Hebrew, Arab, and Apartheid

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The creation of the modern Hebrew language around the end of the 19th century sought to resurrect an ancient language which had hardly been spoken colloquially among Jews, to become the new unifying ‘national language’ of the ‘Jewish nation’.

This effort built upon romantic and messianic concepts of ‘return’ to the ‘promised land’, where the speaking of Hebrew would serve as a symbolic bridge to times immemorial. This was far from an exact science; had the intent really been to return to days of a Judean state pre-70AD, the language to be resurrected would better have been Aramaic.

Nonetheless the modern Hebrew served as a symbolic bridge to the bible, and the Jews were supposedly the ‘people of the book’.

I pay no emotional tribute to this mythology. My concern is the function that this linguistic maneuver has played, and still does play, in the Apartheid reality of Israel – a state of affairs that is wholly to do with the settler-colonialist nature of the Zionist venture and its brainchild, the state of Israel.

Here I compare Israel with South Africa in this linguistic context, because there is a striking similarity. The essence of the ‘return’ to Hebrew is to accentuate a sense of ‘nativity’. This is a typical colonialist inversion, where the actual natives who have lived there from time immemorial are reduced to unattached ‘others’, and the newcomer colonists substitute themselves as the actual ‘natives’.

In South Africa, the language of the colonists, derived from Dutch, was and is Afrikaans. The suggestion in the name ‘Afrikaans’ is obvious: the European colonists are the natives, and the others are but savages who are to make way for the enlightened and serve them. The details of the mythology are not really important. There’s always a mythic story– a bible falls from the heavens upon the besieged colonists in 1600’s, whatever. What is really important is how the mythology is exploited.

Though Apartheid stems as a term from the South African model, it is by now an international crime against humanity that stands in its own right, and does not require precise mirroring of historical South African policies. It is defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as “inhumane acts [of a character similar to other crimes against humanity] committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”.

Afrikaans served as a central symbol of White supremacy in Apartheid South Africa.

The white South African colonists became only about 10% of the population, but their European-derived language was supposed to distinguish them as the dominant class. Less than 14% of South Africans have Afrikaans as their mother tongue. A plurality speak Zulu (almost 23%), and 11 other languages are spoken in the country. But Afrikaans was supposed to be the language of the ‘real’ South Africans, those who had full citizenship rights, and thus it was supposed to be the ‘real’ national language.

In Israel, the term ‘Hebrew’ has multiple connotation. In biblical times, say of the story of Israel in Egypt, the ‘sons of Israel’ are also described as Hebrews. Thus, the linguistic notion of ‘Hebrew’ also serves a nationalist idea, when extrapolated from ancient tribal times and applied into a modern national paradigm.

In fact, the term Hebrew was regularly used by Zionists in pre-state days to connote nationalist efforts. The supposedly socialist motto of the Zionists in their attempt to dominate and ethnically cleanse the work market was “Hebrew work” (“avoda ivrit”), not “Jewish work”. It was immediately understood that Hebrew really meant Jewish, and that it meant it racially so. The application of “Hebrew” rather than “Jew” also served to distance the Zionists from the “old Jew” of the diaspora, and connecting back to the “roots” through tilling of the soil and so on.

There are a myriad of contradictions in all this, between messianism and secularism, between old and new, a contradiction that prevails through the whole history of Zionism until today. One need not be dumbfounded by this contradiction – it is a part of the settler-colonial mechanism and its mythologies, where reasonability is a moot subject. Reason is good to have when it serves the colonialist purpose, and when it is absent, this is forgiven– all in service to the colonist’s purpose. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappé said, Zionists don’t believe in God, but they believe God promised them the land. This is of course a generalization, since many Zionists do believe in God, but it portrays the ability to handle and contain this contradiction and apply the one or the other as befits the occasion.  

What is also interesting is that in Hebrew, the term for Arabic and the term for Hebrew (language) are almost identical – ‘Aravit’ and ‘Ivrit’ respectively. In Hebrew language, the two terms have the same letters, though the first two are inverted.

In the application of the terms as national terms, that is ‘Hebrew’ and ‘Arab’, it is basically the same – ‘Ivri’ and ‘Aravi’. This appears once again to be this paradoxical affinity, where the two are almost interchangeable.

Of course historically, there is a linguistic affinity between Arabic and Hebrew, an affinity that is known today as ‘Semitic’. Yet the purpose of the Zionist colonists was completely opposite from ‘affinity’. As a settler-colonialist venture, they had essentially followed a logic which Patrick Wolfe called “elimination of the native”. They did not come to merely interact with the local Arabs and play ‘Semitic language sharing’. They came to replace the Palestinians, and to make the ‘Hebrew’ Zionists the ‘new natives’, returning from the ancient past.

The Zionist model was designed to separate the Jew from the Arab, even when the Jew was an Arab, as in the case of the many middle-Eastern Arab Jews who came to be called ‘Mizrahim’, that is, literally ‘Easterners’. Israel applies a ‘national’ definition of these two terms – Jew and Arab, and they cannot overlap.

