Is Hebrew a constructed language

dis: orient

Fewer and fewer Jewish Israelis speak Arabic, although many of them have Arabic roots. Many Jewish Israelis continue to urge the state to be monolingual, also because they regard Arabic, the language of the largest linguistic minority, as the language of their enemies. But how could the mother tongue of many Jews from Arab countries become a “language of enemies”?

On July 19, 2018, the Knesset passed a law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The law (English version) establishes Hebrew as the sole official language of Israel - Arabic is now only assigned a "special status". During the British mandate, Arabic, Hebrew and English were the three official languages, with English alone being binding. In the newly established State of Israel, Arabic and Hebrew were recognized as official languages, but only the Hebrew version of a law was legally valid. Since the founding of the state, Hebrew has been the dominant language in almost all areas of life.

The new nation-state law is therefore only the legal cementation of the already prevailing marginalization of Arabic. It is an expression of the widespread perception of Arabic among Jewish Israelis as a language foreign to Jews. For the majority of Israelis, Arabic is a tool of control, administration and military intelligence.

Flight or relocation - contested interpretation of the immigration of Arab Jews to Israel

This consideration, however, denies historical facts and is an expression of a largely constructed Jewish-Arab opposition. Shortly before the state of Israel was founded, between 700,000 and 850,000 Jews lived in the WANA region, most of them in Arab states. It is true that in the Islamic world, due to their status as dhimmi, they were mostly second-class citizens. But as members of one of the book religions in Islam, their rights were clearly written down - and thus more protected than in Christian Europe. Anti-Semitic pogroms such as those that occurred in Central and Eastern Europe were rare in the Arab world until modern times. [1]

The conflict over the British mandate of Palestine from 1920 and the associated developments in the WANA region led to the almost complete disappearance of Jewish life outside of Israel. The migration of Arab Jews to Israel, which began before 1948, intensified in the years after the establishment of the Israeli state.

Between 1948 and 1989 there was even a majority of Jews of "Afro-Asiatic" (for example Iraqi or Yemeni) origin, compared to Jews of "Euro-American origin" and those who were born in Israel.

Zionism, which emerged in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Arab nationalism, relied on the identity-creating function of language. Both movements propagated the image of a single Jewish or Arab nation. The “Arab Jew” was a border crosser who did not fit into any of the largely exclusive movements.

In Palestine, where the two movements collided particularly clearly, many Arab Jews had to choose between being Jewish and being Arab for the first time in their history. [2]

The inability or unwillingness of many Arab leaders to clearly distinguish between Zionists on the one hand and Jews on the other played a tragic role here.

After all, there were also Arab and Palestinian Jews who rejected the Zionist ideology just as resolutely as their non-Jewish neighbors. Political Zionism, which arose in Central and Eastern Europe, was, like a large part of European societies, also not free from racist and colonial thought patterns.

Many Zionist thinkers, most of whom were Ashkenazim (i.e. from Central and Eastern Europe), viewed the people in the WANA region, including the Jewish communities there, as backward and inferior to them. The names of the operations through which Jews from Iraq (1950/51) and Yemen (1949/50) were brought to Israel were Operation “Ali Baba” and “Magic Carpet” - and thus exemplified them prevailing orientalist stereotypes. [3]

At the same time, however, the newly founded Jewish state demanded Jewish workers because of the "Jewish work" it propagated. Many Zionists from Europe said that the “oriental” Jews were more suitable for agriculture, as they were used to the associated privations due to their “oriental” lifestyle.

Knowledge of Arabic - wanted in the military, rejected in society?

The modern intra-Israeli relationship between Hebrew and Arabic cannot be separated from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since, for the majority of Israeli society, Arabic is inevitably linked to Israel's enemies, it is accordingly marginalized. But not only the language of the Arab Jews met with the rejection of the by Ashkenazim dominated majority society: They prayed “differently”, spoke Hebrew (if at all) with a different accent, looked different, dressed differently and their other habits were noticeably different from those of the European Jews who were considered “normal”.

Jewish Israelis who emigrated from Arab countries are often referred to as Mizrahim[4] designated and learned early that Hebrew would be the language of their new homeland. The descendants of these Arab Jews only rarely speak Arabic.

According to a representative study that was presented at a conference at Tel Aviv University in 2015, around 25 percent of the first generation, who grew up in Israel in the 70s and 80s, still speak fluent Arabic; in the second generation, this value is already falling to 14 and in the third to 1.3 percent. [5]

The study also shows that attitudes towards the Arabic language have changed from a predominantly positive image in the first generation of immigrants from Arab countries to a predominantly negative image in the second and third generations.

The Tel Aviv study also examined the knowledge of Arabic among Israeli Jews in general, regardless of their origin. Less than 10 percent of all Jewish Israelis said they could speak or understand Arabic well. Only 1 percent of the respondents said they could read an Arabic book.

