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October 20, 2014 | 26th Tishrei 5775

Native Tongue

Galilee Diary #508, September 15, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

...the whole landscape sang in ancient Sephardi Hebrew, which seemed to have been preserved here in its purity. It was as if our far-off ancestors, shepherds and maidens of Israel, who went out into these mountains on some day of joy or mourning, had hidden those beautifully authentic, precisely articulated Hebrew sounds in the crevices of the rocks to be preserved there till the day of deliverance came.
        -Zalman Shazar, Morning Stars (autobiography)

Recently I attended the national convention of Sikkui, an organization that works for equal rights and opportunities in Israel, primarily by means of research and public information. This year's convention focused on barriers, built into the system, that stand in the way of minorities' (primarily Arab citizens) ability to benefit from the rights and opportunities that are guaranteed them by law. One of the most significant of these barriers is language.  It is one thing for the law to state that all citizens are entitled to equal access to, say, social security; but if the state officially designates two official languages (Hebrew and Arabic), yet prints social security forms only in Hebrew, or staffs offices in mixed areas with Hebrew speakers only, then the Arabic-speaking minority find themselves unable to attain proper access to the services guaranteed them.

Now there is an easy solution to this problem, the way chosen by the United States: designate one universal language, decree that all public education be conducted in that language, require that all immigrants seeking citizenship be competent in that language. That leaves us with some funny/sad stories about immigrants struggling to understand and be understood, that we all read in our middle-school literature anthologies - but it also leaves us with a clear message that after the first generation, the United States expects its citizens to speak the language of the land, and there is nothing immoral about that demand. If you want to go to Hebrew school on Wednesday afternoon or Japanese school on Saturday morning, to preserve your cultural roots, that's your private affair.

Israel too was once ruled by the British, but here they left a different heritage.  During the mandate period, there were three official languages (Arabic, Hebrew, English), and public school systems in Hebrew and Arabic. Even though the revival of Hebrew was a central pillar of the Zionist cultural endeavor, upon gaining our independence we preserved the system of cultural autonomy set up by the British, and continued to operate parallel public school systems for Jews and Arabs in their own languages. Perhaps we were being broad-minded and wanted to respect the Arabs' desire to preserve their culture; perhaps we really didn't want integration, and this policy helped prevent it. Perhaps both.

Occasionally one reads an op-ed piece arguing that we should have opted for "melting pot" integration from 1948: one official language, any other languages a private affair. More frequently, one hears the argument by Arab educators and leaders, in public forums like the Sikkui conference, that they should be granted an even greater degree of cultural autonomy - why not an Arabic language university, for example? And of course, the complaints mentioned above: if the state considers Arabic an official language, why does it not follow through in making state services available equally to those whose first language is Arabic?

Knowing as we do from our own experience that language is a powerful symbol of identity and tool for building a national culture, our ambivalence about Arabic in the Jewish state is fascinating. On the one hand we want to be good guys, respecting the cultural identity of the Other - especially as it is indigenous to the region (and half of the Jewish population of Israel are immigrants from that region); on the other hand we are here to create the Jewish, Hebrew, Zionist state we'd dreamed of for so long. If we were reduce Arabic cultural autonomy and fortify the centrality of Hebrew, would that suppression be sustainable, or would it explode in our faces?  But if we allow cultural autonomy and even encourage it, does it not eat away at the possibility of a cohesive national identity and shared citizenship? Can't win; can't break even; can't get out of the game.

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