Arabic's future as an official language in Israel at risk, legislators warn

Arab Mks say that should a bill proposing to eliminate Arabic's official status in the country pass, it will be a "nakba of our language."

A road sign in English, Hebrew, and Arabic points to the Israeli settlement of Susiya (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
A road sign in English, Hebrew, and Arabic points to the Israeli settlement of Susiya
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Elimination of Arabic’s status as an official language as is being proposed in a draft of a bill recently approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation would constitute “another nakba [catastrophe]” for Arabs, MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) said on Tuesday.
“It will be another nakba, the nakba of our language,” he said, using the Arabic term that refers to the mass displacement of Palestinians during the War of Independence.
“It would allow more degradation of Arabic in the public sphere and its disappearance from the public sphere, affecting our identity and status,” Jabareen added.
He made the remarks during Arabic Language Day in the Knesset, which he organized in order to combat the bill and strengthen Arabic’s status together with NGOs seeking to advance equality, including Sikkuy, the Abraham Fund and Mosawa.
As part of the day’s events, the Knesset education committee discussed how Arabic is taught in Jewish schools and the economics committee’s subcommittee on public transportation addressed issues related to posting signs in Arabic. The main event was a roundtable discussion of MKs and NGO representatives on “language, identity, and equality.” Only a few Jewish MKs attended the discussion, including Anat Berko (Likud), who came late, made brief remarks on the importance of Arabic study and then left.
Since the state’s inception Arabic has held official language status although in practice it is not treated equally to Hebrew or even English, which is not an official language, said Yonatan Mendel, director of the Center for Jewish-Arab relations at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Arabic “is treated as inferior,” he said.
Mendel added: “English is a mandatory subject for school matriculation, while Arabic is not mandatory. Many official services are not in Arabic as well as many websites. It’s official on paper only. Israel understands its being official in a narrow way. Its status is fragile and weak.”
Canceling Arabic’s official status might accentuate the problem of government offices not using the language or having it on their websites, Mendel said. “But its worst implications are political and moral. For Arabs the erasure of Arabic will be parallel to erasure of their status as equal citizens. They might understand it as a step toward taking away their citizenship rights. It will not contribute to relations between Jews and Arabs.”
MK Oren Hazan (Likud), who supports ending Arabic’s official status, told The Jerusalem Post there is room for only one official language – Hebrew.
“We need a framework that will safeguard Jewish identity and the [Hebrew] language. The State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people and Hebrew has to be safeguarded as the only official language.” He said he supports Arabic having a “special status” without being official and is promoting legislation that would require the teaching of spoken Arabic in Jewish schools from first grade.
The Ministerial Committee on Legislation in May approved a new version of the “nation-state bill” that states “the national language is Hebrew” and demotes Arabic from being official to having a “special status.”
The bill says Arabic speakers have the right to linguistically accessible state services.
Education Committee chairman Ya’acov Margi (Shas) declined to say whether he would support the change of status. “When I get the bill I will formulate my stance,” he said.
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) said a committee had been formed chaired by MK Amir Ohana (Likud) to advance the bill in coordination with coalition partners.
“We are concerned the final version will harm the status of Arabic and that this will be a humiliation for Arab citizens,” she said.
Svetlova addressed the roundtable discussion in fluent Modern Standard Arabic, which she learned 20 years ago as a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She recalled being asked by a university staffer at the time why she did not study a European language instead.
“We are in the Middle East, all the neighbors speak Arabic, not Italian. The goal is that each child speak the two languages. This will advance peace,” she said.
Referring to Arabic literary luminaries, Svetlova added: “It is not the language of terrorism; it is the language of love and culture; the language of Yusuf Idris, Najib Mahfouz, Emile Habiby and Mahmoud Darwish.”