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OP-ED Language Becomes a Political Weapon in Israel


TEL AVIV, Sept 1, 2011 (IPS/Al Jazeera) - Speaking to the U.S. congress in May, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu boasted that his country is a beacon of freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, that it is the only place where Arabs "enjoy real democratic rights".

It's true that Palestinian citizens of Israel have some democratic rights, like the vote. But, as Netanyahu told congress: the "path of liberty is not paved by elections alone." And the summer months have seen an acceleration of worrisome anti-democratic trends.

First, the Knesset passed the anti-boycott law, a move that was widely condemned as a strike against free speech and democracy. Even some of Israel’s staunchest supporters expressed concern.

Now lawmakers have introduced a bill that proposes to change the definition of Israel as "Jewish and democratic" to "the national home of the Jewish people".

If passed, the legislation would become part of Israel's Basic Laws, which are used as a working constitution.

Whenever a conflict between democracy and Jewish values arises, the new definition of Israel would allow courts and legislators to favour the latter. According to Haaretz, the proposed bill will also make halacha, Jewish religious law, "a source of inspiration to the legislature and the courts". And, in the spirit of favouring the Jewish character of the state over a state for all its citizens, the legislation would also downgrade Arabic from an official language to one with "special status".

Arabic is the mother tongue of 20 per cent of Israel's citizens. It has been an official language of the land since 1924, when the British mandate set three: English, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Linguistic marginalisation

When the state of Israel was established in 1948, English was struck from the books. While Arabic remained an official language, it has always gotten second class treatment- as have the citizens who speak it.

Many government forms - including those for Social Security and National Insurance - come in Hebrew only. Arabic-speakers are under-represented in the public sector. So if a Palestinian citizen has weak Hebrew, he or she may be deprived of services or benefits they are legally entitled to and desperately need.

The results are sometimes devastating.
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