MKs debate whether to recognize Hebrew as primary language

The Knesset's Legal Affairs Committee discusses the possibility of modifying, resubmitting a bill on the subject.

Tibayev 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tibayev 311
(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.
The 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.
Last 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.
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 different reasons.
My bill aimed to strengthen the status of the Russian language, while recognizing Hebrew as the main official language of the state,” said Tibayev.
“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 said.
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 Komem.
“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 language.
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.