The nation-state bill is due to come before the Knesset this week for its final readings. If it passes into law, one of Israel’s longest-standing linguistic traditions will be changed — the official status of Arabic will be revoked, and the Arabic language will have only a “special status.”
Arabic has been an official language, along with Hebrew, since before the founding of the state. Under the British Mandate, the King’s Order-in-Council issued in 1922 designated English, Arabic and Hebrew as official languages. After the State of Israel was established, the official status of English was revoked, leaving Hebrew and Arabic as the state’s official languages.
What will be the effect of the bill on the linguistic situation in Israel, and on the already-fragile relations between its Jewish and Arab citizens? The bill includes a promise that the status granted to the Arabic language in practice until today will not be detracted from. This refers, presumably, to such elements as education and public signage. Based on a High Court of Justice ruling from 2002, mixed Jewish-Arab cities are required to display municipal signs in Arabic as well as Hebrew. We can assume that the trilingual signs posted in many streets of cities such as Haifa, Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Akko will not be taken down, and that Arab schoolchildren will be able to continue studying in their own language.
The harm that the Arabic section of the bill stands to cause, however, is both symbolic and practical. In practical terms, the bill can be expected to have a damper effect on future attempts to promote the use of Arabic in Israel and bolster its presence in the public space. “What do you want,” officials in public transportation companies, hospitals and universities may say, “it’s not an official language anymore.” Efforts currently being made to promote Arabic instruction in Hebrew-speaking schools may be curtailed on the same grounds.
The foreseeable symbolic harm is even more egregious. This move is likely to be perceived by Israel’s Arab citizens as a direct blow against them and their culture. As one speaker said at the recent Arabic Language Day held in the Knesset in early July, “You can’t separate between the exclusion of Arabic and the exclusion of Arab citizens.” While the official status of Arabic has not been fully implemented to date – there is considerable symbolic value to this official status. It holds the promise of a shared existence, in which the language and culture of both Jews and Arabs is afforded equal respect. The downgrading of Arabic’s status sends a clear message to the Arab minority: Your language is of secondary importance; have no hopes of seeing it on an equal footing with the language of the Jewish majority.
The Arabic section of the nation-state bill, then, may well be dubbed the “humiliation clause.” It serves no practical purpose but to abolish a long-established linguistic tradition and undermine hopes of a diverse and equal public space.
Israel’s legislature must refrain from making any change to Arabic’s official status. Israeli society would be better served by a widespread campaign to ensure that all citizens learn and speak Arabic, and promote the presence of the language in all public realms — in governmental services, in the justice system, in schools and higher education, and in all public signage – thereby signifying the aspiration to a shared, equal and tolerant society.