(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Knesset Legal Affairs Committee debated the issue of whether to recognize
Hebrew as the state’s primary official language on Thursday, and discussed the
possibility of modifying and resubmitting a bill on the subject.
discussion centered on a motion to update a pre-1948 British royal edict
determining that Hebrew and Arabic were Israel’s formal languages, and replace
it with Knesset legislation recognizing Hebrew as the primary official language
and Arabic, Russian and English as secondary official languages.
month, the Ministerial Legislation Committee rejected a bill to that effect
sponsored by National Union MK Arye Eldad, and a similar bill sponsored by
Kadima MK Robert Tibayev was downgraded to a point of order. The purpose of
Thursday’s debate was to discuss the merits of the suggestion and try to find
out why the ministers had rejected it.
Aside from recognizing Hebrew as
the primary official language of the state, the bill specified provisos under
which the other official languages would be formally recognized to protect the
rights of those who didn’t speak Hebrew.
The bill proposes that all legal
proceedings be fully accessible in the other languages, that formal
announcements made in Hebrew also be published in the other languages, that road
signs in areas with considerable non-Hebrew-speaking public be written in the
language of the local population and that Arab schools be able to conduct
lessons in Arabic.
“The existing legislation was determined by the
British Monarch at a time when the population of Israel was made up of 600,000
Jews and 450,000 Arabs. Today, when the ratio has changed substantially and the
Arabs make up a much smaller proportion of the population, it is about time we
gave Hebrew seniority, as befitting its Jewish character,” said
Eldad said that by giving Arabic and Russian official status, the
state would recognize the cultural rights of the country’s two sizable
minorities. He also stressed that he had copied the content of the bill word for
word from a bill proposed years ago by Prof. Ruth Gavison, one of the founders
of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
“When I proposed my bill,
I wasn’t even aware of Eldad’s motion, and my bill was born out of entirely
My bill aimed to strengthen the status of the Russian
language, while recognizing Hebrew as the main official language of the state,”
“The last thing I want to do is downgrade the status of
Arabic as an official language, but as a symbol of a Jewish and democratic
state, it is only fitting that Hebrew be given elevated status,” he
Dadi Komem, director of education at the Abraham Fund Initiatives –
an NGO that works to promote coexistence and equality between Arabs and Jews –
suggested at the meeting that with a series of legislative efforts to exclude
the Arab minority from society in the background, the language bill might look
like an additional means of harming Arab rights.
Komem said that changing
the status quo from a situation in which both Hebrew and Arabic enjoyed official
status to a situation where Hebrew was given precedence would harm the rights of
a sizable indigenous population.
“The official language has symbolic
importance, but is also a source of cultural identity for the Arab population.
The Arabs have a clear interest to study and speak Hebrew, which is the main
language spoken here, but they also want to maintain their cultural
heritage. For them, Hebrew is the language of the Zionists,” said
“We suggest that instead of downgrading the status of Arabic, the
state do the opposite and see to it that Arabic is given its proper reflection
as an official language of the state,” he said.
United Torah Judaism MK
Yisrael Eichler expressed concern that changing the law would harm the haredi
population’s ability to conduct education in Yiddish. He said he was supportive
of the proposal as long as it didn’t apply to education in non-state schools,
where many in the haredi sector use Yiddish as their primary
Committee chairman David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) concluded the
meeting, stating that the issue would be revisited in the future and noting that
he would demand the presence of a Justice Ministry representative to explain why
the bill had been dropped by the Ministerial Legislative Committee.