Not long ago while on an El Al flight, I received an explanation from a service manager about the plane’s sound system. On a list hung on the side of the control box was a roster of the numerous languages used in the in-flight announcements. Only one language did not appear: Israel's second official language, Arabic. In fact, Arabic didn't even appear on the safety-instruction cards or in the El Al magazines in the plane's seat pockets. Only the subtitles on the safety-video clip served to remind us of the language that every fifth Israeli dreams in, even if he or she is fluent in Hebrew as well.
While this might make us wonder about El Al policy, I quickly understood — after walking around the corridors of the airport — that this language policy is not unique to El Al. Israel's entrance and exit gates almost completely ignore the Arabic language. The criticism that arose during the airport's inauguration regarding the absence of Arabic led to only symbolic changes. Hebrew and English are the two languages that take up the lion's share of the airport's directional signs and flight-information screens. Ditto for the announcements heard in the halls of the airport. Is it any wonder that after Passport Control, visitors to Israel encounter a giant "Welcome" sign in only those two languages?
Perhaps we should not reserve our astonishment only for the Israel Airports Authority. Anyone who takes the train to the airport and back knows that Arabic is absent there as well. Arabic is never heard on the loudspeakers, not even in the Haifa, Akko and Lod train stations — the three largest mixed cities in Israel.
And if, after all this, the Arabic speaker attempts to turn to the Transportation Ministry, a visit to its website may cause him to think twice. While hundreds of pages appear in Hebrew and an entire parallel site appears in English, there is only one lone Internet page in Arabic — no comparison to the wealth of information appearing in the other two languages.
Yes, from the ramp of the plane to the website of the responsible ministry, Arabic is excluded from public transportation. The "revolution" generated by the High Court of Justice in its verdict that Arabic must appear on all road signs never even left the courtroom. The Arab citizen is still required to leave his native tongue behind when he enters the public space.
This exclusion represents a missed opportunity. Recent years have seen a real deterioration in relations between the Jewish majority and Arab minority. There are many reasons for this, connected to deep developments in both communities and ongoing government neglect. One of the factors involved is the absolute separation between the lives of Hebrew and Arabic speakers.
The Arab citizen and the Jewish citizen almost never meet: not in school, almost never in the street or place of work. A social and economic fence has been built over the years between the two communities, and it keeps getting higher. In this reality, the presence of the Arabic language in the public space can lower the fence a bit, or at least create cracks in it.
A change like this would signal to the Arab public on a day-to-day basis that the state views it a partner in the public space — and that its culture is an essential part of the Israeli mosaic. Simultaneously, the Arabic voice could moderate the sense of estrangement and distancing of many Jews from the unique identity of the Arab citizens, and represent a constant reminder of the challenge of achieving full integration into the country's life.
Of the variety of confidence-building measures that Israel could adopt toward its Arab citizens in the cultural-identity sphere, language-policy reform is the most self-evident and appropriate. There is no reason to oppose it — except for an unwillingness to improve relations between the two communities.
Next year will mark the hundred-year anniversary of the "language controversy" in the Hebrew yishuv (Jewish settlement in pre-state Palestine) regarding the language of instruction in the yishuv's institutions of higher learning. [In 1913, the German Jewish aid agency declared that the official language in the first technical high school established in Palestine would be German. This sparked a public outcry between those who supported the use of German and those who believed that Hebrew should be the language spoken by the Jewish people in their homeland. The issue was not just ideological: Until then, Hebrew was primarily a liturgical language and lacked modern technical terms.] The victory of the Hebrew language in that "battle" eventually became an important stepping-stone in the building of the yishuv, and in ensuring the Jewish character of the future state. Now one hundred years have passed, and it is more important than ever that the Hebrew language make room for the state's second official language in order to ensure the civil-democratic character of the state.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv is the executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.