Arabs upset at bill demoting Arabic

Livnat's bill would make Arabic only a secondary official language, along with English and Russian.

limor livnat 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
limor livnat 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A Knesset bill that would demote Arabic from an official language to "a secondary official language" is evoking protest from Israeli Arabs and civil rights groups. The bill, drafted and introduced last month by Likud MK Limor Livnat, would make Hebrew the primary official language in Israel while designating Arabic, English and Russian as secondary official languages. Hebrew and Arabic currently have equal status as official languages though in practice there are significant gaps in how they are treated. The Knesset's Constitution, Legislation, and Law Committee is also considering a draft constitution that would make Hebrew Israel's sole official language and give Arabic a special status. While it is early to gage support for these proposals, many are concerned for both symbolic and practical reasons. "Arabic represents the identity of this population, this great mass who are proud of their past, their present," said MK Ibrahim Sarsour (United Arab List). "I think our identity cannot harm Israeli security and stability." Livnat's bill calls for legislation, court rulings, and official meetings, discussions, and services to be provided in Hebrew, which is largely the norm today. Official signs, ceremonies, speeches, public documents and announcements would only use Hebrew except in those areas where half of the population speaks one of the secondary languages; then that secondary language would also be used. Schools would use Hebrew as the language of instruction, except where "all pupils" speak a common secondary official language. Today, the vast majority of Arab pupils are taught in Arab schools in Arabic. Government forms for the public would be provided in all four official languages. "Israel is a Jewish state and a Jewish state needs to have an official language that portrays the character of the state," Livnat told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. "In the last three or four years, groups were formed under Israeli-Arab leadership that have the goal of... erasing its Jewish character and turning it into a binational state." While road signs needed to be in Arabic where there was a high concentration of Arabs, Livnat said, "there is no justification" to have Arabic signs all over the country. In addition, she argues, there is no need for Knesset ceremony invitations to be both in Hebrew and in Arabic. Despite the current law, Arabic is largely confined today to Arab population centers, activists said. Except for teacher training colleges, no Israeli universities teach in Arabic and the language is used minimally in the executive, legislative and judiciary branches, said rights activist Yousef Jabareen. For example, he said, major Supreme Court opinions in Hebrew are often translated into English but not into Arabic. "So far we have a good law for languages with bad implementation," said Jabareen, director of the Nazareth-based Dirasat: The Arab Center for Law and Policy. "Now Limor Livnat wants to promote a bad law, which would definitely increase the problem by increasing the feeling [among Arab-Israelis] of not belonging, of isolation and distrust with the authorities." Israel would do well to follow the Canadian example in which both French and English are recognized by the country's constitution as official languages and actually treated as such, he said. "This has been implemented with much success" in Canada, Jabareen said. "Even the national anthem is in two languages, English and French." The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has also criticized the Livnat's bill, and is waiting to see whether it passes its preliminary readings in the Knesset. "It is the duty of the majority to treat the minority with equal rights and equality and a part of that is recognizing the language" of the minority, said Rachel Benziman, the association's executive director. But Dafna Yitzhaki, a doctoral student in linguistics at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said that even if Livnat's proposal were to become law, it would have much more of a symbolic rather than a practical impact. "On the ground, it's not going to be different" because the law requiring that Arabic and Hebrew be treated as equal languages "is not implemented" today, she said. The bill, which has yet to be scheduled for a reading, is being cosponsored by MKs Yuli Edelstein (Likud), Otniel Schneller (Kadima) and Ya'acov Margi (Shas).