Galilee Diary: Native tongue

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in
Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary)

…the whole landscape sang in ancient Sephardi Hebrew, which seemed to have been preserved here in its purity. It was as if our far-off ancestors, shepherds and maidens of Israel, who went out into these mountains on some day of joy or mourning, had hidden those beautifully authentic, precisely articulated Hebrew sounds in the crevices of the rocks to be preserved there till the day of deliverance came.
        -Zalman Shazar, Morning Stars (autobiography)

Recently I attended the national convention of Sikkui, an organization that works for equal rights and opportunities in Israel, primarily by means of research and public information.  This year’s convention focused on barriers, built into the system, that stand in the way of minorities’ (primarily Arab citizens) ability to benefit from the rights and opportunities that are guaranteed them by law.  One of the most significant of these barriers is language.  It is one thing for the law to state that all citizens are entitled to equal access to, say, social security; but if the state officially designates two official languages (Hebrew and Arabic), yet prints social security forms only in Hebrew, or staffs offices in mixed areas with Hebrew speakers only, then the Arabic-speaking minority find themselves unable to attain proper access to the services guaranteed them.

Now there is an easy solution to this problem, the way chosen by the United States: designate one universal language, decree that all public education be conducted in that language, require that all immigrants seeking citizenship be competent in that language.  That leaves us with some funny/sad stories about immigrants struggling to understand and be understood, that we all read in our middle-school literature anthologies – but it also leaves us with a clear message that after the first generation, the United States expects its citizens to speak the language of the land, and there is nothing immoral about that demand.  If you want to go to Hebrew school on Wednesday afternoon or Japanese school on Saturday morning, to preserve your cultural roots, that’s your private affair.

Israel too was once ruled by the British, but here they left a different heritage.  During the mandate period, there were three official languages (Arabic, Hebrew, English), and public school systems in Hebrew and Arabic.  Even though the revival of Hebrew was a central pillar of the Zionist cultural endeavor, upon gaining our independence we preserved the system of cultural autonomy set up by the British, and continued to operate parallel public school systems for Jews and Arabs in their own languages.  Perhaps we were being broad-minded and wanted to respect the Arabs’ desire to preserve their culture; perhaps we really didn’t want integration, and this policy helped prevent it.  Perhaps both.

Occasionally one reads an op-ed piece arguing that we should have opted for “melting pot” integration from 1948: one official language, any other languages a private affair.  More frequently, one hears the argument by Arab educators and leaders, in public forums like the Sikkui conference, that they should be granted an even greater degree of cultural autonomy – why not an Arabic language university, for example?  And of course, the complaints mentioned above: if the state considers Arabic an official language, why does it not follow through in making state services available equally to those whose first language is Arabic?

Knowing as we do from our own experience that language is a powerful symbol of identity and tool for building a national culture, our ambivalence about Arabic in the Jewish state is fascinating.  On the one hand we want to be good guys, respecting the cultural identity of the Other – especially as it is indigenous to the region (and half of the Jewish population of Israel are immigrants from that region); on the other hand we are here to create the Jewish, Hebrew, Zionist state we’d dreamed of for so long.  If we were reduce Arabic cultural autonomy and fortify the centrality of Hebrew, would that suppression be sustainable, or would it explode in our faces?  But if we allow cultural autonomy and even encourage it, does it not eat away at the possibility of a cohesive national identity and shared citizenship?   Can’t win; can’t break even; can’t get out of the game.

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Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

About Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

Marc Rosenstein grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first exchange of the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program in 1962. He was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1975, and then served as assistant rabbi at Community Synagogue, in Port Washington, NY. Rabbi Rosenstein was a teacher and also a principal at the Solomon Schechter Secondary School in Skokie, IL. He also served as the principal at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, PA. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980's by a group of young American immigrants. He is presently the director of the Israeli Rabbinic Program of HUC-JIR, as well as the director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence. Marc is married to Tami (originally from Waukegan, IL), a speech clinician working with handicapped infants and children. They have three children; Josh, Ilana, and Lev.

4 Responses to “Galilee Diary: Native tongue”

  1. avatar

    This is a frustrating situation for all the reasons you articulated. I would suggest, however, that the reality in the US is a little different from what you sketched. There are usually official forms available in different languages, for instance. The new voting machines can issue instructions in Spanish, Chinese and Korean (at the very least; I don’t know if there are more options–those are the ones I saw in addition to English). Several automated phone systems give a Spanish language option, as do some ATM machines. Pushing for those small courtesies might alleviate your feeling of hopelessness; achieving the changes could help break the tie. Stay in the game!

  2. avatar

    Why not have Arabic/Hebrew translaters at Government Offices/Departments/Hospitals? Especially in what you call “mixed areas”.
    In the U.S., we have Sign-Language, for example, translaters in hospitals & courts & other places.
    Duh? It looks easy enough to me.

  3. avatar

    While the idea of english as the official language of the United States, Every goverment office, bank and even street signs also list spanish and Polish. Even automated telephone switchboards offer an option for spanish.
    So much for the Idea of one official language

  4. avatar

    Whether it’s Belgium or Canada, we find that having separate languages is a very divisive factor in society. When people can’t talk to each other, it becomes us and them. Understanding of the others is reduced and it’s easy for misunderstandings and negative stereotypes to emerge. America has always had people transitioning into the melting pot who were in the process of learning the language and culture, but we have generally been good at creating one people. There is nothing wrong with giving them a little help while they are learning as long as our goal is to help everyone become part of a single people.

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