Thinking Aloud: Israel’s Other Arabic Speakers

Nov. 29, 2014 by Darius 

Israel’s Knesset is set to vote on a bill that would, in addition to explicitly declaring Israel to be the national homeland of the Jewish people, downgrade the Arabic language’s status in Israel from an official language to one with “special status.”  The problem with that is, in addition to further marginalizing Israel’s Arab minority, a great many Israeli Jews actually speak Arabic as a native language, as well.

Mizrahi Jews, or Jews from Muslim-majority countries, were not particularly prominent in Israel’s founding and were largely left out of Israeli politics for decades.  Often kicked out of their home countries in the wake of Arab-Israeli wars, the Mizrahim migrated to Israel in very large numbers—so large, in fact, that by 2009, Mizrahim and their descendants made up a slim majority of Israel’s population.

Mizrahim came from a variety of countries, but hundreds of thousands arrived from Arabic-speaking countries.  Like the rest of the people of these countries, Mizrahim generally spoke Arabic, reserving Hebrew as a language of prayer.  Needless to say, once in Israel, most Mizrahim and their children learned Hebrew, but it remains a second language for many.  

Maybe it isn’t surprising that the Mizrahim do not count linguistically.  After all, the Mizrahim have been solidly second-class citizens in Israel since its founding.  Since the 1970s, when enough Mizrahim had immigrated to Israel to form a potent political force, discrimination has lessened, but it still remains—Israeli Mizrahim enjoy far lower average incomes and education levels than Israelis of European descent.

Maybe instead of making a political point by messing around with language status, the Knesset should be debating how to achieve a more equal society in Israel, more in keeping with the vision of Israel’s founders, even if just among Jews?

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