Arabic as an official language of the State of Israel

“The Arabic language always had a special place in the State of Israel. For many of its citizens, this language is their mother tongue.”

Arabic language signs in east Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Arabic language signs in east Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘Ahlan wa sahlan” – “May our house be like your family home and like a level plain on which you can walk easily and safely.” Such is the traditional greeting when entering any Arab household, or gathering.
Last July 11, 2017, the Knesset welcomed National Arabic Language Day.
In its second year, it pays homage to Arabic as an official language of the State of Israel. To quote Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein: “The Arabic language always had a special place in the State of Israel. For many of its citizens, this language is their mother tongue.” He also spoke about how every citizen in Israel can understand what diversity of languages mean, and the treasures they hold for each community.
In recent years, matriculation exams in Arabic scored the poorest. Regarding which MK Issawi Frej said, “Language is not an enemy.” Other MKs spoke about language as accessibility for the Arab population to public services.
In addition, lack of understanding of a language was also seen as a social disability which increases fear and suspicion of the other.
MK Yael German reminded the rest of the Knesset about the importance of translating the law on the ground, and not simply recognizing Arabic on paper. At the same time, MK Akram Hasoon called upon his peers to use the language as a tool: “Arabic is a language of poetry. Let’s turn it into the language of peace. Let’s turn it into a language of prosperity.”
One key mover in the field is that The Abraham Fund Initiatives (TA FI), which has introduced Spoken Arabic and Hebrew instruction in elementary schools in Israel. The Ya Salam program aims to teach Arabic in more enjoyable ways, as a way to befriend one’s neighbor and not to “know your enemy.” A few other public events are held to raise awareness and appreciation about Arabic as an official language of Israel. For instance, on a popular prime time talk show, Alabina, a Yemenite Jewish singer, rendered an Arabic song to represent her love for the Arabic language. This is just one of the many manifestations of how the Arabic and Jewish worlds share a rich history of culture, arts and literature.
Arabic is not only attributed to the significant minority of Arab Israelis, but goes as deep as the texts of Jewish philosophers and mystics such as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides, as well as half of today’s Israeli Jews. Although dialects differ from one place to another, not to mention the decreasing Arabic literacy among new generations of Mizrahi Jews, the very Zionist founders of the Hebrew Language Committee regarded Arabic as the language of the land. Meyouhas wrote in 1895: “The more I continue to research the roots of the Arab people and its qualities, language and literature, the more I discover Israel and the secrets of its language.”
But language is also political. Even in the most basic of households, where everybody uses one language, people are bound to develop different interpretations of the same experience.
MK Yousef Jabareen, the initiator of National Arabic Language Day, warned against another impending issue at Knesset, the nation-state bill: “If the Hebrew language has difficulty defending itself, we cannot let it harm the Arabic language instead. Leave us our language and leave us our identity.”
Current versions of the bill either revoke or threaten Arabic as an official language. At the same time, the bill elevates other national symbols such as the national anthem. In 2016, President Reuven Rivlin himself considered the possibility of revising national symbols to make them more inclusive to the 20% of Israel’s citizenry who are not Jewish.
Language is only one of the cornerstones of nation building, and in effect, peacebuilding. It carries deep socio-political implications, in the words of The Alliance for Peacebuilding: “the power to include or exclude, recognize or ignore, support or deny the rights and realities of ethnolinguistic communities.” To quote Ahmed Yassin, a Palestinian youth activist who graduated from the Hebrew University (the first from the West Bank since the second intifada): “The two nations cannot be compared in an equal equation, but they have so much more in common than they realize.
I believe that Arabic is one of the key solutions to this conflict.”
There seems to be a trend among young Israelis to learn spoken Arabic, with an increasing demand for Arabic schools such as Damascus Gate Arabic in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. According to its founder Lee Gancman, “Whether you are Right or Left, young or old, religious or non-religious, or from any ethnic background, spoken Arabic is an important tool in your life.” He added: “But there is no proof that speaking the other language leads to peace. In Syria, you have Sunnis versus Shi’ites, the Alawites, Kurds (albeit usually as a second language) – they all speak Arabic. People need to be educated, liberal and have moderate religious views. If you do, then speaking another language is very helpful in forging friendships.”
Israel’s language education and policy remain to be translated into an inclusive society where all its members are at an equal playing field, a democratic homeland where voices are not only heard, but understood.
Here’s a summary of top three reasons Arabic should be welcomed in Israel:
1. Arabic is spoken, or read, by many communities in Israel.
Arabs constitute 20% of Israel’s citizens.
Mizrahi Jews, who constitute half of the remaining population, also trace their heritage to Arabic culture.
Learning the Arabic language can help any Israeli to get around more, and also dive into the world of Arabic literature and arts.
2. Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world.
With approximately 200 million native speakers, it is spoken by all of Israel’s neighbors, and has influenced other parts of the world such as Central Asia, Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia. That said, Arabic is an official language of the United Nations.
3. Arabic belongs to the Semitic language family, alongside Hebrew and Aramaic.
Arabic is relatively easy to learn for Hebrew speakers because it shares many words and semantic rules. It is also based on three-letter roots that convey a general meaning, with dots placed above and below the words to represent vowels, and is written from right to left.
The author, raised in the Philippines, is an intern for the Abraham Fund Initiatives in Israel and a young fellow for the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. She is also currently taking her Masters in Coexistence and Conflict Resolution at Brandeis University.