Some 150 Jewish high school students majoring in Arabic across Israel will board the light rail in Jerusalem and converse in Arabic next week in a show of solidarity with recent victims of racially motivated attacks in the city.
The initiative, organized by Tag Meir, a grassroots organization created in 2011 to fight hate crimes in Israel, and the Center for Educational Technology (CET), a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of Israel’s education system, follows a number of violent assaults on Arabic speakers in downtown Jerusalem and across Israel in recent months.
According to the program, the students — both religious and secular — will board the tram on May 4 at City Hall, on Jaffa street, and disembark at its final stop on Mount Herzl, where an official ceremony will take place in Hebrew and Arabic, attended by Education Ministry officials. Along the route, the students will communicate in Arabic, a language rarely spoken by Jews in Jerusalem’s public spaces.
“We’ve decided to give Arabic speakers in Jerusalem visibility and even pride,” said Merav Livneh-Dill, Jewish Pluralism Coordinator at Shatil and a secretariat member of Tag Meir. She told The Times of Israel that students will be coached on appropriate sentences for conversation and will be wearing T-shirts reading “Yallah (C’mon), let’s speak Arabic in Jerusalem.”
“The goal is to allow Arabic to exist in the public sphere and legitimize those who want to speak it but are afraid to do so,” Livneh-Dill added.
Though Arabic enjoys the status of an official language in Israel, appearing on street signs and official documents, some versions of the nation-state bills seek to demote it to a language with “special standing.”
The physical danger facing Arabic speakers in Israel made headlines when Druze IDF veteran Tommy Hasson was assaulted near Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station in late January after a group of about 10 Jewish men heard him speaking Arabic with a friend. Two weeks later, Druze soldier Razzi Houseysa was beaten outside a nightclub in Kibbutz Yagur near Haifa for the same reason.
In order to reach larger crowds than those riding the light rail on May 4, the organizers created a Facebook event where videos of Jewish Arabic speakers will be uploaded ahead of the ride. Livneh-Dill asked the volunteers — including Israeli writer Almog Behar and Hebrew University professor Hillel Cohen — to read a poem or quote a saying in Arabic, and then explain its meaning in Hebrew.
Livneh-Dill said it was imperative for Tag Meir to work with “official Israel” in the initiative. Her organization is hoping that beyond the cooperation with the Education Ministry, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and President Reuven Rivlin will attend the closing ceremony.
“It’s important for people like the mayor to send a message to residents that they should feel free and good to speak Arabic, and will receive public backing to do so,” she said.