Knesset Member Limor Livnat’s racist proposal to annul the status of Arabic as one of Israel’s official languages has several aspects – legal, practical, cultural, and political.
As we cannot “blame” the former education minister for over-sensitivity to the law or to culture, we can assume that her motives have to do with political aspects alone. These motives were at the base of a similar proposal submitted to the Knesset in 1999 and rejected.
Just like everything else in the country, the decision about the Arabic language’s legal status was taken back at the time of the British Mandate. At the time it was decided that three languages – Hebrew, Arabic, and English – will be granted official government status. A slight amendment cancelled the status of English as an official language and left us with Hebrew and Arabic.
The decision had political significance, that is, determining the country bilingual nature. This meant the State must use both languages when it comes to government ministries, the publication of laws and regulations, and legal discussions.
In practice, Arabic was marginalized, not just because of government practices that granted blatant preference to the Hebrew language, but also because of the silence of the Arab minority, which was busy surviving and reinforcing its civilian status.
Bilingualism in Israel remained an option for the Arab minority, but not for the whole country. The Arab minority must speak Hebrew at mother tongue level if it wishes to “integrate” into Israeli society. Meanwhile, for the Jewish majority, knowledge of the country’s second official language is merely an option.
The cultural marginalization of the Arabic language highlights the exclusion of the Arab minority from Israeli society and limits the ability of young Arabs to become integrated within in. For example, academic studies are only available in Hebrew, a fact that constitutes an obstacle and prevents tens of thousands of young Arabs from acquiring higher education.
The gaps between the Arab minority and Jewish majority in Israel reinforce a relationship of misunderstanding and fear of the “other,” whose language most Jews in the country do not understand.
Cultural oppressionThe attempt to completely erase the Arab language would serve to sharpen the sense of fear and horror Jews feel in relation to Arabic. There are countless documented cases where Arabs at workplaces or other forums were asked to only speak Hebrew. One of the arguments repeated in that context is that the Arabic language is perceived as threatening and scary.
Therefore, MK Livnat’s proposal would only make existing gaps greater and erase the little that was done over the years to promote a multicultural society in the country. Granting legitimacy to a language spoken by about 20% of the country’s citizens would contain a little the cultural oppression felt by the Arab minority. Another education minister, Shulamit Aloni, was wise enough to understand this, and thanks to her we saw the establishment of the Arabic theater in Haifa. At the time we thought that finally Israel was moving in a direction of a society that gives expression to the cultural wealth inherent within it.
Livnat’s proposal contradicts the common perceptions in enlightened countries that need to deal with a multicultural society. For example, the status of the French language is entrenched in the Canadian constitution, while in Finland, where Swedes constitutes only about 6% of residents, the Swedish language is present in all daily government activity and is easily accessible.
Livnat’s proposal is not meant to safeguard Hebrew, which enjoys hegemony under the auspices of exiting policy. Rather, the proposal is meant to undermine the Arabic language and trample over what has already flourished in the Arabic culture in Israel.
We cannot teach Livnat and her ilk the importance of a mother tongue to a person even if we enlist the help of theoreticians or authors to praise the centrality of a native tongue in safeguarding the culture of minority groups. However, the State of Israel may miss out on a rare opportunity to be a country that aspires for multiculturalism, minimization of gaps, and civil equality, just because of the caprice of a legislator whose passion for seeking temporary electoral gains may gravely undermine the little that was achieved here.
Marzuk Halabi is an author and attorney