in a direction of a society that gives expression to the cultural
wealth inherent within it.

Livnat's proposal contradicts the common perceptions in enlightened
countries that need to deal with a multicultural society. For example, the
status of the French language is entrenched in the Canadian constitution,
while in Finland, where Swedes constitutes only about 6% of residents, the
Swedish language is present in all daily government activity and is easily

Livnat's proposal is not meant to safeguard Hebrew, which enjoys hegemony
under the auspices of exiting policy. Rather, the proposal is meant to
undermine the Arabic language and trample over what has already flourished
in the Arabic culture in Israel.

   We cannot teach Livnat and her ilk the importance of a mother tongue to a
person even if we enlist the help of theoreticians or authors to praise the
centrality of a native tongue in safeguarding the culture of minority
groups. However, the State of Israel may miss out on a rare opportunity to
be a country that aspires for multiculturalism, minimization of gaps, and
civil equality, just because of the caprice of a legislator whose passion
for seeking temporary electoral gains may gravely undermine the little that
was achieved here.

Marzuk Halabi is an author and attorney,2506,L-3553086,00.html

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