Should Hebrew Be Israel’s Official Language?

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A coalition of right-wing Israeli parties are pushing a bill that would make Hebrew the sole official language of Israel. If it passes, what would it mean for the country?

A coalition of parties that includes Yisrael Beiteinu nationalists, Israel’s major right-wing party, Likud, and Zionists from The Jewish Home are backing a bill that would make Hebrew the sole official language in Israel, according to Israel National News. Currently, Arabic and Hebrew are both quasi-official languages.

Israel’s president Rivlin has mentioned his concern that, if it passes, the bill would adversely affect the peaceful coexistence of the people of his country, as reported by Israel National News. Those who back the bill say that it would rationalize Israel’s currently convoluted language status.

The Bill

This piece of proposed legislation, which its backers introduced at the end of August, would end the status of Arabic as one of the two quasi-official languages of Israel, alongside Hebrew. Hebrew would become the sole official language (the language of court proceedings and government etc.) while Arabic would retain special language status with certain uses, such as road signage.

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin doesn’t think that this law will help. He argued that Israel’s survival as a state depends on a peaceful coexistence between the people that live within its borders, a peaceful coexistence that may be jeopardized by this law.

According to ‘Selected Data from the New Statistical Abstract of Israel No. 64 – 2013’, from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, of a total population of 8,080,600 people, 1,669,800 are Arabs. The mother tongue of 49% of the population is Hebrew, while for 18% it is Arabic. As such, many people are concerned that the passage of this bill would mean drastic changes for the lives of non-Hebrew speakers who live in Israel.

The Status Quo

You might have seen it coming: the status quo is stranger and more complicated than people are implying. As it stands now, neither Hebrew nor Arabic is the official language of Israel as German is the official language of Germany. This is because much of Israel’s legislation is inherited from its time as a mandate of the British Empire.

The Palestine Yearbook of International Law, 1998-1999 recounts how, upon the foundation of Israel in 1948, the government accepted the previous language conventions that had governed the British Mandate of Palestine.

This was: “All Ordinances, official notices and official forms of the Government and all official notices of local authorities and municipalities in areas to be prescribed by order of the High Commissioner, shall be published in English, Arabic and Hebrew.”

The book Survival and Development of Language Communities: Prospects and Challenges, edited by F. Xavier Vila, relates how, shortly afterwards, the government declared: “Any order in the law which requires the use of the English language is hereby abolished.”–making Hebrew and Arabic the languages that should be used by government, but not official languages.

The Adalah Case

Tablet argues, however, that passing this bill wouldn’t mean radical changes, but would merely enshrine the de facto state of affairs in law. Liel Leibovitz recounts the ‘Adalah’ case in 1999, wherein Adalah, a civil-rights organization for Arabs in Israel, demanded that road signs and other public information in areas where many Arabic-speakers lived be multilingual.

The court accepted their case, setting the precedent that, in areas where the Arabic-speaking population is more than 6%, authorities should publish such public information in Arabic as well as Hebrew. This is roughly equivalent to the language of the law, which establishes Hebrew as the major language and Arabic as a secondary language with special rights.

What Should Israel Do?

Of course, the fact that the bill represents what is already broadly true doesn’t make it a good idea, or even the result of good intentions. Furthermore, once passed, its effects will depend to a large extent upon how it is interpreted by the court system. Symbolically, it risks sending the message that speakers of Arabic are not as valued as those who speak Hebrew.

Moreover: is it necessary? The USA, an intensely multi-lingual country but in which English-speakers are the majority, has long resisted the temptation to make English its official language on a federal level, and why would it need to? Current US law states that people who don’t speak English as their first language have the right to ask the Federal Government for its services to be provided to them in their own language.

Perhaps it could be said that the Adalah case and the experience of people living in the US show that language rights do not solely depend upon the law, but also upon what people choose to speak, and the provisions for which they fight.

As mentioned earlier, English hasn’t been a quasi-official language like Arabic or Hebrew for decades, but you still find it on Israeli road signs. Maybe there is a future for Israel as a country that, instead of determining the official language through law, lets the issue be resolved via petition. A status quo similar to that of Quebec, which forces business owners into compliance with the official language, would do nothing but ratchet up the tension in Israel.

Overall, it is clear that the issue of language in multi-lingual and multi-ethnic states will always be fraught. Ideally, Israel will go the way of its champion, the USA, and grant people linguistic freedom and the right to petition for the services they need. Nevertheless, those backing the language bill expect it to pass during the winter session of Parliament, so the jury is out until then.

Planning a trip to Israel? Try our Hebrew Level Test or our Arabic Level Test to see how you score–there’s nothing like addressing your hosts in their own languages.

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