Israeli Arabs Are Speaking More Hebrew, and That's a Good Thing

A country of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze all speaking Hebrew as their native tongue? For anyone genuinely interested in Israel’s welfare, it would be a dream come true.

Israeli-Arab students at Hebrew University. Miriam Alster/FLASh90

Israeli-Arab students at Hebrew University. Miriam Alster/FLASh90

Aug. 8 2018
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Tsvi Barel, the left-wing Middle East commentator of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, has a bone to pick with Israel’s Arabs. They use too much Hebrew and aren’t militant enough in defense of Arabic. Not only, he writes in a July 25 column, are the signs of shops and businesses in Israeli Arab towns and villages mostly in Hebrew, despite the fact that their customers are all or mainly Arabs, but the conversation of Israeli Arabs when talking among themselves is increasingly full of Hebrew words and phrases. At a time when they are up in arms over Israel’s newly passed Nationality Law, one of whose features is the demotion of Arabic from an official language to one merely accorded “special status,” Israeli Arabs are actively collaborating, says Barel, in Arabic’s denigration. “If the status of Arabic,” he declares, “symbolizes the extent to which Arabs are equal citizens, . . . the battle cannot be left to Jewish liberals.”

Arabs and Jewish liberals alike, it would seem, should do all they can to keep the use of Hebrew by Israel’s Arab citizens to a necessary minimum. Heaven forbid that it should be for anything but communication with Jews—and even that could be reduced if only more Jews had the multicultural decency to learn Arabic!

The basic assumption behind this view is that fighting the influence of Hebrew on contemporary Arab Israeli life is a worthy form of resistance to the doctrine of Jewish supremacism that—so its critics contend—the Nationality Law embodies. Whatever one thinks of that law, such an assumption is perverse. Not that Barel’s observation concerning the steadily growing use of Hebrew by Israeli Arabs is incorrect. It’s just that for anyone genuinely interested in Israel’s welfare, this is good news.


As with most Israeli Jews, my knowledge of my Arab countrymen is superficial. I don’t have Arab friends, and although I once studied Arabic fairly intensively in an Arab village near the town I live in, that was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten most of what I learned. When I sometimes go there today to shop, I speak Hebrew to the shopkeepers and their local customers, who answer me in a generally excellent Hebrew of their own. Were I to try speaking to them in my primitive Arabic, they would be either amused or offended, quite possibly both. They might resent the implication that I think they don’t know Hebrew, and even if I explained that I was just trying to practice what Arabic I remember, they would have little patience for the clumsy exchange that would ensue and would revert to Hebrew as quickly as possible.

The spoken Arabic that I hear, then, is overheard: in shops, on trains, in other public places. Sometimes this means listening to two people talking and sometimes to just one speaking over a cell phone. While I don’t understand most of what I hear, I can certainly confirm that there is a lot of Hebrew in it—certainly more than there would have been 20 or 30 years ago. Often this is confined to single words such as b’seder (“okay”), betaḥ (“sure”), eyn b’ayah (“no problem”), and the like.

At times, though, these words or phrases swell to a sentence or two, and there are occasions on which they multiply into an entire conversation. This happens especially in professional situations. Israeli hospitals, for example, have many Arab doctors whom one can often hear talking to each other in fluent Hebrew even though no Jews are listening. It’s the language of their workplace in which they treat patients, discuss cases, and chat with their Jewish colleagues, and even though they would never converse in it, say, while visiting one another at home, it comes to them quite naturally on the job.

Moreover, whereas the ability to speak a good Hebrew was once largely restricted in Israel to Arab men who worked for Jewish employers or institutions, it’s widespread today among women, too. A while ago, while driving in the Galilee, I lost my way and stopped to ask directions in a furniture store (which indeed had a Hebrew sign) in the large Arab town of Kafr Manda, a place you could live your life in without having to speak a Hebrew word to anyone. The proprietor was a middle-aged Arab woman who shook her head in wonderment when I told her I didn’t have a GPS in my car, took out her smartphone, put a Hebrew map on it, explained to me, in a lightly accented Hebrew that would be the envy of many a long-time American immigrant in Israel, how I could put a similar app on mine (I didn’t have the heart to tell her I don’t own a smartphone, either), showed me what roads to take, and sent me on my way.

Where did she learn such a good Hebrew? From the same places, I imagine, that many other Arab women like her have learned it. Partly in school (Arab elementary and secondary education in Israel takes place in Arabic-speaking schools in which Hebrew is taught as a second language); partly from television or the Internet; partly from occasional Jewish customers or business contacts; partly from travels in Israel outside her town. And although her education probably went no further than high school, her teenage daughter, who was standing next to her, is likely to study at an Israeli university, where higher education takes place entirely in Hebrew, and to emerge from it with no accent at all. Even now there are Israeli Arabs who can no longer be told apart from Jews on the basis of their Hebrew alone. In another generation or two, they may be the rule rather than the exception.


Will Hebrew eventually displace Arabic totally in the life of Israeli Arabs, as Tsvi Barel seems to fear it might, and become their first language? If it ever will, the prospect is still a very long way off. Such a process would have to involve many stages. One of the last of them would be for some young Israeli Arabs, followed by more and more, to start speaking Hebrew to each other regularly and then, when they raise their own families, to their children at home.

So far, there is no sign of this happening. Language displacement, such as occurred when English pushed out Gaelic in Ireland or Spanish did the same with most of the native languages of South and Central America, can take centuries and depends on many things: the social and political relationships among the speakers of the two languages, the cultural resources and prestige of each, the presence or absence of strong feelings of linguistic nationalism on either side, and so forth. Even today, many hundreds of years after the English conquest of Ireland, Gaelic lives on in some areas, and languages like Qechua and Aymara are still spoken by millions in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia despite the ground they have lost since Columbus’ day.

Judged by such criteria, Arabic in Israel is not in the slightest danger. Israeli Arabs and Jews are for the most part socially segregated from each other; the country’s Jewish majority, the new Nationality Law notwithstanding, has shown no inclination to use its political power to force Hebrew on its Arab minority; Arabic is a high-prestige language spoken from Sudan to the Persian Gulf and has a rich cultural and religious heritage inseparable from the Islam that most Israeli Arabs practice; and as long as Jewish-Arab tensions continue in Israel, it will remain the powerful symbol of Arab and Muslim pride that Tsvi Barel wants it to be. Despite the superficial Hebraization of some aspects of Israeli Arab life, he can breathe easily.

But is a more comprehensive Hebraization of this life something to be feared? Not if one wants Israeli Arabs to be successfully integrated into Israel’s economy and national life, and only if one wants Israel to be a country perpetually riven by Jewish-Arab rivalry. Anyone wishing Israel ultimate success as a nation-state must also want it to develop a common Israeli identity that will transcend Jewish-Arab differences and cause the country’s non-Jewish population to feel fully part of general society—and there is no better way of doing that than getting this population to regard Hebrew as is its language, too. If one millennial day in the future Israel should become a country of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze all speaking Hebrew as their native tongue, Israeliness would become a reality that can only be dreamed of today. Meanwhile, one should be glad that the level of Hebrew among Israeli Arabs is as high as it is and getting higher.

More about: Arabic, Hebrew, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs