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Israel's war on the Arabic language

posted on: Apr 12, 2016

By Jonathan Cook

Al Jazeera

Israel’s one in five citizens, whose mother tongue is Arabic, are increasingly fearful of using it in public as hostility has mounted towards the language from both officials and the Jewish public, human rights groups warned this week.

The alert comes as lawyers have threatened the municipality of Tel Aviv , Israel’s largest city, with a contempt of court action for failing to include Arabic on most of the city’s public signs – 14 years after the Israeli supreme court ordered it to do so.

According to the leaders of Israel’s large Palestinian minority, Tel Aviv’s policy reflects a more widespread antagonism towards Arabic, despite its official status as the country’s second language.

Arabic, rather than Hebrew, is the mother tongue of Israel’s 1.7 million Palestinian citizens.

According to Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, few public bodies produced documents or materials in Arabic, and many companies and public institutions warned workers not to speak Arabic with other staff or customers.

Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset

In recent months, there has also been a sharp rise in reports of Palestinian citizens being physically assaulted in Israeli cities, with Jewish mobs roaming the streets shouting “Death to the Arabs”.

“The hostile attitude of official bodies, including municipalities like Tel Aviv, encourages a general climate that treats Arabic as an alien and despised language,” Zahalka told Al Jazeera.

“How can one expect anything else when the Israeli parliament itself refuses to give proper recognition to Arabic?”

Zahalka and others noted that over the past few years there had been a raft of private bills from members of Israel’s ruling parties to downgrade Arabic’s status. He said it was only a matter of time before one succeeded.

Last week Palestinian members of Knesset switched from Hebrew to Arabic as they gave speeches protesting at the first reading of a bill widely seen as paving the way to banning Zahalka’s Balad party from the legislature. Zahalka and two other Balad MPs are currently suspended from the parliament.

Most Jewish MPs, like the rest of the Jewish population, cannot understand Arabic, and the parliament provides no translation services.

Jafar Farah, of the Palestinian advocacy group Mossawa, said Palestinian legislators had “long sacrificed their right to speak Arabic” in parliament in the hope that they could influence the Jewish public by speaking to them directly. “The sad reality is that they are not being heard anyway, and the political climate is becoming ever more hostile,” he told Al Jazeera.

Growing concerns about the dismal status of Arabic follows research showing that most Israeli Jews hold extremely negative views of the language.

A survey, publicised at a conference at Tel Aviv University in December, found that while 17 percent of Jewish citizens claimed to understand Arabic, that figure fell to just 1 percent when they were asked to read a book.

Yonatan Mendel, a language researcher at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, said that those with a working knowledge of Arabic were mostly elderly Jewish immigrants born in Arab countries – a generation rapidly dying off.

“When they are taken out of the findings, the real figure falls to virtually zero,” he told Al Jazeera.

Worse, the same survey found that half of Israeli Jews with a western heritage wanted Arabic scrapped as an official language, while the figure rose even higher – to 60 percent – among Jews whose families originated from Arab countries.

The findings closely echo another recent opinion poll that showed 48 percent of Israeli Jews wanted their Palestinian compatriots expelled from the country.

Arabic’s official status derives from British Mandate legislation that was not revoked after Israel’s creation in 1948. Mendel said that status had been hollowed out to the point where it was an official language “only on paper”. English, which lacks official status, had a much higher standing, he added.

Israel’s Jewish schools barely teach Arabic, he observed, and students choosing it do so chiefly as a qualification for entering Israeli military intelligence.

“For most Israeli Jews, the Arabic language provokes fear and hatred because it is associated with the enemy,” he said.

Recent investigations have found an absence of Arabic in the literature, websites and signage of almost all public services, including government ministries, welfare offices, hospitals, universities, the inland revenue, the national electricity company, the post office, and sports and leisure centres.

When the head of Israel Railways was questioned in 2012 on why station stops were announced in Hebrew and English only, he replied that adding Arabic would “make the train ride noisy”.

Israeli courts have also ruled that in civil proceedings Arab litigants, who do not understand Hebrew, must pay for translation costs.

According to a survey, one in four Palestinian citizens struggle to read Hebrew. Farah, of Mossawa, noted that even when public bodies such as the transport ministry included Arabic, it was often so poorly translated from Hebrew that the information was unintelligible.

“The political elite in Israel wants to stop integration and normalisation with the Middle East at all costs, and Arabic is suffering as a result,” Farah said. “Israel is terrified to be part of region.”

Tel Aviv, considered by many to be Israel’s most liberal and cosmopolitan city, has been at the centre of a series of language battles, provoked in part because the municipal area incorporates Jaffa, a historic port town nearly half of whose population are Palestinian.

As a result, about 5 percent of Tel Aviv’s population are classified as Arabic speakers. That qualifies it as one of half a dozen cities with a significant mixed population. By contrast, most of Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens live in segregated communities.

In 2012, Tel Aviv’s mayor, Ron Huldai, rejected demands to incorporate Arabic on the city’s official logo after English had been added three years earlier. He said Arabic’s inclusion might lead to “national polarisation”.

The same year an investigation revealed that most of Israel’s major museums – many of them in Tel Aviv – were failing to include signs or explanations in Arabic.

In February it was revealed that Tel Aviv University had barred Palestinian staff in its tuition department from speaking Arabic to students. The policy was reversed after threats of legal action.

Last month Jewish and Palestinian parents in Jaffa staged a protest, accusing the Tel Aviv municipality of breaking promises to include Arabic signs and respect Muslim and Christian holidays at the city’s first public bilingual school.

And in the latest confrontation, human rights lawyers have threatened city officials with a contempt case if they do not take immediate steps to implement a supreme court ruling from 2002 that requires the city to include Arabic on public signs.

ACRI, an Israeli civil rights group, and Adalah, a legal centre for the Palestinian minority in Israel, wrote to Tel Aviv city officials last month warning that they must change their policy immediately.

Tel Aviv officials, he said, had publicly defended their policy by arguing that there would be too much text on signs if Arabic were included.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Tel Aviv municipality said it had made changes to major road signs following the court case, and had “named streets and public squares in Jaffa after local Arab historical figures”.

Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with Adalah, said the 2002 ruling had been a high point for recognition of Arabic in Israel, with the more liberal court of the time stating that it was vital to the dignity of the Palestinian minority that Arabic be used in public spaces in mixed cities. “In recent years Adalah has been very cautious about bringing more such cases to the courts,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Given the shift to the right in the intervening years, we are worried that the advances made in language rights then might be reversed by the current court.”