Shulamit Binah

Arabic is still Hebrew’s sister language

The recently enacted nationality Law provides for a special status for Arabic, though not as the second official language as it was from the very beginning of our statehood and even before. Truth be told, Arabic has lost much of its appeal among the Jewish majority and, in fact,  in 2015 only one and a half percent of all Jewish high school students took enhanced Arabic (“5 units”) in their matriculations. The Nationality law may now cause further deterioration.

Quite disturbingly, with or without the politically-motivated and otherwise unnecessary Nationality Law, in recent years the Ministry of Education reduced the amount of Arabic teaching-hours; maybe in order to make room for other, more lucrative scientific subjects. Be it as it may, this policy can disseminate a tacit approval of recent revelations of disdain and even a sense of superiority over the Arabs of Israel.

This vanishing act of Arabic is incredible for a country that boasts a 20 percent Arab population. It is even more amazing, given that about one-half of all Israelis descend from families who came from Arabic speaking countries, where they were steeped in Arab culture and made significant literary contributions to the prose and poetry of Arab lands. Suffice it to mention luminaries like Maimonides or the many Jewish poets and philosophers of the Golden Age of Muslim Spain, or Egypt or Iraq.

As a child, I did not know Arabic, but having grown up in the mixed city of Haifa, the very tinge and flavor of Arabic were around me even before I formally began to learn this beautiful language. I heard it in the streets and in the markets or from business associates of my father. I heard it spoken by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Ahmadis. Arabic was a natural of life in Haifa.

Later on, my high school Bible teacher, himself a scholar of Arabic, demonstrated constantly how the two languages (and Aramaic as well) were related to each other, providing new interpretations of some archaic or ambiguous biblical terms. I was proud to realize how regionally connected my own culture was. I found out that Arabic and Hebrew are indeed sister languages. The similarity of roots, the grammatical formats, and even the proximity of syntax was, and still are fascinating to me. The command of my mother tongue, Hebrew was further enriched and enhanced with each step I took in Arabic.  This revelation led me to the study of Islam and Arab history. Some of my peers also took Arabic, at least out of the understandable motivation of “know thy enemy”. I too had realized that understanding the surrounding adversarial counties was extremely important for the survival of Israel, However, I also  believed that the best way to live in this country was through learning and better understanding the language, history, and culture of our most immediate neighbors, the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular.

This has always been true. In fact, a scholarly society, the Israel Oriental Society was established in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as early as 1949 to promote the study and research of these topics. Many excellent academic works were published in its scholarly periodicals, The New East and Asian & African Studies, covering the history, politics, prose, and poetry of the Arab world.

This is as just true today. Subsequently, the prestigious Middle East & Islamic Studies Association of Israel, the continuing organization of the former Society, protested the omission of the principle of equality in the new Nationality Act. The Association emphasized that it has always been active in deepening the knowledge of Arabic among Israeli Jews, “being aware that the learning of the history, culture and the abundance of the other side was not meant solely for academic needs, but to promote a Jewish-Arab dialogue [and] to facilitate the bridging of differences, understanding and integration”.

Our Hebrew culture and civilization is strong enough to absorb the learning of Arabic as well. Notwithstanding the political debate over the Nationality law, which may have only just begun, it is important that Israel retains and even increase the learning of Arabic and Islam among Jewish students. This is of paramount importance for anyone who seeks knowledge and co-existence, and maybe even peace.

The Middle East & Islamic Studies Association of Israel (MEISAI)



About the Author
An expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Shulamit Binah’s book, UNITED STATES – IRAQ BILATERAL RELATIONS, Confusion and Misperception 1967 to 1979, has been published by Valentine-Mitchell (London 2018). Dr. Binah retired from government service after a full career in analysis and evaluation. She lives in Israel.
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