Language, Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “is the blood of the soul.” When there is more than one language on the same land, it can also becomes a prime source of conflict.
On Sunday, an Israeli government cabinet committee approved the wording of a nation-state bill that, among other things, would downgrade the status of Arabic, the language of nearly 20% of the population. Ayman Odeh, chairman of the opposition Joint List, an alliance of four Arab-dominated parties in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, called the measure an attempt “to destroy the standing of the Arab population and exclude their culture and language.”
The debate in Israel is hardly unique, and the status that nations or regions confer to a minority language is often a clear expression of the minority’s standing.
An ongoing demand In Northern Ireland by Sinn Féin that Irish Gaelic be made an official language alongside English (with no mention of Ulster-Scots, the other indigenous language) has been a stumbling block in talks for restoring a power-sharing government.
A big step toward defining our identity.
Turkey has long balked at the Kurdish minority’s demands that their language be fully accepted. In January, the Turkish government closed the Kurdish Institute of Istanbul, which had been teaching the Kurdish language and publishing Kurdish literature for a quarter century.
The threat to the Arabic language in Israel is part of a broader attempt to ensure that only Jewish people have the right to self-determination in the country, a proposal that has provoked widespread debate. Though it still needs to wind through several stages of Parliamentary approval, the current version of the bill would make Hebrew the only official national language, effectively demoting Arabic to what is called “a special status.”
Avi Dichter, a member of Parliament with the ruling Likud party, and the sponsor of the draft law, called it a “big step toward defining our identity.” No one, in any language, could argue with that — but it’s an identity many Israelis reject.