The Nation-State Law and the Deprivation of the Arabic Language from Official Status in Israel

The Nation State Law that the Israeli Knesset passed on May 1st, 2018, has sparked the criticism of Arab citizens who consider the bill racist and discriminatory against their language. Attempts to deprive Arabic of its official status are not new; they started in the early 1950s when Arabic represented the language of the Palestinian majority. Although these attempts had failed until the passing of the new law, state policies continued to subjugate Arabic speakers and marginalize their language. This law presents yet another ideological challenge to the Arabic language through the divestiture of its official status, a loss of self-determination for Arabic speakers, and the imposition of Hebrew as the sole official language of Israel.

This article focuses on the sociolinguistic aspect of the issue by highlighting the status of Arabic in Israel vs. Hebrew (as a symbol of the “Jewish and the Zionist character” of the state), as confirmed in the provision of the Nation-State Law.

The Nation-State Law

The bill states that “the State of Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people” and emphasizes “the historical relationship between the Jewish people and their land,” as stated in the "Declaration of Independence” and the “Law of Return.”

The provisions of the law state that the right to self-determination and the expression of identity and identification with national symbols apply only to Jews, and that Hebrew is the only language recognized by the state. Arabic is stripped of its official status and becomes secondary while granting it a special status and ensuring its speakers access to state services in the language.1

Arab Reaction

Arab citizens reject the law because it aims to abolish the Arab identity and the collective rights of the Palestinian people. The law establishes the superiority of Jewish identity as the constitutional basis for legislation, marginalizing and excluding the legal status of Palestinian Arab citizens and depriving them of any legislative privileges.

The Concept of “Official Language”

The specific meaning of the term "official" (rishmi in Hebrew) is related to the definition of the term by government institutions. An official language is a language used by the Government and elevated by the authority of the State. It is the language of internal communication to and from the government, as well as the language of judicial and administrative affairs, representing the government and state.

In the United States of America, for example, one may be surprised by the lack of an official language. The Constitution does not recognize or refer to English as such. In Switzerland, German, French and Italian are the official languages; they are also the national languages of their respective linguistic regions, in addition to Romansh. Romansh has been granted a national status to emphasize equality for all indigenous peoples in their provinces but has not been given an official status and has no safeguarded applications in government, administration, higher education, or the courts.

In Israel, such a scenario cannot be envisioned because Israel has not recognized the Arabs as a “national minority.” Such recognition would mean that Arab citizens are indigenous to the land, a matter that would contradict the Zionist narrative. Therefore, with the establishment of Israel, Israeli citizenship was imposed on Palestinians who remained on their land, and they became officially included in the category of non-national “minority.” The official status of the Arabic language was retained alongside Hebrew. But according to Israeli law only Hebrew is considered the national language of the country, enjoying all privileges.

Since the official language is a matter of state (authority), its status is subject to change with changes at the national and official levels. Hence, it is not sufficient to declare a language official, what is more important is to discover the limits of that status, through the law (dejure) as opposed to actual practices on the ground (de facto). What happens to Arabic in Israel versus Hebrew, and English by comparison, represents such a case.

The De jure vs. the De facto Situation

Legally, Arabic was an official language alongside Hebrew, a situation which existed since the British Mandate in Palestine. In the “1922 Order-in-Council on the territory,” English, Arabic, and Hebrew were recognized as official languages of the country by the British Mandatory authorities. Paragraph 82 of the Proclamation of the King (the official law code of the land) at the Council on Palestine, October 10, 1922, defined the legal status of these languages as follows:

          All ordinances, official notices and official forms of the government and all official notices of local authorities and 
          municipalities in areas to be prescribed by order of the High Commissioner, shall be published in English, Arabic and Hebrew. 
          The three languages may be used in debates and discussions in the Legislative Council, and subject to any regulations to be made 
          from time to time, in the government offices and the Law Courts.2

When Israel was created in 1948, all British Mandatory laws and regulations remained in effect until amended; one of the laws that was amended was the law dealing with official languages. English lost its official status, and the status of Hebrew and Arabic was preserved.

In 1952 and 1980 there were attempts to deprive the Arabic language of its official status. The right-wing opposition parties in the Knesset objected to equality between Hebrew and Arabic, demanding that it be granted exclusively to Hebrew. The attempts were eventually thwarted,3 but the defeat did not ipso facto mean that Arabic prevailed. This was clearly reflected in the texts of at least two laws: First, the Nationality Law of 1952 (Article 5A), which required knowledge of the Hebrew language for 
naturalization, while the knowledge of Arabic is not required. Secondly, the “Law of Lawyers for the year 1962 (section 26 (3))” which required knowledge of Hebrew only, to register as an apprentice in a lawyer’s office.4 These laws were clear violations of the declared law that provided for equality between Arabic and Hebrew as official languages.

