Israel’s demotion of Arabic is a betrayal to Jewish history

The demotion of Arabic disregards critical phases of Judaism’s history and Jewish culture.
Wednesday 01/08/2018
Jews study the Torah at the Patriarchs’ Tomb in the the divided West Bank city of Hebron. (AFP)
Diverse heritage. Jews study the Torah at the Patriarchs’ Tomb in the the divided West Bank city of Hebron. (AFP)

In demoting Arabic from an official language to a language with “special status” in the state of Israel, the Knesset has betrayed Jewish history and culture.

By adopting the Nation-State Law, Israel has betrayed the many great Jews who thought in Arabic and formulated, propagated and developed Jewish jurisprudence and thought.

Arabic will not be harmed by the demotion. Arabic is spoken by 450 million people from the shores of the Atlantic to the shores of the Arabian Sea; as far north as the shores of the Mediterranean and as far south as the Comoros Islands off Madagascar, closer to the most southern point in Africa than to anywhere in the Arab world.

Arabic will continue to be the mother tongue of 20% of the non-Jewish Israeli population.

The demotion of Arabic disregards critical phases of Judaism’s history and Jewish culture.

Hebrew is a Jewish language. It is the language of the Jews but Arabic is a Jewish language as well. Arabic belongs to Jewish history and culture as much as, arguably, Hebrew and certainly more than any other language besides Hebrew.

That statement deserves repetition: Arabic is a Jewish language as well.

The Knesset has betrayed key foundational elements of Jewish history, Jewish thought and Jewish progression.

With Hebrew having faded as a language of daily communication, Arabic was the language of the majority of the world’s Jewish population since the fourth century (at the latest) and continued to be the language of the overwhelming majority of Jews through the Middle Ages. Its speakers far outnumbered Yiddish, which is essentially a Germanic language and not a Semitic language in which Arabic and Hebrew share a common linguistic genealogy, during the Middle Ages.

The Arabic language has played a pivotal role in the development of Jewish thought. To deny that is to deny Jewish history. Some of the most prominent books of mediaeval Jewish thought were written in Judeo-Arabic, an Arabic dialect used by Jews often using the Hebrew alphabet, as well as certain halakhic works and biblical commentaries. These include:

— Kitab al-Amanat wa’l-I’tiqadat (Emunot V’deiot — “The Book of Beliefs and Opinions”) by Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, which included vast biblical commentary;

— Al Hidayah ila Faraid al-Qulub (Chovot HaLevavot — “Duties of the Heart”) by Rabbeinu Bachya;

— Kitab al-Ḥujjah wal-Dalil fi Nusr al-Din al-Dhalil (The Kuzari — “A Defence of the Despised Faith”) by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi;

— Maqala Fi-Sinat Al-Mantiq (Millot HaHiggayon — “Treatise on Logical Terminology”) by Maimonides;

— Kitab al-Siraj (Peirush HaMishnayot — “Commentary on the Mishnah”) by Maimonides;

— Kitab al-Farai’d (Sefer HaMitzvot — “Book of Commandments”) by Maimonides;

— Dalalat al-Ha’rin (Moreh Nevuchim — “Guide for the Perplexed”) by Maimonides.

There are other works by Solomon ibn Gabirol and Bahya ibn Paquda.

These are texts that, complementing the Hebrew Torah, are consolidating and foundational texts to the rich tapestry of Judaism.

In particular, the Kuzari and the works of Maimonides were influential to Jewish jurisprudence, culture, thought and developmental identity.

Arabic has, therefore, contributed to the Halakha, the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the Torah. Other than Hebrew, no other language can make this claim — not even Yiddish, which would later become a prominent language of European Jews. Arabic is a language that enriched Judaism and that was also enriched by Judaism.

Amid nationalist chest-thumping by a large section of Israel’s right-wing electorate, members of the Knesset, in demoting Arabic, have regrettably turned their back on the language that helped shape the rich tapestry of Jewish thought.

The biggest irony of all is that the Knesset did it to promote “Jewishness.”