Jason Shvili
An Israeli in Canada

Official Bilingualism is Good for Israel

Last week, I happened to come across an opinion piece on ynetnews.com that argued against a law proposing the annulment of Arabic as an official language in Israel (see: Let Israel’s Arabs and their language be).  Supposedly, this bill “…will contribute to the social cohesion in the State of Israel and to the construction of the collective identity necessary for forming mutual trust in the society and preserving the values of democracy.”  But the author argues that such a measure, if taken, will do the exact opposite by imposing the Hebrew language on the country’s Arab minority.  Personally, I have mixed feelings about this issue.

Part of me believes that it would be hypocrisy for Israeli Arabs to accuse the country’s government of trying to impose Hebrew on them, because that’s exactly what their ancestors did to most of the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa during the Muslim Arab conquests of centuries past.  If anything, the Israeli government would simply be taking a step towards restoring the country’s Hebrew heritage by reaffirming the language’s supremacy in the State of Israel.  Moreover, I am usually of the opinion that if someone intends to live in a country in which the majority speaks a language that is different from his or her own, he or she must learn that language, no questions asked.  This is philosophy that I apply to immigrants who come to live in Canada, where I reside.  In Canada, our official languages are English and French.  So when someone comes to live here, they should be expected to begin learning one of these languages from day one.  If they refuse to do this, then they should pack up and go back to wherever it is they came from.  But for me, applying the same principle to Arabic speakers in Israel that I apply to new immigrants who come to live in Canada just doesn’t make sense.  Why?  Because for the most part, Israel’s Arabic speakers are hardly immigrants.  Many if not most of them have lived in Israel for generations, well before Jews began returning to their ancestral homeland.  Yes, it’s true that Israel’s Arabs are mostly a foreign population – the result of the aforementioned Muslim Arab conquests.  However, if we the Jewish majority try to impose our Hebrew language on the country’s Arab minority, then we will be no better than the conquerors of the past who tried to impose their languages on us.

Official Bilingualism in Israel Should be Strengthened, Not Weakened

I am opposed to any efforts by Israel’s leaders to try to reduce the status of Arabic versus Hebrew.  In fact, I would advocate strengthening Israel’s status as a bilingual country, using Canada as a model.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Canada’s official languages policy, you may be interested to know that our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which resembles Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, enshrines the equal status of English and French in all national affairs.  This linguistic equality is further enshrined in Canada’s Official Languages Act.  Indeed, Canada’s laws on the use of both official languages can be quite strict.  For instance, if a product is not packaged with both English and French present, it is not allowed to be sold in Canada – and this applies to everything from a high-definition TV to something as small as the bottle of water that you purchase at a convenience store.  

Anyone who has travelled around Israel, as I have, knows that the country has already made great strides towards bilingualism.  There are signs in both Hebrew and Arabic everywhere, and Arabic does appear alongside Hebrew on some products sold in Israel, including that bottle of water.  We’re certainly well ahead of other countries in the Middle East when it comes to respecting the languages of minority populations.  However, Israel still lags well behind Canada and other bilingual and multilingual jurisdictions.  We don’t have a comprehensive official languages act, like Canada does, nor is the equality of Hebrew and Arabic enshrined in our Basic Laws – and I believe that this has to change.

The Case for Bilingualism in Israel

Now some of you folks reading this might ask me, why should we do even more than we already do to accommodate the Arabs when all they want to do is kill us?  My short answer is that strengthening and enshrining official bilingualism in Israel is not really about accommodating the Arabs, but rather accepting reality – the reality that one fifth of Israel’s population speak Arabic as their first language; the reality that Arabic is the lingua franca of almost the entire Middle Eastern region of which Israel is a part; and the reality that whether the Jewish majority in Israel likes it or not, the Arabs and their language are part of Israel’s heritage.  If we ignore this reality, we are deluding ourselves.  

So I think it’s time that Israel’s leaders accepted this reality and do what is necessary to make the country as fully bilingual in Hebrew and Arabic as possible.  This means enshrining the equality of both languages in law, enacting new measures to ensure the right of all of Israel’s citizens to receive government services in both Hebrew and Arabic wherever they may be, and perhaps most importantly, making sure that Israelis themselves are fluently bilingual in both languages.  Indeed, I have met many Arabs in Israel who have taken the time to become fluent in Hebrew, yet I don’t seem to find too many Jews who have taken the time to learn Arabic, unless of course they or their parents immigrated to Israel from a country in which Arabic is the primary language.  As a Jew, I’ve always felt bad about this double standard, which is why I took it upon myself to study the Arabic language and why I believe that every Israeli Jew should strive to learn the language of our Arab citizens, just as they make the effort to learn the language of their Jewish fellow citizens.

In fact, I would argue that official bilingualism in Israel makes even more sense than it does in Canada, because Israel is such a small country where Hebrew and Arabic speakers are very close to each other, while Canada is incredibly large and English and French speakers tend to be concentrated in certain regions that are often far away from one another.  In other words, bilingualism is much more attainable in Israel than it is in Canada, because let’s face it; Jews and Arabs run into each other in Israel all the time, whereas Anglophones and Francophones in Canada do not.     

About the Author
Jason Shvili was born and raised in the Greater Toronto Area. He studied at the University of Toronto and now owns and operates a small business. He is proficient in Hebrew and also has working to advanced knowledge of Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian.