The inside of the Knesset, a quite fashionable legislative room.

Technically, Arabic is fine in Israel.

Ethan Hill
Jul 19, 2018 · 7 min read

So, the infamous “nation-state” bill was passed in the Knesset. The votes currently stand 62 to 55 with two absentees, which of course allows us to assume that the battling over it was intense. As it is a Basic Law, it holds similar status to an American constitutional amendment. There’s a lot of controversy over it, and so I decided to look up the text of it in order to see for myself what exactly all the fuss is about. Here’s what it says, translated into English:

Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People

1 — Basic principles

A. The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.

B. The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.

C. The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

2 — The symbols of the state

A. The name of the state is “Israel.”

B. The state flag is white with two blue stripes near the edges and a blue Star of David in the center.

C. The state emblem is a seven-branched menorah with olive leaves on both sides and the word “Israel” beneath it.

D. The state anthem is “Hatikvah.”

E. Details regarding state symbols will be determined by the law.

3 — The capital of the state

Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.

4 — Language

A. The state’s language is Hebrew.

B. 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.

C. This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.

5 — Ingathering of the exiles

The state will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of exiles

6 — Connection to the Jewish people

A. The state will strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Jewishness or their citizenship.

B. The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.

C. The state shall act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.

7 — Jewish settlement

A. The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.

8 — Official calendar

The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the state and alongside it the Gregorian calendar will be used as an official calendar. Use of the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian calendar will be determined by law.

9 — Independence Day and memorial days

A. Independence Day is the official national holiday of the state.

B. Memorial Day for the Fallen in Israel’s Wars and Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day are official memorial days of the State.

10 — Days of rest and sabbath

The Sabbath and the festivals of Israel are the established days of rest in the state; Non-Jews have a right to maintain days of rest on their Sabbaths and festivals; Details of this issue will be determined by law.

11 — Immutability

This Basic Law shall not be amended, unless by another Basic Law passed by a majority of Knesset members.

What were the responses?

Many news sources and commentators have been negative of the bill, criticizing both its contents and lack thereof in key departments. Andrew Carey and Oren Liebermann of CNN noted that it failed to include any “mention[s] of the values of equality and democracy” and appeared to downgrade the status of Arabic from an official language to a language with special status. BBC News was more neutral on the issue, but made a point to emphasize that “the law risks further alienating Israel’s large Arab minority, who have long felt discriminated against.”

History and Context

As the Arabic language is an important element of Arabic culture, its downgrade in Jewish legality has been the biggest contributing factor to the bill’s controversy. In 1950, 17% of Israelis were Arab. As of today, 21% of Israelis are Arab. While these numbers may seem small, it is important to remember that Jewish immigration to the area has been astronomical, as 688,000 Jews arrived during the country’s first three and a half years. Previous to 1948, 950,000 Arabs were estimated to have lived in the area, though 80% immigrated to the surrounding countries during the Israeli war of Independence, leaving 156,000 behind, who became de-facto Israeli citizens.

Many Arabic people have been able to take advantage of the flourishing economy, as the standard of living in Israel has shown exponential growth over the past fifty years. However, due to ideological problems, many self-identifying-Palestinian Arabs have been stubborn on a few fronts, namely unfinished houses. An archaic law exists stating that houses are except from taxes until they are finished. During my recent trip to the West Bank, it was impossible to find a single house that didn’t have metal sticking out the top in a clever but obvious attempt to appear unfinished. I am not the only one who has made this observation. The most common explanation for this in defense of the Palestinian state is that Israeli soldiers confiscate construction equipment, though the cited evidence claiming this appears to be biased, source-less, and including of no proof besides a vague, pixelated photograph.

So, is anything actually changing?

The short answer is no.

The long answer is that practically nothing is different. The Israeli Declaration of Independence already established that Israel -

“…will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions…”

Arabic will continue in usage, as it is considered a special language and the “clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before [it] came into effect.” The signs will continue to be printed in Arabic, as they have been, and practically no changes will be made to the state. As for the clause protecting the Jewish people, it does not appear in writing to demean the Arab people but instead to affirm the right to a Jewish presence. Similar clauses exist in the surrounding nations’ constitutions. For example -

(Syria)

“…The Syrian Arab Republic is proud of its Arab identity and the fact that its people are an integral part of the Arab nation. The Syrian Arab Republic embodies this belonging in its national and pan-Arab project and the work to support Arab cooperation in order to promote integration and achieve the unity of the Arab nation…”

(Iran)

“…The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is a declaration of the social, cultural, political, and economic foundations of the Iranian society based on Islamic principles and norms that reflect the heartfelt desire of the Islamic community. These fundamental desires are elaborated in the qualities of the great Islamic revolution of Iran, and the revolutionary process of the Muslim people…”

(Jordan)

“…The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is an independent sovereign Arab State. It is indivisible and inalienable and no part of it may be ceded. The people of Jordan form a part of the Arab Nation, and its system of government is parliamentary with a hereditary monarchy. Islam is the religion of the State and Arabic is its official language…”

(Egypt)

“…The Arab Republic of Egypt is a sovereign state, united and indivisible, where nothing is dispensable, and its system is democratic republic based on citizenship and the rule of law. Egypt is part of the Arab nation and enhances its integration and unity. It is part of the Muslim world, belongs to the African continent, is proud of its Asian dimension, and contributes to building human civilization. Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. The principles of Islamic Sharia are the principle source of legislation…”

Each one of the above constitutions goes farther than the Israeli declaration, often times both asserting the dominance of the Arab Nation, the central position of Islam to the state, and the assertion of Arabic as its primary language. If anything, Israel’s most recent declaration is the most inclusive, as it makes no mention of a primary religion, as the mentioning of the Jewish peoples is nationalistic versus religious.

Conclusion

This is going to be a heated issue for some time, but the above facts may no doubt help better educate you when you read future articles. Personally, I stand on the side of the Israeli majority in this situation, as a distinct definition of Israeli culture may help assist the state of Israel in defining itself against Palestine. I do not think that this bill is either ‘apartheid’ or ‘racist’ but instead holds up a national identity, making no mention of Arabs save for the mention that their language’s status is not diminished, but instead a noteworthy contribution. By all appearance, this was not a bill instituting any kinds of rights, it was merely a flag — a image of what Israel is.

So I wouldn’t worry about speaking Arabic in Israel.

Ethan Hill

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Author, programmer, and unconditional devotee of Jesus Christ.