A Mizrahi appeal against Israel’s Nation State Law

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“My Arabic is mute” by Almog Behar

My Arabic is mute
strangled at the throat
Cursing itself
Without uttering a word
Sleeps in the airless shelters of my soul
From relatives
Behind the Hebrew blinds
**Translated by Dimi Reider

The Israeli poet Almog Behar wrote these words long before the “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People Law” passed last summer, sometimes called the Nationality Law. Yet the sentiments foreshadow the legislation that downgraded Arabic from an official language to one of  “special status in the state.” In response at least 50 Mizrahi (Arab Jews, or Jews of Middle Eastern and North African heritage) activists and intellectuals, including myself, filed a complaint with the Israeli High Court of Justice in Jerusalem on January 1, 2019.

The complaint was inspired by an endless stream of emails between the 50 of us in Israel and abroad. We agreed the law is fundamentally unacceptable, offensive, racist and anti-democratic. It undermines the status of 20 percent of the state’s citizens as a national minority, the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel, as the most obvious problem. Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fueled the racist symbolism of this law by posting on Instagram this week and reported in the Guardian, “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it.” (Israel’s President rejects Netanyahu’s comments about Arab citizens).

But our petition also points out the lack of Mizrahi lawmakers in the legislative process. With this kind of exclusion, it is no surprise then that the law effectively denies Israel’s Arab history, be it Palestinian or Jewish.

Arab culture, which has always included Jews, Muslims, and Christians, is so much older than the Israel. Moreover, Israel is not a European state. It is located in the Middle East where the majority of Jews are Mizrahi not Ashkenazi.

The Nation State Law violates our rights as Mizrahim to private and collective dignity, to preserve our cultural and historical heritage, to our ties and traditions. We have bonds with the areas in which our cultural identity was formed. It is in this context that we ask what is the place of Mizrahi culture in Israel if the origin is considered inferior by the government?

The court was due to discuss our petition on March 12, yet it informed our lawyer last week the debate is pushed back to June 6, 2019. Some of us have speculated the postponement was due to Israel’s elections which will take place next month and could lead to shuffling in the state attorney’s office.

“The petition was filed due, among other things, to serious flaws in the legislative process due to the absence of comprehensive and in-depth work on the wide impact of the Nation Law on all Israeli society and those of the Jews from the Arab and Islamic countries in particular. The declaration of the annulment of the Nation Law is required sooner rather than later, because of its present and future grave consequences,” a letter from our lawyer, Netta Amar-Shiff, said.

The signatories to the complaint include author Sami Michael, Prof. Yehuda Shenhav, Prof. Henriette Dahan-Kalev, co-founder of the Israeli Black Panther Party and social justice activist Reuven Abergil, spoken word artist Yosi Zabari, Van Leer Institute scholar Dr. Yoni Mendel, psychoanalyst and activist Iris Hefetz, founder of Taayush, activist and historian Prof. Gadi Elgazi, Hebrew University Prof. Yael Berda, NYU Prof. Zvi Ben Dor Benit, activist Sapir Slotker Amran and so many more more.

Arabic, Arab Jews and Mizrahi culture

Here are the sections of the new Nation State Law that concerns language:

A. The state’s language is Hebrew.
1. The Arabic language has a special status in the state; Regulating the use of Arabic in state institutions or by them will be set in law.
2. This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.

After the law was passed, leading human rights organizations in Israel such as Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel both took action to repeal the law. As well Arab members of Knesset filed a complaint in Israel’s High Court and members of the Druze community staged protests with tens of thousands in Tel Aviv opposing the law. But an appeal from an Arab-Jewish, or a Mizrahi, point of view is unique in that it questions the legitimacy of the law from a more nuanced position within Israeli-Jewish society; we oppose the law not only as Israelis concerned about its discrimination towards Palestinian citizens, but as Arab Jews who talk about race, ethnicity and class. We challenge the law as Jews who feel discriminated by it.

In addition to harming the Arab minority in Israel who comprise 20 percent of the population, the Nation State Law erases the history and culture of Arab Jews who immigrated from the Arab world. It is obvious to us, this law gives supremacy to the Hebrew language and by extension to Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, or Jews with heritage from Europe.

Let’s examine how this law looks to Jewish people who emigrated from Arab and Muslim majority countries.

My mom was born in Baghdad and still speaks an Iraqi dialect of Arabic with my grandmother, her mother. There is a revival of Arabic among Arab Jews of my generation. Baghdadi-Iraqi dialect, and more (Yemeni, Moroccan, Tunisian, Syrian) are now taught independently to children who have never visited the countries where the languages and their families lived. A Facebook group called “Persevering the Iraqi language” organizes lessons and a return of the Jewish Iraqi culture. Related, new “Jewish Arab” programs were created both at Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion university, responding to this thirst for knowledge about Jewish history in Arab lands.

Moreover, young Mizrahi musicians are using traditional Arabic prayers in contemporary music. Most notably, the three Yemenites sisters formed the band the A-WA. Another famous singer, Dudu Tassa (he opened for the last Radiohead tour), recorded two albums in Iraqi-Jewish dialect. His band, Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis, is an homage to his Baghdadi grandfather and great-uncle who were born in Kuwait and also recorded in this dialect. Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaiti, are acclaimed musicians and their music continues to be played on the radio in Iraq to date.

