Israel’s war of words
For years, Israelis have incorporated Arabic words in their speech. Now the country’s Arabs are returning the compliment by increasingly using Hebrew. But some experts are worried it’s a sign of cultural domination
THE HIGHLIGHT OF the Independence Day special episode of Arab Work — an Israeli TV sitcom about a journalist torn between his Arab and Israeli identities — was the delivery of the protagonist’s son. In the episode, broadcast last week, the journalist finds out that a grant is given for the first baby to be born in Israel’s 60th year. He urges his wife, who knows nothing about the competition, to hurry up. “Breathe,” he desperately tells her. “Breathe.”
Both the protagonist and his labouring wife are Arabic-speakers. But in this critical moment, the word that Amjad, the father-to-be, uses for “breathe” is tinmshemy — a Hebrew one.
Arab Work is a parody squeezing bitter irony out of every possible situation facing Israel’s Arab minority. The use of a Hebrew term by Arab characters during this most intimate moment is not a accident. It reflects the fact that Hebrew is gaining a growing influence on the language used by Israeli Arabs, penetrating every level of their life.
“A great deal of my vocabulary is Hebrew,” says Azar Dakwar, a neuroscience student. “And as words shape ideas and form concepts, I definitely notice how often I’m structuring in my mind ideas and concepts in Hebrew.”
Dakwar, who is 23, studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, an institution which teaches in Hebrew and English. He socialises with Jewish and Arab friends and consumes Hebrew media. “So it’s only natural that Hebrew starts to take bigger share of my language,” he says — so much so “that I even find myself shaping metaphors in Hebrew.”
Dakwar grew up in Nazareth, an all-Arab town, where, even when he was a teenager, Hebrew words had permeated the Arabic used by the town’s inhabitants.
“Today, no linguistic field among Israel’s Arabs is resistant to Hebrew influence,” confirms social linguist Muhammad Amara, of Beit Berl Academic College.” Back in 1986, a study he conducted among the Arab population found that the penetration of Hebrew words occurred mainly to describe the most modern aspects of life.
Twenty-two years on, he says, “Even traditional areas such as, for instance, definitions of family relations have assimilated Hebrew terms. You’ll often hear people use Hebrew words like dod [uncle] or ben dod [cousin], which have replaced their Arabic equivalents.”
Even the lexicon of food products has altered, Amara says. “Arab families now refer to eating shammenet [cream] and naknik [sausage].”
Hebrew used by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, however, “is totally different, and is related to military terms,” Amara adds. “The most-used word is, of course, machsom [roadblock], as the roadblocks have taken over life there.”
Although Hebrew is perceived in the territories as the enemy’s tongue, among Israeli Palestinians no such perception exists. According to Amara, Arabs living in Israel regard their use of Hebrew as a matter of identity.
“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,” he says.
Social linguist David Mendelsohn, of the Givat Haviva Educational Institute in North Israel, researches cultural aspects behind languages.
Moving to Israel from Quebec in Canada, he says, he was surprised that the minority Arab population was comfortable with adopting the language of the majority Jewish population.
“French-speaking people in Quebec won’t use any English terms,” he says. “Parents in Montreal yell at kids should they do so. Arabs here tell me they have more urgent issues to care about [than worrying about language].”
But this might change soon. Last week, right-wing MKs announced their plans to introduce a bill to strip Arabic of its status as one of the country’s official primary languages.
Some prominent Arabs are already concerned. “For minorities, the preservation of the language is especially important,” says Abir Kopty, 32, a media adviser and a political activist.
“Sometimes other languages offer terms that enrich languages. But it often happens that people assimilate Hebrew words instead of using existing Arabic substitutes. Many people just don’t have the political awareness needed for such preservation of tongue and culture, and others are simply too lazy to look up an Arabic term or phrasing.” She also points out that Arab youths use Hebrew because they think it is “trendy”.
Kopty says that she mainly tries to avoid slipping into Hebrew in formal situations such as when she is interviewed in Arab-speaking media “out of respect for the audience, as well as in order to make a point”. Even in social situations, she tries to avoid mixing her Arabic with her Hebrew.
“Although if I’m stuck with no alternative to a certain word, and am too exhausted to rephrase the sentence, I’ll allow myself slips. It’s difficult to find Arabic versions of Hebrew words such as meraggesh [touching] or me’anyen [interesting]. I’ll also try not to use Arabic when speaking Hebrew, out of respect for the Hebrew language.”
Zuheir Bahloul is an acclaimed Hebrew radio and television sports broadcaster, who has greatly influenced generations of Israeli sports reporters. He says that a hybrid, bilingual tongue is evolving among Israeli Arabs. Like Kopty, he perceives the development as playing down the role of Arabic culture in Israel, and tries not to resort to Hebrew words when speaking Arabic.
“There’s a pressure on the [Israeli-Arab] elite here to avoid using it,” he says, “which I justify, since language distinguishes identity. On the other hand, nobody can deny reality, and even I make use of Hebrew words when there’s no Arabic substitute.”
The cliché that a commonly used language can be as a bridge between cultures, he says, “does not prove itself, as Arabic hardly exists in the Israeli public arena”.
Muhammad Amara is confident that the use of Hebrew among Israeli Arabs is not a sign that Arabic will one day die out, even if he does acknowledge that only 60 per cent of Israeli schools meet the legal requirement to teach Arabic.
“Peoples have always feared that the new languages would conquer theirs,” he says. “This is not going to happen. First, because the Arabs are historically so proud of their tongue that they know perfectly well when to allow penetration [by Hebrew] and when to stop it.
“Secondly, the language would only disappear if the two peoples here would assimilate into each other. Neither the Jews or the Arabs in Israel wish for that happen — both are very much inclined to preserve their cultures.”