Israel’s New Language Barrier


We all want to draw a line under this summer of upheaval in Israel, and it is easy to get the impression that the country is now back to “normal.” But the reality on the ground doesn’t match this assessment. 

The Arab riots that broke out in Jerusalem straight after the July 2 murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir have still not abated. This week alone there have been several violent incidents, including rock attacks on two buses, one of them a school bus.

The summer pushed just about every possible button in Arab-Jewish relations. First, there was the abduction and murder of three Jewish boys, which fanned anger from Jews to Arabs. Second, there was the revenge killing of Abu Khdeir by young Jews that heightened anger in the other direction. And then there was the Israel-Hamas conflict, which amplified all the ill will.

In early July, it looked as if things could turn very ugly within Israel. In the north and south, angry demonstrations were getting out of hand. Stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown at cars, some of them apparently in response to incitement in mosques. These were scenes not witnessed for years, and at the same time, there were acts of violence from extremist Jews towards Arabs.

Strong and decisive local leadership reigned in the situation, along with a restrained police force that had very clearly learned the lessons from its handling of Arab rioting in October 2000, which ended with intense clashes between officers rioters, and ended with the deaths of 13 Arab citizens. With the exception of Jerusalem order was restored — but much of the underlying anger is still there.

This is a time for mending relationships; for quelling tensions. Yes, those who continue to riot in Jerusalem should be arrested and subjected to the law. However, the order of the day needs to be cohesion within Israeli society.

Alarmingly, one of the country’s big four political parties seems to have different ideas. Yisrael Beiteinu, which ran on a joint ticket with the ruling Likud in the last election and which controls the Foreign Ministry, proudly declares in its website that three of its lawmakers have submitted a bill to strip Arabic of its currently-honored status in Israeli officialdom. 

It is interesting to note that Yisrael Beiteinu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, initiated his bid to introduce a compulsory loyalty oath for Arab citizens after the 2009 Gaza conflict, writing in The Jewish Week that it was during the conflict that he decided that it needed to take “top priority.” This summer’s conflict seemingly ignited another bout of antagonism in the party to the Arab minority, and during the fighting its lawmakers were working on this gentler legislation.

Upon its independence in 1948, Israel retained a rule from the British Mandate that stated that for official purposes like ordinances and official notices, English, Hebrew and Arabic are to be used. During the understandable anti-British backlash of early statehood the requirement to use English was scrapped, but it was clear to the leaders of the young Jewish state that the language of the Arab minority should retain its status.

There is an academic debate as to how, exactly, Arabic’s current status in Israel should be defined, but the Yisrael Beiteinu lawmakers leave no room for doubt that they are pushing for a very real downgrade. The party states that in addition to wiping Arabic off the Mandate-era rule, “the use of Arabic in government offices and the courts will be cancelled.” 

This is a proposal to provoke fury in the Israeli-Arab sector without any iota of gain, apart from misplaced nationalist bravado.

Other legislation that has related to the Arab minority has, at least, tended to address real issues. For example, while I am critical of the 2011 Nakba Law, I can see that it addressed a point of genuine offense and concern to Jewish Israelis. It permits cuts in government funds to private nongovernmental organizations and state-funded institutions that mark the anniversary of Israel’s independence as Nakba Day, a common Palestinian reference to the events of May 1948, which means “catastrophe day” in Arabic. I don’t think that this is the way to address the Palestinian discourse, but I understand the frustration that brought about the law.

The status of Arabic, on the other hand, causes no pain, discomfort or offense. Downgrading it cannot be cast as righting any wrong. 

Arabic’s formal standing sends out a message about civic responsibility. This summer, the rule of law in the State of Israel was violated — by Arab rioters and by the Jews who took the law in to their own hands and murdered Abu Khdeir. Too many people think that they can act with contempt to the rule of law, or that it is a tool of the majority to control the minority. The fact that Arabs can go into courts and speak Arabic underscores that the rule of law applies to everybody and defends everybody. (There was an attempt in 2011 to pass a law that would have clarified what it means that Israel is a “Jewish state,” and in so doing it sought to downgrade Arabic, and there have been other legislative moves to change its status.) 

Arabic’s standing also sends out a message to the Arab minority, rarely as important as now, that there is a place for them and their culture at all levels of the Israeli state. The idea of abolishing this status feeds the narrative of those Arabs who say that there isn’t, who feel only solidarity towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and not towards their country of their own citizenship. It feeds the narrative of those who were throwing rocks in northern and southern Israel back in July, and those who are still rioting in Jerusalem and would like nothing better than spread their hatred and reignite violence in other parts of Israel. 

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.