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The Politics of Arabic Language in the Israeli Public

posted on: Oct 24, 2018

The Politics of Arabic Language in the Israeli Public

By Kareem Rosshandler/Arab America Contributing Writer

If it was once enough to remind us – as countless folk singers did – that al-‘ard btItkalam ‘arabi (the Land speaks Arabic) then much can be said about the distance between that reality and the laws now governing the land. With all the buzz surrounding Israel’s ‘Nation-State’ law passed this summer, what can we expect to change on the ground?

The Politics of Arabic Language in the Israeli Public

Declaring Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and claiming for that group the unique right to self-determination, the law formalizes the higher status of Jewish Israelis over Palestinian citizens of Israel (or Arab-Israelis). In terms of practical consequence, the law takes the major step of downgrading Arabic from an official to a ‘special status’ language. But even before the law, how was Arabic upheld as an official language?

In November 1922 – a month before the death of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew – British authorities in Mandate Palestine declared Hebrew is Palestine’s official language alongside Arabic. Although preserving the bi-lingual status from its founding until earlier this year, the state of Israel did not always apply it evenly. As an official language, it followed that Arabic, like Hebrew, should be used in public communication so it would be visible not just to the Palestinian community, but Israeli society-at-large. In theory, this means the Arabic language should have been used – for example – in official documents, public TV and radio outlets, and in government schools. Arabic should also have been used on all state-posted road signs.

This last requirement, however, tended to be the most contentious place for Arabic because – unlike the above examples that can be directed exclusively towards the Arabic-speaking community – road signs inhabit a space visible to anyone passing by, Jewish and Arab alike. Invariably, they serve as an uncomfortable reminder of the land’s pre-state Arab history, and moreover, the continual presence of a people who represent a bridge between that history and today.

In predominantly Palestinian-Israeli cities and towns, almost all road signs would have the name of the place in Arabic and Hebrew – and sometimes English. But in cities where there is a small Palestinian-Israeli population, road signs would often be posted without any Arabic names. That English would be included over one of the state’s official languages – presumably for the convenience of recent émigrés and tourists – exacerbated the sense of marginalization felt by Palestinian citizens.

The situation eventually led to a 1998 landmark petition filed by the minority rights NGO Adalah against the Ministry of Transportation. At the time of filing, over 80% of Israeli road signs were posted solely in Hebrew and English. Adalah argued, “given the official status of Arabic, its absence from national road signs constituted discrimination against the Arab Palestinian minority and a traffic hazard”. As a result, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the respondents to post town names and directions in Arabic on all public road signs within five years. This order led to the change in thousands of signs. But despite the court’s ruling, a more subtle form of discrimination persisted…

When speaking of Arabic names, we are referring to either one of two things: 1.The Arabic name of the place irrespective of its Hebrew equivalent; or 2.The transliteration of Hebrew names into Arabic script. For Israeli cities built entirely during the Zionist enterprise, such as Tel Aviv and Herzliya, it makes sense that the Arabic name would be a simple transliteration of the Hebrew (e.g. tal abīb and not tal al-rabi’a). However, for cities built long before the twentieth century with continuous Arabic-speaking inhabitants, these cities have their own perfectly serviceable names and produce meaningful connections.

That is what made so problematic transportation minister Yisrael Katz’s 2009 push to replace Arabic names with mere Hebrew transliterations. This affected signs for predominantly Arab cities such as Jaffa, Acre, and Nazareth. The most high-profile case was the change of the Arabic name on signs pointing to Jerusalem from ‘al-quds’ to ‘awrushalīm (al-quds)’ or, more drastically, as on Highway 1, simply ‘awrushalīm.’ The irony of this downgrade is that al-quds simply means ‘The Holy City’ and it has no singular nationalist or religious connotation, but rather reflects a basic perception common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Posting the original Arabic alongside the Hebrew represents a sense of neutrality and cultural accommodation that an official bi-lingual status is supposed to be maintained. On the other hand, the transliteration of Hebrew names into Arabic script – no less a distortion of culture and history – makes a political statement at the expense of a genuine public service owed to all citizens of Israel.

Now that there is no longer a law to enshrine the official status of Arabic, it is yet to be seen how the language will be represented in public space. It is possible that the High Court of Justice – historically the body most capable of checking aggressive Knesset legislature – might still challenge the Nation State law. But considering the stances of the majority of its sitting judges, this seems highly unlikely.

Quite positively, however, the law has awakened a deeper consciousness within the Arabic-speaking population of Israel and has met with fierce protest. In addition to Muslim and Christian communities, this has included, quite remarkably, outrage from the Druze – a Palestinian community that usually stands apart.

In this, there is an opportunity for Palestinian-Israelis to overcome some of the divisions that have developed between themselves vis-à-vis their differing attitudes towards Israel’s policies. Love for the Arabic language – a central component of identity – and the will to see it honored in its ancestral homeland, may prove a compelling force of unity among Palestinian groups if they can put aside their differences and work together towards their common goal.