One state – two languages

I would suggest to learn from the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky: ‘The Hebrew and Arabic languages shall enjoy equal rights and equal legal validity. Both Hebrew and Arabic shall be used with equal legal effect in parliament, in the courts, in the schools and in general before any organ of the state.’

Moshe_Arens_cropped-150x150by Moshe Arens

When should a state adopt two official languages? The answer seems obvious: when the native language of a significant minority of the state’s citizens differs from the language spoken by the majority. Not only in order to make life easier for those citizens who have not mastered the language of the majority, but, no less important, so as to make the minority feel at home, and not as strangers in the land in which they live.

How sizeable should the minority be so as to make it imperative that their native language be adopted as a second official language? Canada, one of the world’s great democracies, can serve as a good example. Although English is the language spoken by the majority of Canadians, French is an official language of Canada. It is the native language of over 20% of Canada’s citizens.

The official languages of Canada are English and French, which according to Canada’s constitution “have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the parliament and government of Canada.” The Canadian federal government conducts its business in both official languages and provides government services in both languages. Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, on his recent visit to Israel while addressing the Knesset included sentences in French in the speech given in English. It was a clear demonstration, at the highest level of government, of the status of the French language in Canada.

Actually, Arabic, the native language of more than a fifth of Israel’s citizens, formally enjoys a similar status as an official language of Israel, a status that has remained unchanged and unchallenged since the days of the British mandate. In practice, Arabic in Israel, although recognized as an official language, does not have the same status as does the French language in Canada.

Whereas not only the prime minister of Canada but probably all Canadian cabinet ministers are today fluent in French, as are most senior government officials, the same cannot be said of all the members of the Israeli government and senior government officials.

One might expect that in an attempt to advance the integration of Israel’s Arab citizens into Israeli society and the Israeli economy, probably the most important challenge facing Israel today, steps would be taken by the government and Knesset to raise the status of Arabic as an official language in Israel. However, some Knesset members seem to be aiming in the opposite direction – they are sponsoring a law that would abolish the status of Arabic as an official language in Israel.

What rationale underpins this bizarre parliamentary move and how do they justify it? It is not only an affront to Israel’s Arab citizens, but detrimental to the interests of the State of Israel.

If they are not impressed by the Canadian example, I would suggest to them to learn from the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. In his last book “The War and the Jew,” written after the outbreak of World War II, in which he proposes the war aims of the Jewish people and makes the case for a Jewish state in Palestine to be established after victory over the Germans, he addresses the status of languages in the future Jewish state:

“The Hebrew and Arabic languages shall enjoy equal rights and equal legal validity. Both Hebrew and Arabic shall be used with equal legal effect in parliament, in the courts, in the schools and in general before any organ of the state. All offices of the state shall answer any applicant, orally and in writing, in the language of his application, whether Hebrew or Arabic.”

At this point achieving Jabotinsky’s vision is going to take time, but the process should begin. Obviously, the initial and in many ways the most important step has to do with the teaching of Arabic in Jewish schools. Arabic should be made obligatory and taught at a sufficient intensity and level so that all high-school graduates will master the language.

The parliamentarians who are proposing the abolishment of Arabic as an official language in Israel had better go back to reading Jabotinsky’s writings.

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