[lg policy] Israel: The Irony of Erasing Arabic

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Oct 6 21:14:41 UTC 2014

The Irony of Erasing Arabic Making Hebrew Israel's Only Language Ignores
[image: Blocked Out: A vandalized street sign in Israel that blots out
Parrhesia Art Collective
*Blocked Out:* A vandalized street sign in Israel that blots out Arabic.

By Liora R. Halperin <http://forward.com/authors/liora-r-halperin/>
Published October 06, 2014, issue of October 10, 2014


 In late August, a group of Knesset members from the right flank of the
Likud party, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Jewish Home party proposed
<http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/1.2416209> a bill that would make
Hebrew the only official language of Israel, annulling a requirement in
existence since the British Mandate period that all official documents be
published in Arabic as well as in Hebrew. Similar bills to eliminate or
demote the official status of Arabic were proposed in 2011 and 2008.
Critics have pointed out that this bill is part of a broader effort to
affirm the “Jewish” character of the state (as opposed to its democratic
character) by enshrining Jewishness into Israel’s basic laws. Israeli
President Reuven Rivlin, for one, has spoken out against it.

A historical perspective is worth adding to the discussion, one that
highlights a contradictory Zionist view of language that has existed since
the British ruled Palestine: As Zionists advocated forcefully for the very
principle of national language rights, they fantasized about a society in
which there would be no national competitors to Hebrew. Israel still is
navigating between these two positions.

   - Did Adam and Eve Speak Hebrew in the Garden of Eden?
   - Memo to American Jews: Learn Hebrew
   - Israeli Arabs and Hebrew <http://forward.com/articles/13312/>

 The very British Mandate-era law that the bill’s promoters now want to
overturn was one for which Zionists themselves (more than any other group)
strongly advocated. Given the demographics of Palestine, it was established
that Arabic would be deemed an official language by the British; less
straightforward was the supposition that Hebrew should be given that status
as well. After all, Hebrew was nominally the language of only 8% of the
population when the British arrived, and in practice it was not even the
dominant language among that Jewish population that claimed it as their
own. The British rationale for recognizing Hebrew as well as Arabic was
their understanding of Palestine as being the home of two nations, each of
which had a national language.

Zionist activists were quick to remind the British of those language rights
at any point when the official regulation, first promulgated in 1920,
seemed to be violated. Frederick Kisch, head of the Zionist Executive in
Jerusalem, called attention in 1923 to the language situation of Jewish
settlements in the Beit She’an Valley region, arguing that although the 792
Jews in that area were far below the 20% threshold for Hebrew to be deemed
official, he asked that the government nonetheless accede to the demands of
“villages of Jews who can’t use any other language but Hebrew.”

To justify the Knesset bill, its sponsors point to international norms. As
Shimon Ohayon, the main organizer of the proposal, put it, “In most
countries around the world the language of the country is the language
spoken by the majority of the population,” suggesting that such a policy
“contribute[s] to social solidarity.” Indeed, countries with a unifying
civic nationalism, such as France, ensured since early days that the
national language was energetically spread to the far corners of the
country (and that regional languages were demoted to secondary status in
the process), out of the assumption that national belonging was premised on
language unity. But Israel, understanding itself as a Jewish state, has
never assumed that every citizen is an equal member of the nation — this is
the reason why current citizenship policy makes a strict division between
“Jewish” or “Arab“ and the high court has invalidated demands that
nationality be listed as, simply, “Israeli.”

Zionists were comfortable vocally and persistently demanding their language
rights as a national minority in Mandate Palestine — but did not often
consider openly what sort of language policies they would put into place if
and when they received independence, or if they should become a majority.
If anything, the working assumption seemed to be that they would have
little tolerance for languages other than their own. The Tel Aviv
municipality would regularly castigate those who wrote letters in languages
other than Hebrew, reminding them that they should treat the municipality
like any monolingual country. For example, the city hall’s reply to a Mr.
Fritz Epstein in March 1940 stated, in response to a routine request for
municipal services sent in German, that he needed to write in Hebrew. “It
seems to me that we are allowed to demand of you that you behave with the
same courtesy that you would show in any place where you lived outside your
homeland” — in other words, that he use the single sole language of the
Jewish country-in-the-making.

These prestate institutions were “play-acting” language sovereignty despite
their minority and insecure status. Their sense of insecurity was warranted
in the prestate period; today it appears as a more anachronistic mode of
thinking that reveals an inability to cease feeling like a minority despite
demonstrable Israeli Jewish national strength. Ohayon is the head of the
Knesset “lobbying group for the promotion of Hebrew.” This group, in its
name and mission, is reminiscent of a series of pro-Hebrew advocacy groups
that emerged during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, with names such as “The Union
for the Imposition [*hashlatah*] of Hebrew,” and “the Central Commission
for the Imposition of Hebrew,” which continually reminded the British of
their language obligations, and reminded fellow Jews of the need to speak
only Hebrew, lest they succumb to the more numerous or more prestigious
languages around them.

These campaigns did have the effect of progressively turning Hebrew into
the dominant spoken language among Jews. With Israel’s independence in
1948, it seemed to some that the need for strident language activism was
waning, as Hebrew had by that point become well-rooted and Jewish immigrant
languages were indeed being replaced by Hebrew.

But if Hebrew had successfully exercised the capacity to displace Jewish
mother tongues, Arabic was the linguistic bedrock of Palestine that Hebrew
could not displace. The fantasy of the mandate-era Tel Aviv municipality
could not be wholly put into practice. The Israeli state, operating from a
position of demographic strength after displacing the majority of
Palestinian Arabs in 1948, thus adopted the liberal strategy of granting
nationality rights (as well as a degree of educational, legal and
linguistic autonomy) to the Palestinian Arab minority. In doing so, they
followed in the footsteps of the British. An increasingly vocal group,
however, continues to see this minority as an unacceptable threat, to see
Hebrew (as well as the state’s Jewishness) as embattled and on the
defensive and Jewish exclusivity as the only recipe for a strong country.

Thus, in addition to ignoring and overlooking one-fifth of the population
and creating distance between Jewish and Arab citizens, as critics have
noted, the bill inverts the very principle that Zionists themselves
tirelessly advocated for decades before statehood: that a numerically
significant group with a discernible and unified national culture should be
granted national language rights, even if, and precisely because, it is a

*Liora R. Halperin <http://www.liorahalperin.com/> is an assistant
professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of Colorado,
Boulder. Her first book, “Babel in Zion: Jews, Nationalism, and Language
Diversity in Palestine, 1920–1948
will be published by Yale University Press in November.*

Read more:

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