Yemenite-Israeli members of the music group A-WA in a shoot for Signon Magazine. (Photo: Rotem Lebel/Signon Magazine/
Yemenite-Israeli members of the music group A-WA in a shoot for Signon Magazine. (Photo: Rotem Lebel/Signon Magazine/

Mizrahi communities in Israel continue to make a significant effort to preserve the special connection to the Arabic language, despite Israel’s policy of exclusion and erasure in relation to all aspects of identity and the Arabic language in space. Several activists explained this in statements adjoining the complaint.

Yifat Hillel is one of the founders of the nonprofit Hagar: Jewish Arab Education for Equality, which opened a shared space for Jewish and Arab residents in the Negev. The project is based on the foundations of multiculturalism, bilingualism and equality. Her father’s family came from Tunisia and her mother’s family from Iraq. She wrote a statement about how her organization spreads Arabic in the classroom. I translated an excerpt of her statement here:

“Many told my friends and I that the chance of succeeding in establishing bilingual educational programs in the city with traditional and conservative dominion was weak and delusional. Today, after more than 11 years of activity Hagar has 346 children in various institutions: nurseries, kindergartens, a youth group and an elementary school. Our programs grew and expanded over the years. The work model places the language at the center and sees Hebrew and Arabic not only as tools, but as linguistic spaces that express identity, culture, and relations.”

At the same time that people like Yifat are working towards cultural preservation through language in Israel, we face exploitation or a kind of whitewashing (or in this case, Ashkenazization) for our use of the Arabic language. For instance, for years the Israeli military deployed Arab Jews in Syria, like the famous spy Eli Cohen. Because of their Arab identity, culture and language, they were invaluable intelligence officers. Yet at the same time, this was during an era where you couldn’t hear Arabic on public radio or television channels, or learn Jewish dialects of Arabic in school.

Indeed top students in Israel who study Arabic have job stability in the military (look how a Mizrahi IDF spokesperson became the cultural minister of Israel, to speak of the promotion of Mizrahi people in the IDF). The Israeli Defense Forces runs a counter-terrorism unit that costumes themselves in supposedly Arab dress in order to surveil Palestinians. They can be spotted at protests in Jerusalem and in the West Bank against the ongoing colonization of the Palestinian people. The unit is colloquially referred to as “mista’aravim,” a term that means “Arabized.” Their presence is so ubiquitous these days you can even see actors playing mista’aravim in the hit series “Fauda.”

The Israel government’s use of Arabic in oppression and in the destruction of the Palestinian public space has further created a clear wall between Jewish and Palestinian Arabs. I feel Arabic was stolen from us, as Mizrahi Jews who wished to differentiate ourselves and our use of the language, and placed a negative charge on it.

The Nation State Law supports segregation

Our legal petition also confronts another part of the law that privileges and prioritizes newly constructed Jewish towns in Israel.  The townships this law seeks to establish are mostly gated communities that close their gates to many. Article 7 of the Nation State Law reads,

“7. The state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.

While seemingly innocuous, these towns claim to first serve Jewish needs and interests, but a closer examination shows that is not the case. What’s important to note here is that “Jewish settlement” and “development” are coded language.

Many of the towns that stand to benefit under the law are in fact segregated communities run by “admissions committees,” a vague term for a private group that can legally deny access to settlements. Generally anyone whose origin is from an unprivileged background including Arabs, Immigrants, and of course, Mizrahim, are excluded. This practice has been long-standing in Israel. Historically the government threw Mizrahi immigrants into the periphery, far away from the power centers in Israeli society.

Mizrahi Jews form an underclass in Israel. Studies have shown our incomes are 30 percent less than Ashkenazi counterparts, meaning often upscale Jewish communities are out of purchasing reach for Mizrahi Jews. Of course our story is different from the story of the Palestinians of 67 or 48 Because we still have some kind of Jewish privilege and they are excluded on many levels in Israel-Palestine.

Therefore, our petition, does not seek to augment or correct the Nation State Law. We want to abolish it as a whole.

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Israel is in Asia geographically but in Europe psychologically. It seems that Europeans also accept it as a European state, otherwise why is Israel allowed to participate in the European song contest? I suppose it is because the ruling stratum has its roots in Europe.

Do Arab Jews also change their names to ‘Israeli’ ones in the same way that many European Jews do?

Most either translate, change pronunciation, or take a new name.

This is rather misleading. The Ashkanazi Jews of Europe did not speak Hebrew. No one spoke Hebrew as a vernacular language- no one- before about 1880. They spoke Yiddish, which is a dialect of German written in Hebrew letters- an Indo-European language. The Zionist movement deliberately discarded Yiddish (or any other Western language) in favour of Hebrew, which is a Semitic language akin to Arabic- in other words, they went from a European to a… Read more »

Hebrew was the cultural heritage of the Jewish communities of the Middle East as well, so it was misleading that the author claimed that Hebrew is the language of European Jews, meaning that it is not the language of the Jews who had lived in the Arab world. It certainly was a new angle in the anti-Zionist narrative that I’ve never heard before. There seems to be an inability in this website to present an… Read more »