A SPLIT CITY: Two Arab men walk past police officers in the Old City of Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It was certainly a night to remember.
Not only for the thrilled Portuguese and heartbroken French, but also for Israeli football fans, who waited eagerly for the Euro 2016 and were surprised to encounter a full-length Arabic commercial on Channel 2, in prime time.
An unprecedented and bewildering experience for the average Israeli spectator, who expected – as is usual during football games – sexist commercials for beer and trucks, and instead received a commercial starring a head-covered young Arab woman waving pots and pans and shouting into her cell phone.
Anyone who survived this unusual event and watched the commercial to the end discovered it was part of a campaign for the Hamashbir Lazarchan department store chain. It turns out it wasn’t a marketing gimmick or a mistake in scheduling, but part of the chain’s new advertising strategy to reach about two million potential customers, Arab citizens of Israel.
In fact, this was a wise and logical decision that really shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, anyone who visits the chain’s branches all over the country will discover that Arab citizens enjoy “fair representation” among the shoppers. So why shouldn’t that be reflected in its advertising policy too, in order to woo almost one fifth of the country’s citizens? There’s no question that the motivation here is entirely financial and commercial.
Hamashbir Lazarchan has understood that catering to the Arab audience pays off.
Arabs work, Arabs earn a livelihood – and Arabs are consumers. Sooner or later the other large companies in Israel will understand this (as is already true of the Bank of Israel and the Finance Ministry in their various activities to promote the integration of Arab citizens into the economy).
But Arab citizens – as individuals and as a group – are not only consumers, and cannot be severed from their context and their national and civil identity.
For that reason this precedent-setting commercial was of additional significance, which goes beyond the world of marketing and consumerism, as we saw in the many reactions (both positive and negative) in the wake of its airing.
The presence of Arabic on primetime TV and in the public space in general is still very rare. The message it sends is clear and of unparalleled importance: Arabic is not a foreign or hostile language, it’s part of the landscape and climate of this country and this state. Arabic is the language of a national minority that is no longer willing to accept its exclusion.
We are waiting for the day when Arab citizens and the Arabic language are a natural and integral part of prime time on radio and television (on the programs themselves as interviewees, and not only in the commercials), over the loudspeaker system of Israel Railways and in the passenger terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport, on the signs and in the service in hospitals and in the instruction and content in the universities. When that day comes there will also be a chance that the two nations living in this country will be able to progress together in building a shared society that seeks peace, justice and cooperation, and not only conflict and an ongoing rift. Really and truly.
This small country, which boasts of being a technological and economic power, trembled at the broadcast of an Arabic commercial, and that may be a justified reason to smile, but also a reason to calm down and to reassure others. This was long overdue, but from now on it will be possible to devote space to the Arabic language in the public arena without courting disaster.The writers manage public affairs and media in Arabic and Hebrew for Sikkuy- The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.