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Language becomes a political weapon in Israel

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racisemby Mya Guarnieri

Speaking to the US congress in May, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu boasted that his country is a beacon of freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, that it is the only place where Arabs "enjoy real democratic rights".

It's true that Palestinian citizens of Israel have some democratic rights, like the vote. But, as Netanyahu told congress: the "path of liberty is not paved by elections alone." And the summer months have seen an acceleration of worrisome anti-democratic trends.

First, the Knesset passed the anti-boycott law, a move that was widely condemned as a strike against free speech and democracy. Even some of Israel’s staunchest supporters expressed concern.

Now lawmakers have introduced a bill that proposes to change the definition of Israel as "Jewish and democratic" to "the national home of the Jewish people".

If passed, the legislation would become part of Israel's Basic Laws, which are used as a working constitution.

Whenever a conflict between democracy and Jewish values arises, the new definition of Israel would allow courts and legislators to favour the latter. According to Haaretz, the proposed bill will also make halacha, Jewish religious law, "a source of inspiration to the legislature and the courts". And, in the spirit of favouring the Jewish character of the state over a state for all its citizens, the legislation would also downgrade Arabic from an official language to one with "special status".

Arabic is the mother tongue of 20 per cent of Israel's citizens. It has been an official language of the land since 1924, when the British mandate set three: English, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Linguistic marginalisation

When the state of Israel was established in 1948, English was struck from the books. While Arabic remained an official language, it has always gotten second class treatment- as have the citizens who speak it.

Many government forms - including those for Social Security and National Insurance - come in Hebrew only. Arabic-speakers are under-represented in the public sector. So if a Palestinian citizen has weak Hebrew, he or she may be deprived of services or benefits they are legally entitled to and desperately need.

The results are sometimes devastating.

In Lod, for example, 25 per cent of the population is Arab. But out of the city's 50 social workers, only two speak Arabic and both are part time employees. After a rash of domestic violence left three Arab women from Lod dead, NGOs questioned the state's commitment to protecting Palestinian citizens.

Could the deaths have been prevented by better access to resources?

Samah Salaime-Egbariya, the director of Arab Women in the Centre, points out the murder rate is lower in places where Arabic-speakers can get help. Speaking to Haaretz, she remarked, "In Jaffa, for example, there are more than a few problems, including violence and drugs - but why is it that no women have been murdered in Jaffa in the last 10 years? Because there's cooperation there, and resources have been allocated by both the city and the Social Affairs Ministry."

Those who speak Israel's second official language sometimes face problems in the court system, as well. Thanks to a legal battle waged by Adalah, The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Arabic-speakers are entitled to a free translator. However, they do not receive this service automatically and must request it ahead of time. And, some Arabic-speakers remain unaware that they can get this help - I recently sat in on a court hearing during which a Palestinian man struggled to articulate himself in Hebrew.

Discrimination is written into the manual of a major coffee chain, Aroma Tel Aviv, which instructs employees to "speak Hebrew only" when customers are around. On numerous occasions, Palestinian citizens of Israel have found themselves fired from jobs for speaking their mother tongue.

Such incidents reflect Jewish Israelis' deep discomfort with hearing Arabic. This phenomenon is so widespread and well-known that it was depicted in the Israeli version of The Office. After a Jewish employee worries that Abed, an Arab co-worker, is consorting "with the enemy," the manager institutes a Hebrew-only policy. In a comic but poignant scene, Abed conducts business negotiations in Hebrew with another Arabic-speaker.

Double standards

Prohibitions against Arabic are sometimes found in Israeli schools. In Yafo, a principal has forbidden Palestinian citizens from speaking their mother tongue. Students of Russian origin, however, are free to converse in their first language.  

Sawsan Zaher, an attorney with Adalah, points out that even Arabic-speakers in the Arabic school system face language-related problems.

Earlier this year, the Arab Cultural Association reported that the textbooks used by Palestinian citizens of Israel have over 16,000 grammar and spelling errors. Mistakes appeared in math, history, geography books and those used to teach the Arabic language itself.

This leaves Arab students doubly disadvantaged-they learn a damaged version of their mother tongue and, because most Jewish Israelis don’t speak Arabic, they are forced to speak in a second language, Hebrew.

"International law obliges the state to respect the minority's language," Zaher says, adding that Israel’s 1953 public education law also requires the state to acknowledge the language and culture and religion of minorities.

The error-ridden textbooks, then, represent a violation of both international and Israeli law, according to Zaher. "You cannot acknowledge and respect a defective language," she says.

Because Israel has long neglected Arabic and its speakers, Zaher doesn't feel that downgrading the language's status will result in practical changes.

What is alarming is that the legislation is proposed as a Basic Law and Basic Laws will eventually form the constitution of the State of Israel.

"Language is an important indicator to see whether or not a state is acknowledging the minority," Zaher explains. "You set the status of a language in the constitution. [The proposed bill] would mean that there would be no recognition of Arabs as a national minority and that they would not be able to get suitable protection as according to international law."

That the legislation was introduced a month before the United Nations vote on the recognition of a Palestinian state is significant, Zaher adds.

"It could be viewed as another attempt to respond to the Palestinian move in September," she says. "Like, 'Okay, you want your own state? Then Israel will be the state of the Jewish people and others will be marginalised more and more..."

Recognising a certain group's language means recognising the existence of the group itself. Conversely, Zaher explains, "If [Israelis] want a state only for the Jewish people, they have to undermine Arabic."

As this undermining and marginalisation has been going on for years, perhaps the Knesset's latest move represents a step towards a more honest Israel - one that no longer pretends that being both a Jewish state and a democratic state for all of its citizens is possible.

At least the world will know, at last, what it's dealing with.

Mya Guarnieri is a writer based in Tel Aviv.

You can follow Mya on Twitter @myaguarnieri

This article was first published by Al-Jazeera


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