Hebrew and the Israeli Arabs

In 1986, Anton Shammas’ Hebrew-language novel Arabesques was published in Israel. When the novel was translated and published in English two years later it was chosen by the editors of The New York Times Book Review as one of the best seven fiction works of 1988. This is of course not unusual: Yaakov Shabtai’s 1977 novel Past Continuous, for example, hailed as a masterpiece within Israel, was published in English in 1985 and subsequently named the greatest novel of the 1980’s by The Independent literary critic Gabriel Josipovici, who compared Past Continuous to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. What is unusual, indeed unprecedented, is that Arabesques was written originally in Hebrew by an Israeli Arab who grew up in the village of Fassuta, a small village in northern Israel that consists mostly of Christian Arabs. The publication of the novel caused a whirlpool of controversy and interest within Israel, and the fact that the book was a popular best seller (in comparative terms the book sold as many copies as Stephen King was selling at the time) only served to fan the flames further. Shammas’s novel is the work of a writer with an impeccable command of the Hebrew language, “delicately interlacing biblical allusions and appropriations from early European Hebrew writings with all of Israel’s youngish ”spoken” Hebrews”. The novel did not come out of the blue, before it was published Shammas was an “active contributor to Israeli newspapers and periodicals”, published a book of poetry and a children’s book, and several translations from Arabic into Hebrew.

As a New York Times reviewer noted at the time, some Israelis were incensed that the author of Arabesques was an Israeli Arab. “What is an Arab doing writing in our language, the language of our religion and of our experience (and, yes, of the nation)? If Hebrew means Jewish – and for thousands of years it has – what now? What does this mean for our literature? Our culture? Our state?” Others had a contrasting but equally emotional response. Amos Oz, the accomplished Israeli writer and intellectual, said at the time when asked whether he thinks the fact that a successful novel has been written by an Israeli Arab is a turning point in Israeli society: “I think of this as a triumph, not necessarily for Israeli society, but for the Hebrew language. If the Hebrew language is becoming attractive enough for a non-Jewish Israeli to write in it, then we have arrived.”

Some saw the novel as a protest of sorts, and Shammas’s ruminations regarding his novel seem to fit that characterisation. “What I had in mind with Arabesques, what I call it, is my identity card,” Shammas said in 1988. ”In Israel, on your actual identity card, there is a space for nationality, and in this space you are ‘Arab’ or ‘Jew.’ Now with my novel I was trying to prove -to myself, in writing it, as much as to anyone who might read it – that there is something which I think of as Israeli, which is not a matter of Arab or Jew, but a matter of living in a place called Israel.”

Compared to the late 1980’s, the impact of the Hebrew language upon the Israeli Arabs has only become stronger and more widespread. This is not surprising: as new generations grow up in the midst of an Israeli culture where Hebrew is the dominant language it is to be expected that they would  (whether consciously or unconsciously, whether by will or by force) adopt Hebrew to varying extents. Hebrew and Arabic are both the official languages in Israel, though there have been recent attempts by Knesset members from the Likud and Kadima parties to make Hebrew the sole primary language of Israel, with Arabic, Russian, and English becoming secondary languages. Israeli Arabs cannot function without at least a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew. Israel’s universities teach in Hebrew (or English), for example, and so Israeli Arab students must of course gain a high level of competency in Hebrew; and official documents (such as for tax or accounting purposes) are in Hebrew and thus many shopkeepers in Israeli Arab towns and cities tend to keep their records in Hebrew. “The receipt books are in Hebrew,” said a shopkeeper recently, “so that we can show them to the tax authorities or the accountants, and as a result, we are forgetting our Arabic.” The Hebrew words that have entered the Israeli Arab lexicon roughly fall into two sorts: everyday expressions (that might appear in spoken language or on street signs, etc.), and words that Arabs associate with Israeli culture. Everyday expressions include such words as b’seder (all right, okay), b’vakasha (please) and me’anyen (interesting), whereas the latter category includes such words as ramzor (traffic light), machsom (checkpoint), g’lidah (ice cream), lachmaniyah (bakery roll) and sulamit (the hash sign on telephone dials).

Such a linguistic phenomenon is far from unique and occurs in many situations where two or more languages intersect. The difference here, however, is the political overtones of such a growing phenomenon. An Israeli social linguist remarks that “Israel’s Arabs are developing their own independent identity, different from that of the Palestinians in the territories and other Arabs.” Such a conclusion appears unavoidable, especially in light of the several generations in which the Palestinians outside Israel have been seaprated from the Palestinians inside Israel (the Israeli Arabs). This conclusion has enraged many Arabs outside Israel who point to the continuity and solidarity that the Palestinians outside of Israel have in regard to the Palestinians inside of Israel. Such a continuity is seen as essential in the struggle to free the region of the injustices that burden and afflict the Palestinian people. But the divide is evident (though perhaps it will reach an asymptote acceptable to both sides). The social linguist Muhammad Amara notes that Hebrew as used by the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories “is totally different, and is related to military terms. The most-used word is, of course, machsom [roadblock], as the roadblocks have taken over life there.” The use of Hebrew by the Israeli Arabs, on the other hand, can be seen in terms of an emerging and somewhat separate identity. Amara continues in regard to the Israeli Arabs: “Undoubtedly, it indicates that, although this society is Arabic and Palestinian, there’s something that distinguishes it from other Palestinian groups — whether in the territories or in the [Palestinian] diaspora — and it’s the fact that they’re in contact with the Jewish society and are influenced by it.”

The increasing use of Hebrew by Israeli Arabs is frowned upon by Arabs outside of Israel because they see it as an erosion of the Arabic culture and language. Amara notes that this process (“that is shaking the Arabs to their very foundations”) is a functional one: “Arabs cannot afford not to develop a broad association with Jewish society unless they want to cut themselves off completely, and I don’t think they want that. They need Hebrew from the moment the step out of their homes, but this is not an Israelization of their Palestinian-Arab identity. They share none of the sentiments in Israel’s Jewish symbols, and feel no connection to them.” Indeed, as Amara rightly points out, a peaceful resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will mean that such a process will most probably be reciprocated, with Israelis adopting Arabic and both languages would thus perhaps work in symbiosis and help to create a new identity that, as Anton Shammas said, is a matter of being Israeli and “not a matter of Arab or Jew, but a matter of living in a place called Israel.”

As a closing note, let us observe that such a symbiosis is indeed occurring: as Amara notes and as I know from personal experience, “Even today every Jew knows hundreds of words in Arabic, without even realizing it.”

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