To downgrade Arabic is to play with fire

November 24, 2016 23:20

The first bill passed by the new Ukrainian parliament after the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych this year removed Russian as one of Ukraine's official languages. That was in February. In March, Russian (majority) speaking Crimea was in such ferment that President Vladimir Putin was able to harness the anger and give cover to his annexation of the peninsula.

The law was later vetoed by the Ukrainian President, but the damage had been done. In June, the new President, Pyotr Poroshenko, expressed hope that "never again in the history of Ukraine will the issue of language or culture endanger national unity".

Now a draft of the "Jewish State Bill" to be debated in the Israeli parliament seeks to de-list Arabic as one of the two official languages of the country. It has been approved by the cabinet, albeit after a fierce row.

The prospect has alarmed the 20 per cent of the Israeli population that is Arabic and many Jews who fear that it sends the wrong signal to the country's minorities. Those supporting a new bill say it is needed to cement the Jewish nature of the state.

It is a curious argument given that the UN Partition Plan of 1947 features the term "Jewish state" 29 times, and the country's Declaration of Independence declares it to be just that. I have yet to meet anyone who did not think that Israel had a Jewish nature.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself said this week that the bill includes "the same principles from Israel's Declaration of Independence".

So, is it all about internal politics within the ruling party? Possibly, and yes, they know the bill probably will not pass in its current forms. However, playing with language is playing with fire. Syria has discovered that. For decades, various dictatorships suppressed Kurdish. The idea that it might be one of two official languages, in a state made up of different peoples, never entered their heads.

The Turks have also refused to accept any language other than Turkish. This has been one of several factors that led some Kurds to take up arms.

The post-Saddam Iraq joined the modern world with a new constitution and in it acknowledged Kurdish as an official language, but official recognition of plurality is a rare thing in the Middle East. The Iranian state is an example, only about 55 per cent of the country speaks Farsi - but it is the only official language. It is sometimes said a country can be judged by its treatment of prisoners and minorities. The Middle East has a sorry record on both.

There are many provisions within the Knesset bill about what Israel "is", but most are an affirmation of the status quo. Perhaps the language clauses are there only to be used to bargain away in order to achieve other points. Perhaps they are there to spark debate. History shows us they might help spark something else.

November 24, 2016 23:20

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