A Land Divided: The Languages of Israel & Palestine

Sectarian divisions between the two peoples who inhabit a certain strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River have given rise to the most famous conflict in the world today. Participants and observers alike characterise the two sides in religious or national terms. But in a land where most people on both sides are of Middle Eastern origin, for practical purposes the most obvious shibboleth is often language.

The official language of Israel is Hebrew. Over 90% of Israeli Jews and 60% of Israeli Arabs (who make up a fifth of Israel’s citizens) speak it fluently. Many Jews speak nothing else. For a country founded quite recently by people from dozens of different homelands, Israel’s homogeneity is an impressive achievement.

It is even more so considering the history of the national language. In the 2nd Century A.D. and even earlier, Jewish diaspora communities learned, and eventually came to prefer, the languages of their adopted homelands. Hebrew retained its foothold in Jews’ lives as a liturgical language, but relatively few would have been able to converse in it.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda was the father of the Hebrew revival. Upon emigrating from Russia, he refused to speak any other language, which put a strain on his marriage given his wife originally did not speak the language.

That began to change in the 19th Century. Zionists, who dreamed of establishing a national homeland for the Jewish people, attempted to dust Hebrew off and revive it as a language of daily life. Their effort gained urgency as Jews from across Europe flocked together in Palestine.

It took some time for the new Hebrew get off the ground. Early immigrants preferred their native languages, most prominent among them Yiddish (which is a Hebraicised German dialect) and German. The native Orthodox community in Jerusalem, who saw Hebrew as a sacred language, were offended by the vulgarisation of the tongue.

But as new generations were born and raised in the new old country, Hebrew got off the ground. Zionists opened Hebrew language schools; by the time of the last Ottoman census in 1916, 40% of Jews in Palestine preferred Hebrew. In 1922, the new British authorities made it co-official with English. The new Hebrew had vocabulary fit the modern world, often deriving new words from old native roots. Like any language learnt widely by adults, it became simpler, which made it even easier for newcomers to learn.

New arrivals often calqued European surnames into Hebrew ones. The trend started with people whose families had been branded with pejorative names like Lügner (“liar”) or Ausubel (“from evil”), but it caught on widely. To cite a prominent example, the father of longtime prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu changed his name from Mileikowsky when he left Warsaw. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, Hebrew was the language of daily life for 80% of its citizens. For the first (and only) time in history, a language had come back from the dead.

An Arab neighbourhood in Jerusalem

Of course, many in Palestine had no desire to learn a new language. Arabs, who until the British period made up the overwhelming bulk of the population, were perfectly happy with Arabic. (Half a millennium of Turkish rule made little impact; in fact, Ottoman Turkish was so heavily influenced by Arabic and Persian that just 10% of its lexicon was Turkish.) Indeed, Arabic was the preferred home language of most native Jews, as well as Jewish refugees from across the Arab world. Today, around half of Israelis trace their roots to Arabic-speaking countries.

For obvious reasons, most Palestinians today, and even many Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship, refuse to learn Hebrew. The past few decades have seen a notable linguistic shift, toward Modern Standard Arabic (as opposed to the local Levantine dialect), but few Arabs would ever use Hebrew for anything but strictly practical purposes.

The hostility is mutual. Hebrew and Arabic are not that different- they are about as far apart as English and German- and Israeli children are required to study the latter in school, but shockingly few Israeli Jews have a strong command of Arabic. As the generation who fled from Morocco or Egypt or Baghdad dies out, the language typically dies with them.

English is more popular. It is used on road signs, and is pretty ubiquitous in commerce and popular culture. Jews and Arabs alike are usually keener on the old colonial language than that of their neighbours.

The Ultra-Orthodox community have eccentric attitudes toward many things, including language.

There are even some Jews who viscerally reject Israeli Hebrew. Ultra-Orthodox Jews still refuse to go along with the degradation of their holy tongue. For obvious reasons, Yiddish declined precipitously in popularity following the Second World War, but it maintains a foothold in this one very stubborn community. (As an aside, two years ago my friends and spent a weekend in upstate New York, not realising that we were going to a hamlet founded by Hasidic Jews who had decamped there from Brooklyn. We were sometimes forced to triangulate conversations between my German, my friend’s Hebrew, and locals’ Yiddish, because so many people did not speak English.)

There is also a sizeable community of Russian Jews who still prefer the tongue of their former country. Israel saw a massive influx of Refuseniks after the fall of the USSR; because this community arrived so recently their language is still prominent, but presumably they will integrate like former waves of migrants.

As in Belgium and Sri Lanka and other linguistically dysfunctional countries, it seems unlikely that Hebrew- and Arabic-speakers in Israel and Palestine will grow together. But strange things happen. Last month, an Arab party made history by joining Israel’s governing coalition (oddly, backing a prime minister who describes himself as “ten degrees to the right” of Netanyahu). Arabic has always been a co-official language in the Knesset, but for the first time it will be spoken by a party of government. A century and a half ago, if you had suggested that the Levant would soon be home to a nation of people who came from across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa to communicate in a language no one had spoken colloquially in two thousand years, they would have put you away. Like history, language is not always predictable.

Shalom and salaam both mean peace.

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets