[lg policy] Legislative efforts to circumscribe Arabic as an official Israeli language

Jeff Gross jmgross1 at GMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 17 00:48:23 UTC 2012

The following story appeared today in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz
(English edition).

Last November former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Moshe Arens published
in Haaretz a challenge the proposed legislation described below:

Jewish donors can influence Israel's war on Arabic
Formally, Arabic is one of the official languages of the state, but lately
there have been attempts to further circumscribe the language's presence in
By Ron Gerlitz

Last week, I had to spend some time at the new children's wing of Hadassah
University Hospital in Ein Karem, Jerusalem. The hospital serves Arabs as
well as Jews, and it was my impression that all its patients are treated
professionally and with equality. But Arabic-language signs are almost
nonexistent in this brand-new and impressive wing. The image that remains
with me from the experience is of an Arab mother wandering through the
halls, holding a baby connected to various medical devices, trying to find
the radiology lab and asking people, in Arabic, for help, since she was
unable to read the Hebrew signs.

I found the scene shocking: a major hospital in a city, one-third of whose
population is Arab, with the Arab patients having to wander helplessly in
search of the proper departments. Interestingly, on the ground floor where
the same mother was looking for the X-ray department, there are plenty of
signs, in both Hebrew and English - paying recognition to the donors who
made construction of the building possible.

I thought about those same Jewish benefactors. Are they aware that the
state-of-the-art structure built with their contributions doesn't have
signs in Arabic? Do they think about the Arab patients and their families
who aren't able to find their way around the new children's hospital?

Unfortunately, Hadassah Hospital is not alone. When it comes to signage,
most public buildings in Israel - not just hospitals, but museums,
government offices, sports facilities and more - allow themselves to
disregard the 20 percent of the population that is Arab.

It's important that we look at the wider perspective. In Israel today there
is a war over the Arabic language. Formally, it is one of the official
languages of the state, but lately there have been attempts to further
circumscribe the language's presence in Israel. For example, Knesset member
Avi Dichter (Kadima ), with the support of dozens of his colleagues in the
house, has advanced a bill that would eliminate Arabic as an "official"
language of the state.

The result of all this is not just a functional or operative problem for
Arab citizens or residents, like the mother in the Jerusalem hospital, but
rather a clear and negative message to Arab citizens: You and your language
are not wanted in the state that arose in your homeland. This space belongs
to us, the Jews. The meaning of this exclusion for those of us who are Jews
is no less negative: We have not succeeded in making this national home of
ours, the State of Israel, a place that is tolerant and inclusive of an
indigenous minority and its language.

Most Jews in Israel and in the world want the State of Israel to be Jewish
and democratic, and to treat all its citizens equally. I share that desire.
But there is nothing either "Jewish" or democratic in trying to make the
language of a national minority disappear. On the contrary. What is
required is a shared public space, where there is room for both languages.
Paradoxically, the conflict over the Arabic language is today a conflict
over the country's democratic nature. Nothing less than that.

Jewish philanthropy plays a central role in this conflict, whether it wants
to be involved or not. I want to emphasize that it already plays a role.
Just a very problematic one. This is because philanthropy supports building
of many public institutions in Israel. It, therefore, must demand that
every public building constructed with its funds (especially in the big
cities, and in hospitals and universities ) include full and equivalent
signage in Arabic. This is a modest demand that need not be costly. It's
not even a demand - justified as it may be - for equal distribution of
philanthropic funds to Arabs. Rather, it's a minimal condition: that in
every structure paid for by philanthropic funds, all the signs appear in
Arabic as well as Hebrew.

People tell me that I don't know the way philanthropy works, and that it
just isn't done for donors from the Diaspora to condition their gifts on
such demands. And perhaps that's correct. But one thing I do know is the
nature of the relationship between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, and at
the moment, it is a volatile one. Every Arab child who goes with his or her
parents to a children's museum (built with funds from donors ) and who
feels excluded is a child whom it will be hard to convince that the State
of Israel is his or her state.

This issue will be of special relevance this coming week, as many
philanthropists arrive in Tel Aviv to attend the international conference
of the Jewish Funders Network. Jewish philanthropists have the duty,
opportunity and the privilege, to bring their influence to bear in order to
end a dangerous trend, and to advance the cause of a democratic and
egalitarian society in Israel. They cannot remain neutral in this struggle,
because this is a struggle over the very nature of the state.

Ron Gerlitz is co-executive director of Sikkuy: the Association for the
Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel.
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