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 Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

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.”

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