Language is another Arab Israeli barrier
Taybeh, Israel - When Sana Jammaliyeh and Haitham Haddad designed a white tote bag with bold Arabic-language imprint on one side, the two Arab Israelis never thought that their product would become so popular.
After a photograph taken of one carried by a passenger on a train in Berlin, the bag and its message, which read: “This text has no meaning, except to terrify those who are afraid of the Arabic language”, went viral.
Indeed, it is a bad joke that could inflict security hazards on its holder but the designers insisted they did not mean to endanger anyone’s life. Rather, they said they sought to highlight the extent of stereotyping against Arabs and their language in Israel.
“We made the bag specifically for people who are terrified of the Arabic language in my community,” Jammaliyeh wrote on her Facebook page.
“The idea is fear of the Arabic language, which is extracted from our reality,” Haddad said, referring to prejudice, stereotyping, misunderstanding and suspicion of Arabs in Israel’s larger Jewish community.
“Let go of the Arabs and enough with media stereotyping,” Jammaliyeh pointed out separately in a video posted on her Facebook page.
Both designers refused several Arab Weekly calls and text messages to be interviewed, citing “personal reasons”. However, Jammaliyeh verified the accuracy of her Facebook comments in a reply text.
Although Haddad and Jammaliyeh found a humorous way to ridicule those who are wary of Arabic, discrimination in Israel surrounding the language is not a laughing matter.
Of Israel’s population, 20% is Palestinians who remained in their homes when Israel was created in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war in British-mandate Palestine. Although Hebrew is the country’s official language, the 1.7 million Arab Israelis consider Arabic their official language and mother tongue.
During the British mandate of Palestine between 1922 and 1948, Hebrew became an official language along with Arabic and English. However, when Israel was proclaimed, Hebrew maintained its status and spread more than Arabic, which is considered an official language but has little relevance to the majority.
The Arab identity in Israel is tied to the Arabic language. While many Palestinians include Hebrew in their speech, some fear this will ultimately erode the language.
Thabet Abu Rass, executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiative, a non-profit company that promotes coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, said he believed that “Jews are taught that Arabic is the language of the enemy”.
“Since Israel’s inception, the government has worked to minimise the status of the Arabic language as a way of Judaising the country. They even distort Arabic words, including the names of old Arab villages, in the hope that over time, the Arab names will be forgotten,” Abu Rass said.
Discrimination against Arabic has manifested itself in several basic ways, making life for some Arab citizens who do not know Hebrew more difficult.
Underlining how politicised the issue is, hard-line, right-wing parties in the Israeli Knesset submitted bills recommending the removal of Arabic as an official language, with Hebrew remaining as Israel’s only official language.
Some Israeli politicians disagreed. On May 24th, the Knesset celebrated what it termed as an Arabic Language Day. Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein said: “Despite the fact that the mother tongue of most of our citizens is Hebrew, we cannot and should not ignore the Arabic language or push it away from the public sphere or from the landscape of our lives in general.”
Numerous topics relating to the Arab population, including public transportation in the Arab sector, the teaching of Arabic in Jewish schools, providing court services in Arabic, providing online government services in Arabic and Arabic signage in mixed cities were discussed. In spite of that, implementation is slow and inequality is clearly evident.
A study by the Abraham Fund Initiative in April 2013 studied 34 government websites and concluded that about one-third have no Arabic content.
In 2002, Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court regarding the lack of Arabic on municipal signs in cities that have Jewish and Arab populations, such as Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Lod, Ramle, Acre, Upper Nazareth and Beersheba. The court ruled that municipal signs should be in Hebrew and Arabic.
However, 14 years later, some of the cities still ignore the ruling. Last year, the municipality of Beersheba replaced street signs in Arabic with new ones in only Hebrew and English.
In the Mediterranean port city of Haifa, where 10% of the population is Arab, the Ministry of Transportation vowed that, by the end of August, Arabic would be added to its road signs. Hebrew maps and electronic signs — some even catering for the deaf — have since been posted but nothing in Arabic.
According to a study of Israeli Jews, 17% of those asked said they can understand Arabic, 10% can speak it fluently and 1.5% can write fluently. Next year, Jewish fifth and sixth graders will begin learning Arabic. By contrast, Arab school children begin learning Hebrew from grade one. However, a 2013 survey showed that 45% of Arabs have difficulty with Hebrew.
According to a Pew Center report, nearly 48% of Israeli Jews said Arabs should be deported or exiled from Israel. Religious people tend to be particularly supportive of such a move: About 71% of respondents said they agree that Arabs should be expelled.