Article 24 of the Interpretation Law (1981) states that the binding version of the laws passed by the Knesset is the Hebrew version.5 It is permitted to use Arabic in the Knesset, in the courts, and in correspondence with government offices, however, there is no legal obligation to use Arabic in these offices, there is only permission to do so. The lack of conclusive legislation on this subject is a reference to the conduct of government ministries, as it publishes all material in Hebrew to the public, and every 
government office decides what is “appropriate”.6

From a legal point of view, the Arabic language was official but in practice little honored. Even when compared to English, which has lost its status as an official language, we see that Arabic is less respected and does not enjoy the same prestige that English does.

Hence, there is a gap between the legal situation and the reality. This gap is not expected to narrow, especially since Israel has no written constitution that provides for equal rights for all its citizens.

The issue of official language in Israel is not primarily a sociolinguistic but an ideological one. It is rooted in the state and its impact on the relations between its citizens. These relations have been maintained because of considerations of sovereignty and authority and have become more strained under the influence of the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict. Because of this ideology, some government practices ignored the official status of the Arabic language leading to its marginalization.

In 1980, the liberal future Education Minister Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, a researcher of Israeli Political Law, documented several cases of deliberate disregard of the law of language. Among these cases was the removal of Arabic from banners and road signs used in Jewish neighborhoods and main roads. Arabic appeared only when approaching Arab populated areas, and not always consistently. It should be noted that such practices continue to this day. Moreover, the names of Arab villages and cities are often written in Arabic letters, but with Hebrew pronunciation (for example, “Akko” instead of “Akka”), which contributes to the dissemination of Hebrew names on a larger scale.7

This is in addition to the continuous sculpting of thousands of names, sites, geographical and environmental landmarks and their transformation from Arabic to Hebrew, as demonstrated by Dr. Shukri Arraf, a specialist in the history of the Middle East and a researcher in Palestinian history. His studies show that the total number of Palestinian sites that were given Hebrew names over 125 years reached 7000, of which more than 5000 were geographical locations, several hundred were historical names, and more than 1,000 were for towns and villages. All this was done by a committee that the Jewish Agency had formed in 1922 for this purpose. Currently, the committee has 24 members, Jewish scholars in various disciplines, including representatives of certain ministries, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund and the Israeli army.8

The Palestinian Arab population that experienced the Nakba (national catastrophe) witnessed the process of "Hebraizing" the names of the Arab villages and towns that were occupied by Jews; the new generations do not know much about it. This disparity has led to confusion over the collective memory and the Palestinian existence in the country.

National policies cannot be avoided in discussions of linguistic issues. The decline of the status of Arabic in Israel is connected to the decline in the status of the Arab population, who have been transformed by the expulsion of Palestinians and the absorption of the new Jewish emigrants from a majority to a minority in their country of origin. This demographic shift has influenced what sociolinguistic sciences call the “linguistic vitality" of Arabs in the country. Acculturation is taking place in some domains of life, but the interaction between centrifugal and centripetal factors related to the ideological conflict has impeded the assimilation of Arab citizens into the Israeli society and culture.

The situation of Arabic versus Hebrew in Israel largely reflects the shift in the internal balance of power, or in the authority and ideology that represent it and act accordingly. I expatiated upon this issue in my study “The Socio-linguistic Impact of Ethnic State Policies: The Effects on the Language Development of the Arab Population of Israel.”9

At the socio-economic level, the relations between the two languages are largely determined by the priorities set by the ruling majority: since state administration, high positions, major industries, the stock market, large businesses and banking are under Jewish control, Hebrew is the dominant language.

At the educational level, the state has taken no initiative to establish an academic institute to maintain and strengthen the Arabic language, whereas the Hebrew Language Academy was established for the maintenance of Hebrew. In Israeli universities, the Arabic language is not taught in Arabic, but in Hebrew, and Arabic-language material, when used, is translated into, and discussed in Hebrew. Of the few Arab professors that teach Arabic, some recently started to challenge the official policy and offer classes in Arabic; the practice does not pass without objection or criticism from students.

Nor was the establishment of an Arab university allowed, because -according to Israeli policy - it would contribute to enriching the Arab society linguistically and intellectually. In the absence of an Arab university in Israel, Arab students enroll in Israeli or foreign universities, especially in cases where they are unable to obtain entrance for medical or legal studies, which often happens.

