Danielle Levi

Why Israel needs to keep Arabic as an official language

Pretending that removing Arabic as an official language of Israel is not an aggressive symbolic political move is delusional.

MK Oren Hazan from the Likud has stated that Israel has room for only one language, Hebrew, and implied that having Arabic as an official language threatened Jewish identity.

Is there really room for only one language in a State? Is having multiple official languages dangerous? Dangerous for Israel? Let me be clear: having multiple official languages do not damage an ethnic and religious group. History heavily backs me up on this.

The Social Identity Threat Theory of Tajfel and Turner (1986) concludes that an individual experiencing a threat to its collective identity will also experience a personal sense of threat, which in return will create negative emotions that can be manifested. Individuals might have to reinforce their own identity by crystalizing the differences between their in-group and out-group. This can even generate negative emotions and behaviors towards members of the outgroup, especially if the latter is the source of the threat. In Israel, where the in-group and out-group identities are already so strong, the reaction from an identity threat will only strengthen the group identity at the expense of unity.

While this theory might seem vague, it can be illustrated by many empirical cases.

In Turkey, for example, the banning of Kurdish languages (Kurmanji, Zaza), the banning of any cultural expression of Kurdishness, and its enforcement by the State contributed to the rise of Kurdish consciousness in the 1970s. Indeed, while the Kurdish language was officially banned, the language kept itself alive in the privacy of the household, its underground organization, and underground printed press, literature, newspapers, etc. The repression has led to a strong revival of Kurdish consciousness over the years. The refusal of the Turkish State to accept the Kurds as a distinct ethnic and cultural group still belonging to the Turkish State as they are is a cause of the existing violent conflict and resentment. In parallel thinking, despite the fact that Israel doesn’t want to ban Arabic, the fact of canceling its status as one of Israel’s official languages is a blow against Arab culture, and might quite end up like the Turkish experience.

Indeed, the ethno-nationalism of Turkey, centered on the Turkish ethnicity (which includes Turkish language) has contributed to create a climate where an ethnic difference can make you a second class Turkish citizen. The obsession of the Turks with the “ethnic homogeneity of Turkey” leads sometimes to classify the Kurds using their own language as rebels or outlaws, even sometimes as a threat to the unity of the Turkish State. The conflict was not inevitable; Turkey could have celebrated its diversity, could have been inclusive ethnically, culturally and linguistically, and hence politically, and the current and on-going conflict might never have happened. This conflict was constructed through the State policies; and 94 years after the creation of Modern Turkey, this can be described as one of the failures of Turkish nationalism.

A contrary example of cultural inclusion is Switzerland. This tiny inlocked country has four official languages; German, French, Italian and Romanche. The country was built on the principles of multi-ethnicity, multi-culturalism, multi-linguistics, and a common acceptation of living together across their differences. This acceptation, this constructed solidarity needs to be built, supported, encouraged by the State; a role the Swiss State is fulfilling. Other successful examples of official multilinguistic countries are Canada, India, Belgium, Singapore, Norway, New Zealand, among others. None of the national unity of these countries is threatened because of their multi-linguistics status. Again, it is the exact opposite: not being culturally inclusive about the people living under the sovereignty of the state brings about negative emotions that end up threatening the identity, and the State.

In Israel, there is a clear distinction between Jews and Non-Jews. Yes, there are Jewish people from all over the world, that come with their multiple languages and cultures. But as Jews, they are considered the in-group of Israel. Arabs, on the other hand, are mostly considered as “the other”, the out-group.

If Israel wants to increase its internal stability, it is through the promotion of certain cultural features of the out-group that it will be able to do so. Having an inclusive approach towards the people that are living in this land, under the Israeli citizenship can only strengthen Israel, while the opposite will weaken it. The Arabic language will never disappear from this place because it is part of the history of this land, a history that is still alive. Israel, as a country that keeps branding itself as a smart country valuing diversity, needs to live up to its standards, and act smart.

Stop seeing the Arab-Israelis as a threat to your country; strengthen your bonds with them, durably, instead of breaking them down by trying to pass laws to downgrade the status of a language spoken by more than 20% of your people.

Safa (language) in arabic-hebrew

Meanwhile, typography designer Liron Lavi Turkenich developed a Hebrew-Arabic Font, in which the higher part of the letters are in Arabic and the lower part in Hebrew, allowing all Hebrew and Arabic speakers to read the same signs.

About the Author
Originally from Switzerland and Turkey, Danielle Levi completed her B.A. in International Relations at the University of Geneva (Switzerland) and finished her Master degree at Tel Aviv University in Public Policy, Conflict Resolution and Mediation. She is currently working as a political analyst for a security company based in Israel. She is passionate about the international world, from its politics to its culture, and has traveled throughout the continents for an extensive period of time.
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