12 September 2012

On the deletion of the Arabic language

(c) photo by khulud kh, Haifa (2012)

It seems that I’ve been out of touch with the politics of television for quite some time, since I don’t own a television and only get to watch it sporadically when I’m at my parents’. I remember when I was young, there were always subtitles in Arabic on the Israeli channels. Or am I imagining things? I’m quite sure there were. In my memory, they ran in two black lines on a yellowish background – one line in Hebrew and the other in Arabic.

In recent years, I’ve noticed the Arabic disappeared, to be replaced by Russian. I think it’s very important to add Russian subtitles, as there are is a large Russian-speaking immigrant community here, and many of this community’s members do not speak or understand Hebrew. Making television programs accessible to this community is of course of great significance to facilitate their integration and their sense of belonging.

But why replace? Why not add? Why delete the Arabic? Replacing it by the Russian is an extremely strong political statement. Our language is being deleted. Television programs are not accessible anymore to many Palestinians who do not speak or understand the Hebrew language. It’s yet another step in making us feel unwanted here. Another step in this systematic deletion of our language. And language is one component of history and culture.

One wouldn’t even pay attention to such a “trivial” issue as replacing one language by another in the subtitles. Not if you understand the language being spoken. But in some cases, it gets really ridiculous – ironically sad I would even say. I noticed this on a cooking program, where the hosting woman is a Palestinian, and she was hosting a Palestinian chef, Haitham from Taybeh. They are both Arabic speakers, yet the program was in Hebrew, so they spoke in Hebrew. They cooked in Hebrew and they laughed in Hebrew. The subtitles ran in Hebrew and Russian.

The Arabic language, an official language in Israel – was completely absent.

On the same issue of deleting languages, I remember an incident several years ago, which also made an unforgettable impression on me. I had been waiting with my mom for an X-Ray examination. Forgetting to bring a book along, I studied the walls. There was quite a big sign with a cigarette in a red crossed circle, and below it written in both Arabic and Hebrew that smoking is prohibited in this building. A few meters away, a sign in Hebrew for pregnant mothers. It said that if you’re pregnant, you should inform the technician before having the examination. Realization was slow to come. How come the sign was only in Hebrew? What about the Ethiopian, Russian and Arab women who can’t read Hebrew?! Is the protection of their unborn babies less important than that of Jewish women’s?! The very least one could expect is that the sign be written in at least the official state languages, since the hospital is a state institution.

The sign prohibiting smoking struck me as ironic. That this sign, which clearly doesn’t need any words to accompany the image of the cigarette, was in both languages. It is also ironic that this is something prohibited by the hospital, so they want to make sure everybody understands it, whereas the sign about pregnant women is there to protect the women, so it’s perceived as less important.

These are but two very insignificant examples. But this is done systematically and strategically. The most prominent and known example is probably the deletion of the Arabic from signs of city names. The deletion of language is symbolic. It is not something solid like the deletion and destruction of whole villages. But it is fundamental in its symbolism. Language roots us and binds us, makes us feel we belong. It is the means for human communication. Deletion of a language is an undoable act.


  1. wow for so many years i think the same thing and get so pissed off. thanx

  2. yes, me too. I wrote the part about the hospital a few years ago, but never did anything with it. then came this cooking show two weeks ago, and that did the trick, and it just all fit together. it's amazing what you notice when you go down to small details. and i've been fascinated with this idea of deletion through language and words. i might work on this concept in more depth, integrate it into my writing on a deeper level. thanks for reading and commenting. sending you a languageless hug :)

  3. wish i knew where you are
    amazing yesterday with hiroshima witnesses. we were 50!
    pitty you don't know yidish cause they just published now a yidish dictonary to show what entered the everyday life after 50 60 years

  4. "It’s yet another step in making us feel unwanted here." - That is a very important point. Even if all the Palestinians were fluent in Hebrew, it would still be important for the State to manifest publicly that Arabic is Israel's official language, just like Hebrew.

    The practical aspect of course is another convincing argument. In Kayan, it was a constant issue for the lawyers to have state institutions accept Arabic documents, which they of course are obliged to by law. I imagine a campaign where all Palestinians would hand in papers in Arabic only, to show solidarity with those who don't know sufficient Hebrew or don't have the money to pay for notarized translations.

  5. http://www.booknet.co.il/prodtxt.asp?id=58764&perur=1&t=16

    in hebrew "talked yidish"

  6. well we can all demand together and with itach maaki to reinstall the arabic subtitle on tv and also compulsory arabic at school


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