In May, several Israeli ministers voted in favor of a Knesset bill that would demote Arabic’s status from being an official language of Israel (as leftover by the British Mandate government) and make it subordinate to Hebrew. The bill, often called the nation-state bill, intends to create a Basic Law that would declare Israel to be a Jewish nation-state. Although this form of the bill was dropped, the status of Arabic in the bill is still being discussed, leaving the future of Arabic’s status in Israel uncertain.
This was not the first attempt made to demote the status of Arabic; in 2008, four MKs tried to make Arabic a “secondary” language of Israel, alongside Russian and English. In an op-ed in Haaretz, Dr. Yonatan Mendel says that similar attempts were made soon after the establishment of Israel. It therefore remains important to discuss this issue and its potential ramifications and what the language means for Israelis. Most saliently, a demotion of Arabic’s status, in fact, undermines the bill’s alleged goal of making Israel the nation state of the Jewish people.
Jews, currently and historically, have spoken a very wide variety of languages. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, only about 49% of Israeli citizens speak Hebrew as their first language. Many Jews in Israel speak Russian or English, and a small amount even speak languages most people would not normally associate with Jews such as Tatar, Georgian, and Marathi.
Although it isn’t spoken by nearly as many Jews anymore, according to Ethnologue, some 540,000 Jews speak a dialect of Arabic as a first language. According to the Israeli Census Bureau, about 1.2 million Israeli Jews’ fathers were born in Arabic-speaking countries or were born in an Arabic-speaking country themselves.
Statistics aside, Arabic holds a special place in Jewish history. The language has played a pivotal role in the development of Judaism and the Jewish people. Jews have spoken Arabic since at least the 4th century (according to my research) but possibly as early as the 1st century. Following the establishment of Muslim empires, Arabic solidified its place as the language of philosophy and poetry of Jews in the Muslim world during the Middle Ages.
To imply that Arabic is not a Jewish language is to betray history. What would modern Judaism even look like without some of its most foundational texts? Did the proponents of the bill forget that Maimonides wrote the Guide to the Perplexed and that Yehuda HaLevi wrote the Kuzari in Arabic? Did they forget Sa‘adia Gaon’s Arabic translation of the Torah or Moshe ibn Ezra’s Arabic poetry?
Moreover, Arabic did not only exist as a Jewish language in the Middle Ages. A simple internet search reveals that Jews have used Arabic until fairly recently. Members of the Iraqi Jewish community would read Jewish newspapers such as al-Misbaḥ in the early 20th century. Yaq‘ub Sanu, an Egyptian Jew who lived in the 19th century, is often referred to as the “father of Egyptian Theatre” and had his plays performed in the Egyptian dialect of the language. Esther Azhari Moyal, a Lebanese Jewish journalist and feminist, wrote for several Arabic periodicals and translated many works into Arabic. Anwar Sha‘ul, an Iraqi Jew who passed away in 1984, wrote the script for the first Iraqi film produced.
If Jewish history is not sufficiently convincing of Arabic’s importance to Israeli society, the greater use of Arabic in Israel would help integrate Israel’s Arabic-speaking minority and integrate the country into its geographic and cultural neighborhood. It would also likely increase Israel’s security, something that should appeal to the more hawkish ministers putting the bill forward; just imagine how much more easily and humanely security could be exercised if every Israeli soldier spoke some colloquial Arabic.
A bill of this kind would undermine the very reasoning its backers proposed it to begin with—the sense that Israel is a home for all Jews. Arabic is a Jewish language too, and to demote its the status in Israel would be to disregard Jewish history.