Adjust size of text


Follow us and continue the conversation

Your saved articles

You haven't saved any articles

What are you looking for?

‘Israeli Jews: Let’s speak Arabic, too’

Eetta Prince-Gibson
Print this
Plus61J Stamp Template 0727(5)

Published: 3 January 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024


This was the slogan of the Battalion for the Defence of the Language, organised by a group of Jewish students in Tel Aviv in the 1920s, in order to encourage Jews – sometimes by force – to use only Hebrew.

These young militants knew that adopting the Hebrew language was necessary for the success of the Zionist enterprise. Language creates identity, and the languages of the Diaspora, especially Yiddish, would keep Jewish national identity tied to the Diaspora.  To create the “new Jew” in the old-new homeland, Jews would have to learn to speak their old-new language.

Hebrew, and only Hebrew, had to be the language of our public and private lives; Jewish tradition, and only a modernised, Zionist-oriented version of Jewish tradition, could be permitted to shape our culture.

The war against Arabic was even harsher than the battle against the Diaspora languages. Arabs were thought of as the enemy, our competitors in belonging to this land. Silencing their language was a way to erase awareness of their presence.

The State of Israel was established and with it, a new Jewish-Israeli society was created. Hebrew was revitalized, and we can now argue, love, opinionate, write literature, curse and pursue science and politics in Hebrew.

It would be wrong to view those campaigns against language and culture through today’s lenses.  But today we do know that they were, at best, short-sighted and misguided. By ignoring other languages and cultures, and especially Arabic, we impoverished Hebrew and created a myopic culture.

Today, as Israeli society continues to evolve, we can allow ourselves to embrace other languages and cultures, knowing that they will enrich our own.
The undermining of the status of Arabic is part of the ongoing efforts by successive governments to use divisive politics to delegitimise the Arab minority and harness nationalist populism for political gain.

But the Israeli political establishment continues to wage war against Arabic as if the State has yet to be established and as if Israeli-Jewish culture can only exist if other cultures are eradicated.

Last week, the Education ministry issued a directive making it clear to Israeli civic teachers that from now on they have to teach their students – the directive applies to both the majority whose first language is Hebrew and to the 23.4% whose first language is Arabic – that Hebrew is the only official language in the country.

READ Israeli pupils to be taught Hebrew as country’s only official language

The directive is a part of the controversial Nation Law, passed by the Knesset in July 2018, which revoked the status of Arab as an official language. The nation law, at least in its wording, grants Arabic a special, albeit inferior, status that is to be anchored in law. This directive didn’t even mention that.

The Education Ministry has no need to worry that Arabic will be replacing Hebrew as language any time soon.  According to data from the 2011-2012 social survey conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics, only 8.6% of Jewish Israelis have a basic command of Arabic.

In 1996, Arabic was declared the second foreign language (after English) to be taught as compulsory in grades 7 to 10. Nevertheless, according to a report by Sikkuy, an NGO for equality between Israeli Jews and Arabs, due to the lack of enforcement and the poor quality of much of Arab instruction, the great majority of Hebrew-speaking students, including both those who have attended Arabic language classes and those who have not, still finish high school without even a minimal knowledge of Arabic.

It’s not that Israeli students are incapable of learning a second language. In comparing mastery of Arabic and English as a foreign language, Sikkuy found that 45% of the Jewish population aged 20 and up know English as a foreign language and learned it at school.

[gallery columns="1" size="large" ids="32866"]

Unlike the efforts made by the Battalion for the Defence of the Language a century ago, this current directive is not intended to protect Hebrew. But like them, it is intended to define public space and political consciousness, among both Jews and Arabs.

The continued undermining of the status of Arabic is part of the ongoing efforts by successive Israeli governments, and especially by the Likud over its past 10 years in power, to use divisive politics to delegitimise the Arab minority and harness nationalist populism for political gain.

Arab citizens make up over 20% of Israeli society. By denigrating their language, the directive continues to attempt to erase their history, culture, and collective memory. The directive is meant to remind them – less they have any doubt – that they are not equal citizens of this country, and never will be. It is also intended to assure right-wing Jewish voters that their history, culture and collective memory will remain dominant.

Yet, the younger generation of Arab citizens are politically savvy, well-educated, and, despite all of Israel’s repressive efforts, they remain proud of their Arabness.  Furthermore, despite the ongoing institutionalized and social discrimination, the Arabs citizens of Israel have shown that they want to pursue change through the political system and to use their legitimate power as citizens to improve their lives.

But for how long will this substantial minority continue to tolerate these political, social and linguistic injustices before anger and frustration overcome good intentions?
The campaign against Arabic has other repercussions, too. More than 50% of Jewish Israelis are descended from Arabic-speaking countries. For generations, their culture was also repressed.

The campaign against Arabic has other repercussions, too.  More than 50% of Jewish Israelis are descended from Arabic-speaking countries. For generations, their culture was also repressed as part of the effort to create a hegemonic (read: Westernised Jewish) “Israeli” society. Their culture, too close for comfort to those of the Arabs, was demoted to second-rate.

Instead of fomenting alienation, language should be a means for Jews and Arabs to know each other as equals and to ease alienation and fear. It could help us create a strong multicultural society, in which each people is secure in its own culture, contributes to a sustainable social fabric, and creates shared public spaces where everyone can feel included.

Which, of course, is exactly what the political leadership opposes. But fortunately, as so often happens here, civil society has stepped up where our politicians fail. Over past few years, and especially in the past year since the Nation Law was passed, we have seen a genuine interest among a growing number of Jewish Israelis to speak Arabic. Today, more than 30 frameworks, many of them run by NGOs or private initiatives, provide Arabic studies.

I, too, have recently started to study Arabic. My vocabulary is embarrassingly limited, I only know a few of the letters, and I still can’t get how to conjugate most of the verbs.  Yet, even so, even a few months of studying Arabic has influenced how I see and relate to others and my surroundings. When I see Arabic letters on street signs or packaging, they no longer look like strange squiggles that don’t have anything to do with me.

I am more aware of my environment and my cultural assumptions have been challenged. While sometimes this makes me uncomfortable, I know that ultimately, it can help me to become more inclusive and tolerant.  And far from feeling that my identity as a Jew and a Zionist is threatened, I feel that my sense of sense is deepened.  Knowing others helps us to know ourselves.

Jews: Let’s speak Arabic, too.

Photo: An Israeli carries posters in Hebrew and Arabic at a protest against the nation-state law in 2018 (Meged Gozani)

About the author

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, was previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

Enter site