Why Israel Is Moving to Downgrade the Arabic Language

Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa
Palestinian school girls walk in line past the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City on October 27, 2015. Israeli lawmakers on Sunday approved a new version of a nation-state bill that would demote Arabic as an official language. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty

In Israel, Arabic has long been taught in schools, spoken in the parliament and posted on road signs. It is not the official language, but neither is Hebrew, the mother tongue of most of the country. Instead, a law on the books since the British ruled the territory has mandated that all official correspondences be published in Arabic, English and Hebrew. (Israeli leaders removed English from that list after the country's independence in 1948.)

Yet Arabic may soon get a tacit demotion. On May 7, Israeli lawmakers approved the wording of a long-discussed bill that would define Hebrew as Israel's "national language." Days later, after a rowdy debate in the parliament, a majority of lawmakers voted for it. The legislation now faces two more hurdles before it officially becomes law, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ruling right-wing coalition strongly support it.

For Arab Israelis, who make up 20 percent of the country's population, the legislation strikes at the heart of their identity. For Jewish Israelis, it is about defining their own. The bill states that Israel "is the national home of the Jewish people" and declares that the "realization of national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people."

Such nationalistic language is why some celebrated the bill. Avi Dichter, the Israeli lawmaker who first proposed it, called upon a lyric from "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem, in a Facebook post on May 7, writing that it was "a big step toward establishing our identity, not only universally, but mainly toward ourselves, the Israelis, to be a free nation in our land."

In an email to Newsweek after the vote, Dichter, the former head of Israel's domestic security service, said the bill's "special status" for Arabic would only serve to create "a real infrastructure that can improve the status of the language." Neither Arabic nor its speakers "will be harmed by this clause."

Minority rights groups and opposition lawmakers strongly disagree. Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, Israel's largest Arab party, tweeted that Netanyahu was attempting to "destroy the status of the Arab population and exclude their culture and language."

Ahmad Tibi, one of Israel's most popular Arab politicians, agrees. "This is a racist nationalistic law whose purpose is to sideline the Arab minority," he says in a WhatsApp message written in Hebrew. "It is strange that 69 years after its establishment, the state of Israel is acting in such a demonstrable sense of insecurity."

Supporters of the bill say it's intended not to inflame tensions with Arab Israelis but to more firmly establish Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. They dismiss the criticism of Tibi and Odeh as coded language. "They are not defending the rights of the minority," says Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "They are not ready to accept the status of Israel as a [Jewish] nation…which is the raison d'être of the state of Israel."

Netanyahu's government has long demanded that Arab Israelis, as well as Palestinians, recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, has recognized Israel's right to exist, but it objects to calling it a Jewish rather than a multiethnic state because of its large Arab population. (Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, has not recognized Israel and calls for the "liberation" of all of historic Palestine.)

The bill comes as a wave of violent attacks by Arab Israelis and West Bank Palestinians has led some Israeli leaders to accuse the country's Arab population of working against the state. Many Arab Israelis disagree but claim they face widespread discrimination from the government. Aside from the bill, they point to Netanyahu's Election Day warning to voters in 2015 that Arabs were "heading to polling stations in droves" (he subsequently apologized) and a proposed bill to limit the Muslim call to prayer in Israel and East Jerusalem.

Either way, if the bill passes, some analysts say it will be another blow to Arab-Jewish co-existence—at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump is traveling to the region in hopes of reviving the moribund peace process.

"I think having…Arabic…as an official language is a recognition that there is a minority that is a valued part of the society," says Yossi Mekelberg, a fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

Implicitly downgrading the language, he adds, sends a very different message to Israel's Arabs: You do not belong here.