MK Taleb Abu Arar was caught off guard. He had just finished a fiery Arabic-language speech in the Knesset about police brutality against a young Bedouin in Tel Aviv, when, out of force of habit, he began to translate his words into Hebrew for Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
“Please,” Edelstein interrupted, “There is no need for your translation. I already understood what you said.”
The Arab Knesset member laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and launched right back into his passionate denunciation of the police in his mother tongue.
The Knesset on Tuesday marked its first-ever Arabic language Day, which saw Arab and even a few Jewish lawmakers speak in the plenum in Arabic with simultaneous translation into Hebrew, and committee meetings dedicated to the use of Arabic in the public sphere.
The last time the region’s most common language was translated into Hebrew for Israeli lawmakers was in 1977, when former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem to offer peace.
Arabic is Israel’s second official language alongside Hebrew, spoken by at least 1.5 million Arab citizens. But there exist large gaps in the treatment of the language by governmental bodies, which many in the Arab and Jewish communities see as manifest inequality that can hinder the daily lives of Arab citizens.
To combat this linguistic inequality, seven governmental committees responsible for broad swaths of Israeli society focused their efforts Tuesday on advancing and enhancing Arabic language and culture in Israeli society.
Among the topics discussed in these committees were public transportation in the Arab sector, the teaching of Arabic in schools, providing court services in Arabic, providing online government services in Arabic, Arabic signage in Arab and mixed towns, and providing health services in Arabic.
The special day was the initiative of Joint List MK Youssef Jabareen, a former law professor who specialized in minority rights at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and whose doctorate partly focused on gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israeli law and legislation.
During the event, Jabareen sped around the different committees, as one attendee joked, like a groom on a wedding day.
The MK told The Times of Israel over the phone on Wednesday why he decided to make the advancement of Arabic one of his first big projects since becoming a lawmaker in 2015.
“I am very worried about the status of Arabic in my community, in the Jewish community and in the public sphere. I believe Arabic could lead us toward coexistence and serve as a bridge between the two cultures. It should be an integral part of the public cultural scene in Israel. It would bring rich diversity that should be promoted and developed, not just for Arabs but also for Jews,” he said.
Jabareen said he was happy with the “very positive” reactions and results of the different committees he attended, some of which, he pointed out, were headed by members of the right-wing Likud and ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties.
In the very first meeting he went to, Jabereen said, Transportation Minister MK (Likud) Yisrael Katz, a Netanyahu loyalist, agreed to add Arabic to all signs and buses in Arab communities and possibly increase Arab signage across the country.
Similarly, in the Education Committee discussion, Jabereen said, the lawmakers were ready to greatly increase the amount of Arabic study in Israeli schools. While it was reported on Monday that the Education Ministry was planning to introduce spoken Arabic into fifth-grade classrooms, the former law professor said they were considering a bill, supported by the governing coalition, that would obligate all students to start learning Arabic and Hebrew from the first grade.
Such Arabic language education reforms have been advocated by lawmakers in the past, but have fallen by the wayside. This has been the case with a number of Arabic-related reforms, and therefore, throughout the different committees, numerous lawmakers declared that talking would not be enough, and action had to be ensured.
Jabareen said many of the committees agreed to have followup meetings in several months and there was even a possibility mentioned of Arabic language day becoming an annual event.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who has in the past castigated MKs for speaking in Arabic at the plenum, jumped at idea for an Arabic day, and moved quickly to put the item on the calendar, Jabareen said.
In fact, Edelstein spoke about his own desire to see Arabic advanced in Israel during the special plenary session.
“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,” Edelstein said.
Jabareen is a fierce critic of what he says is Israel’s discriminatory nature, and in a recent interview with The Times of Israel he said the Jewish state’s treatment of Bedouins in the Negev amounted to “apartheid.”
When asked whether the fact that the Israeli Knesset set aside a full day in order to enhance the status of Arabic belied the idea of a racist state, Jabareen answered:
“The discussions yesterday were limited in their scope. They didn’t touch upon the more substantial issues that create the tension within the government, such as the allocation of money and land.”
“Take a look at the discussion in the plenum,” continued Jabareen. “Not even one minister from the government was there. Their table was empty and this might reflect that this issue is not on the table for the government.”
The state of Arabic in the Jewish state
One walking near the Negev Auditorium on the second floor of the Knesset on Monday would have passed by beautiful Arabic calligraphy paintings and heard the music of legendary Lebanese singer Fayrouz.
Inside the auditorium, one could have heard Russia-born Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova give a speech in formal Arabic, joking that it was neither her mother nor father tongue. The greatest applause of the day went to Svetlova after she called Arabic the “beauty queen” of languages.
While the atmosphere at the Knesset indicated open arms toward Arabic in Israel, a report presented during a special conference for the day suggested the Semitic language is declining in popularity and relevance among Jewish Israelis.
The report, carried out by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, in partnership with the Israeli organizations Dirasat, an Arab law and policy center, and Sikkuy, which seeks to advance civil equality, found Jews are becoming progressively less familiar with Arabic.
The study found that out of 500 respondents, only 10% of Israeli Jews say they can speak or understand Arabic well, only 2.6% said they can read a newspaper in Arabic, and less than 1% said they read Arabic literature.
After increasing the sample size to 761 respondents, the study compared the knowledge of Arabic between first, second and third generations of Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab lands, known as Mizrahi Jews.
While 25.6% of the first generation of Israeli Mizrahi Jews said they were fluent in Arabic, that number dropped to 14% with their children, and plummeted to 1.3% in the third generation.
The study also found that four times as many as Jews of European origin, known as Ashkenazim, studied Arabic in university as did Mizrahim.
While a majority of respondents (57.8%) of respondents said knowledge of Arabic was important, an even larger majority (65.4%) said this was true only for security-related reasons.