Jewish students to protest violence by speaking Arabic on Jerusalem tram
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Jewish students to protest violence by speaking Arabic on Jerusalem tram

150 Israeli high schoolers will converse in Arabic en route from City Hall to Mount Herzl, to 'legitimize Arabic in the public sphere'

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Young women ride the light rail in Jerusalem, December 10, 2012 (photo credit: Louis Fischer/Flash90)
Young women ride the light rail in Jerusalem, December 10, 2012 (photo credit: Louis Fischer/Flash90)

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.”

Merav Livneh-Dill (photo credit: courtesy/Noam Rivkin Fanton)
Merav Livneh-Dill (photo credit: courtesy/Noam Rivkin Fanton)

“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.

Right wing Jewish teenagers wearing stickers that say 'Kahana was right' and 'Revenge' seen giving the finger and yelling at Arab women sitting inside the tram in central Jerusalem during a large right wing protest against Arab terrorism, July 1, 2014, in response to the kidnap and murder of three Jewish teens (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Right wing Jewish teenagers wearing stickers that say ‘Kahane was right’ and ‘Revenge’ seen giving the finger and yelling at Arab women sitting inside the tram in central Jerusalem during a large right wing protest against Arab terrorism, July 1, 2014, in response to the kidnap and murder of three Jewish teens (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

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.

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