If Israeli lawmakers demote the Arabic language, then what?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly supports the nation-state bill. REUTERS/Abir Sultan

In May, the Israeli Knesset took the first step toward approving a new nation-state bill.

If passed, the new bill will rearrange the state’s relationship to its citizens, particularly, the Arab minority.

The bill reiterates that Israel is “the national home of the Jewish people,” at the same time as it reaffirms the nation’s democratic principles. If it becomes law, the bill would establish Hebrew as the national language of Israel, removing Arabic as an official language.

Today, about 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian Arabs who remained in Israel after it was established in 1948. As I discuss in my book “The Politics of Arabic in Israel,” Arabic has been an official language in Israel since 1922, when a law was passed during the British rule over Palestine. After the establishment of Israel, the law remained in place.

What will the elimination of Arabic as an official language mean for the history and the future of the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel?

Linguistic legacies of 1948

Teachers and students at the Hand in Hand Arab Jewish bilingual school in Jerusalem. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

While Arabic has been an official language of Israel, Hebrew is used more commonly and publicly. Over time, Palestinian citizens of Israel have become increasingly bilingual, but not the other way round. Israeli Jews are generally not interested in learning Arabic. Scholars like Yehouda Shenhav of Tel-Aviv University claim that Israel’s melting pot necessitated that all Jews living in the country should speak Hebrew. And, in fact, the number of Arabic speakers among the descendants of Mizrachi Jews who immigrated from Middle Eastern countries when Israel was established has dwindled.

It’s easy to imagine that removing Arabic as an official language will accelerate this trend. Some may even see the law as part of a process that Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling referred to as ethnic exclusion and “politicide.”

One nation, one language?

The historian Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that the 19th-century model of the European nation-state assumes that a nation is united by one language. He was also quick to point to the ethnic exclusion and cleansing that this model brought into the 20th century.

Arabic has been spoken in the Middle East since at least the seventh century. The language reflects the influences of the diverse cultures that contributed to it: Greek, Persian, Pharaonic, Canaanite, Hebrew, Aramaic, Islamic and Ottoman. The Arabic on the tongues of Palestinian citizens in Israel has traces of all of the peoples who settled the land since antiquity.

For example, some syntactic characteristics of Palestinian Arabic resemble Aramaic, which was spoken 2,000 years ago by inhabitants of Palestine and Greater Syria. It also borrows words from Turkish.

The elimination of Arabic as an official language in Israel risks violations of linguistic rights – the ability for humans to choose what language to use. Linguistics scholar Tove Skutnabb-Kangas argues that linguistic rights are human rights, and human rights are national rights and social rights.

The passage of this law and the attempt to mute the sound of Arabic in Israel may indeed make the Palestinian-Israeli conflict more difficult to resolve.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify its argument.