This elimination-logic also manifests itself in the renaming, ‘Hebrewization’, of destroyed Palestinian villages – as Moshe Dayan said in 1969:

“Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushu’a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”

The faux ‘affinity’ idea can also be seen in the Afrikaans example. These colonists were not there to share in the African nativity – they were there to dominate and exploit the natives.

This brings us to the territory of cultural appropriation, which is a very known and insidious aspect of colonialism. Falafel, pita and hummus become ‘Israeli food’. Some words are borrowed from Arabic as a tongue-in-cheek, like ‘Yalla’, and the colonists think they are integrated. The term “poel aravi” – “Arab worker” – becomes standard for those Palestinians who work in construction, and the Palestinian Arab is reduced to a second-class citizen, at best.

Palestinian citizens of Israel have had good reasons to learn to speak Hebrew, since they live in a society dominated by Hebrew-speaking Jews. In fact, 60% of them speak Hebrew. On the other hand, only 17% of Jewish Israelis speak Arabic. While the need to speak Hebrew for the Palestinian is in order to get by in a Hebrew-dominated society, the need to speak Arabic for the Hebrew-speaking Jew is often control: to be able to understand what the ‘enemy’ is doing, to infiltrate it and to spy on them.

Less than two years ago, the quasi-constitutional ‘Nation State’ law was passed in Israel, reducing Arabic from being an official language to merely having a nebulous ‘special status’. This was yet another milestone in the Zionist project of elimination, which again demonstrates how language is used as a means of identity and domination.

There appears to be a hope among some non-Zionist or anti-Zionist Jews, that there would, in the future, be a bi-national solution of a one state, where they perceive the one nation to be the Palestinian Arab, and the other to be a ‘Hebrew’ one, that is, disconnected from the religious notion of ‘Jewish’. While this idea entails the fact that Hebrew speakers today have an attachment to the place not because of mythological times but because of recent history, there is a problematic notion here. The vision ignores the fact that Hebrew has been applied as a central means of colonization and colonist identity.

It doesn’t really matter that the religious component of the colonial project has been reduced when it is descibed as “Hebrew” not “Jewish.” The mythological idea and romantic attachment are basically the same.

I think that the idea of a ‘Jewish nation’ (or a ‘Hebrew nation’, if you will), is the central myth of the Zionist project, and it needs to be dismantled, on the way to a modern and liberal paradigm of nationhood in historical Palestine.

Palestine needs to be decolonized. Part of that decolonization has to involve language. How that will happen exactly I do not know. In South Africa, English is a language that is used as a primary language in state discourse. This is despite the fact that less than 10% have it as their mother tongue.

Israel is today where South Africa was – active Apartheid.

I speak Hebrew with my Hebrew-speaking Israeli friends and family. But in my daily life, I most often express myself in English. Probably every language has attachment to unfortunate or downright horrid historical aspects, also English. So I try to be very detached from the romanticism about languages. I don’t think they should be condemned because of the political history. For example, I know that there are Jewish Israelis who are revolted by German, because of the Holocaust. I try to actively disconnect from this response, because I think it serves bigotry, and I have no animus to Germans today because of the Holocaust.

While Israel’s colonialist Apartheid must be distinguished from Germany’s genocidal Nazi nationalism, still, Israel’s Apartheid is a living reality, it is not in the past. When language is being actively exploited as a means of present domination, it is right that people should have an acute awareness about that. It does not mean that I avoid the language, but I am acutely aware of that insidious aspect, and I am certainly not romantic about it – quite the opposite – I apply it for pragmatic reasons on occasion.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter in which language you say Apartheid. If it walks, talks and looks like it, it is what it is. I try to write about it, in English.

I long for the days when it will be over, whatever words and whatever language I must use in order to help make that happen.   

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For the record: Ben-Gurion considered Mizrachi culture with its Arab/Islamic influences to be inferior to that of Ashkenazi Jews and insisted that it not be allowed to survive in Israel. Indeed, his view of the Mizrachim can only be described as racist: “[T]hose [Jews] from Morocco had no education. Their… Read more »

Thank you for this summary, Ofir. There is the other major, perhaps principal, purpose to the invention of the conlang Modern Hebrew: to kill the mother tongues of people ID’d as “Jewish” and to bolster the mendacious impression that there is any kind of pan-Jewish cultural linkage of any kind,… Read more »

Very informative article and analysis. Thank you.

I’ve read that modern, Israeli Hebrew is so different from Biblical Hebrew as to be another language. In fact, I’ve heard of a translation of the Hebrew Bible into modern Hebrew.
(This isn’t really relevant to the article, but may be of interest.)

Mr. Ofir -who, ironically, bears a nice Hebrew name- misses a key point, in my opinion: that the development and flowering of a Hebrew-based culture is one of Zionism’s greatest achievements , something to be proud of. The novelists from Agnon to Oz and Grossman, the poets from Bialik and… Read more »