It is true that 60 percent of those surveyed consider knowledge of Arabic relevant to life in Israel and think it should be taught in schools. Nevertheless, Arabic is increasingly becoming a dead language in Jewish Israel. Allon Uhlmann, lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, also uses the term “Latinization of Arabic” in his book “Arabic Instruction in Israel”. [6]

Arabic as a security policy area of ​​interest for Israel

Despite this development, there are two areas in Israel in which Arabic plays a central role: the administration of the occupied territories and military reconnaissance. In both areas, the Israeli state is dependent on a sufficient number of citizens who seem loyal to it, i.e. above all Jewish, who speak Arabic.

In his book "The Creation of Israeli Arabic", Yonatan Mendel describes the close connection between the education sector and the security apparatus in Israel, which decisively shaped and continues to shape the perception of Arabic in Israeli society.

Mendel describes how the study of Arabic was increasingly shaped by security interests, especially after the revolt in Palestine from 1936 to 1939. At that time there was the most determined resistance to date from parts of the Palestinian-Arab population, which was directed against the immigration of European Jews in particular, which was inadequately regulated by the British.

The study of Arabic, in teaching and research, was largely founded peacefully in the 1930s and was the responsibility of the Education Department of the Jewish Agency, the organization that represented the Jews in the mandate area vis-à-vis the British mandate administration. In the 1940s, the Arabic language was increasingly perceived as part of security policy and personnel with Arabic language skills were recognized as a critical "resource" for the military and intelligence services. [7]

In Mendel's eyes, Arabic was used by the Zionist movement to "expand influence over Palestine". As part of this, knowledge of Arabic was essential, for example, to obtain information. He also describes this development as the securitization of Arabic, the change from "the language of the neighbor to the language of the enemy".

According to Mendel, this reinterpretation intensified especially after the trauma of the almost lost Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the - paradoxically - associated increased influence of the Israeli military on Arabic lessons in Israel. Despite all the public debates about peace and coexistence, the Arabic taught in Israel was primarily geared towards security interests. [8]

Mendel compares the situation with studying English in the USSR and Russian in the USA during the Cold War. The Arabic that is taught at Jewish-Israeli institutions is what he calls "Israeli Arabic".

The military and security-political contextualization of the language caused fear among Jewish speakers of Arabic-speaking people. At the same time, it leads to the fact that non-Jewish Arabs fear Jews who speak “Israeli Arabic”, as they are automatically associated with the state's military and security apparatus.

Arabic as a bridge to the other's own culture

Ella Shohat, professor at New York University, comes from a Jewish-Iraqi family and studies the relationship between Zionism and Judaism in the WANA region and the position of Arab Jews within Israeli society.

She describes, among other things, how Jewish migrants from Arab countries often do not speak only Hebrew for the recognition of the Israeli majority society. Many therefore either acquired an Ashkenazi accent in order to avoid discrimination or learned the "correct pronunciation in religious Ashkenazi schools."

The Israeli majority society helped diligently: The names of the immigrants were partially "cleaned up" of the cultural influences of their Persian, Arab and Turkish surroundings, in that the Israeli bureaucracy simply gave them new ones when they immigrated. [9]

On March 31, 2007, the "Academy of the Arabic Language" was established in Israel by a law of the Knesset. It remains to be seen to what extent this institution, under the now difficult circumstances, can help to turn the "language of the enemy" into a "language of the neighbors" again. Because the de- “securitization”, the detachment of Jewish-Israeli Arabic from its security policy context, ultimately does not depend on laws, but on the relationship between the Jewish-Israeli majority society and its Arab-Palestinian neighbors.

Regardless of whether they live inside or outside Israel, this relationship can only change if encounters no longer take place in a purely security-political context, i.e. at checkpoints and prisons. It is important that the Jewish-Israeli society understands Arabic as a living language of interaction that enables communication with its Arab neighbors as well as access to one's own Jewish-Arab heritage.

Michel Braun studies Arabic and economics at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. He is interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict and the modern relationship between politics and Islam.

[1] Cohen, Mark R: https: // ...

[2] Shohat, Ella: The Invention of the Mizrahim. In: Journal of Palestine Studies 29 H. 1 (1999), p. 11.

[3] Shohat, Ella: The Invention of the Mizrahim. In: Journal of Palestine Studies 29 H. 1 (1999).

[4] Mizrahim literally means "those who come from the East" and also includes Jews from non-Arab regions such as Turkey or Iran.

[5] Shenhav, Yehouda and Others: Command of Arabic among Israeli Jews. Van Leer Institute Press (2015).

[6] Uhlmann, Allon: Arabic Instruction in Israel. Lessons in Conflict, Cognition and Failure. Boston (2017), p. 49.

[7] Mendel, Yonatan: The Creation of Israeli Arabic. Security and Politics in Arabic Studies in Israel. Basingstoke (2014), p. 34.

[8] Mendel (2014), p.125.

[9] Shohat, Ella: Sephardim in Israel. Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims. In: Social Text (1988), p.24.