The critical licensing exams in the fields of law, medicine and accounting, which students must pass to practice their professions, are administered in Hebrew; English has recently been added as another option. Hebrew or English exams make things more complicated for Arab students who have studied at non-Israeli universities and want to return home to practice in their fields.

Much of the debate over Arabic in the field of education focuses on the inferior status of Arabic in Israeli schools. Although Arabic was the second official language, there has been no serious interest in learning it among Israelis, except in the military. In general, Arabic is considered useless and marginalized by the majority10 despite being the mother tongue of one fifth of the population, the first language spoken in the Middle East, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. This is in addition to being a language of civilization, history, literature and rich heritage.

Comparing the extent and quality of instruction of the two languages at the primary through secondary levels, Hebrew is imposed on Arab students from grade 1 through 12, whereas Arabic is not compulsory in Jewish schools. As for teaching materials, the Hebrew language curriculum designed for the Arabs includes topics of a Jewish character: literature, history and religion, whereas Arabic curriculum for Jewish schools does not impose Arab literature and history. What draws one’s attention is the biased policy as far as the depth and weight of the teaching materials are concerned. Even the curriculum of the Arabic language for Arab schools is a superficial, diluted curriculum that does not include literature and national poetry that promote the national identity of the Arab student.11

The Production of a One-Sided Bilingualism and Biculturalism

This policy has contributed to the production of a one-sided bilingualism and biculturalism among the Arabs. It takes us back to the fact that the national-ideological conflict between the two populations generates cultural confrontation and linguistic competition, especially since language is one of the most prominent symbols of nationalism.12

Because of its permeation into all spheres of life, the use of Hebrew among Arabs has led to a remarkable change in their linguistic conduct, but not to the attrition of the language; several studies confirm the extensive use of Hebrew words in Arabs’ intra-group communications. Yet, the morphological assimilation of these words into Arabic has not so far markedly advanced, most probably because of the politico-ideological conflict between the groups. In fact, the influence of this conflict and its repercussions upon groups’ relations has supported the maintenance of Arabic by the Arab community despite their bilingualism.

The Attitude of Arab Citizens Towards Language Policy

The emphasis on teaching Hebrew and Jewish subjects in Arab schools is an issue that Arab intellectuals in Israel consider an attempt to strip Arab education of its national character and guide Arab students toward “Israelization,” and expose them to Jewish and Zionist values, at the expense of their own language and culture.

On the other hand, and because of the situation imposed on them, Arabs are aware of the practical application of Hebrew; most of them consider the language necessary. It is often a precondition for educational and economic progress.

Socially, the use of Hebrew is a daily life practice that one cannot avoid when communicating with the Jewish population and dealing with government institutions.

Despite the influence of Hebrew on the linguistic behavior of Arab citizens, resulting from the process of language borrowing, Hebrew remains a second language for the Arabs and has not replaced their mother tongue. As shown in a previous study, loyalty to their mother tongue among Arabs in Israel is supported by nationalist feelings established in childhood, and a sense of belonging to a Palestinian national identity. It becomes even stronger and more prominent in times of national crisis and under 
discriminatory pressures.13

For Arab citizens, Arabic is the first acquired language, and colloquial Arabic is the main and natural means of communication. Although they may recognize that Hebrew is the language of the dominant group, they do not recognize the superiority of that group. Therefore, linguistic or cultural assimilation is not possible. And Israeli Jews will not allow such an assimilation to happen because of the ideology of the state which equates nationalism with ethno-religious identity, that is, the people of Israel are the Jewish people, and the Israeli is the one who is Jew only.


The Nation-State Law may be something new legally, but it represents policies and practices that have been in place for generations. The previously-discussed linguistic and educational policies and practices affect the socio-linguistic behavior of Arabic speakers, and have led to their marginalization both inside and outside of Israel.

State-run media, government and educational institutions, the national currency, and official place name conventions all marginalize the Arabic language despite its official status. And one-sided language learning and biculturalism leads to the alienation of Arab citizens. Devaluation of their language and culture, and the imposition of Hebrew and Jewish social norms, deprive Arabs of a feeling of inclusiveness and participation in Israeli society at all levels.

In the context of the greater Middle East, the use of Hebrew by Arabs and a degree of acculturation that has accompanied it distinguish them from other Arabs and cause them to be seen with antipathy: very often they are treated with suspicion and restrictions, as if they were Israeli Jews. Their identity and affiliation are questioned, and they are faced with unfair criticism resulting from a misunderstanding of their circumstances.

The Nation-State Law doesn’t represent something new but it strengthens the effects of existing practices by granting them a constitutional status; this is an example, par excellence, of the detrimental effects of ideology, especially, of a dominant group on the fate of a subject group.


1 Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. “New Israeli Laws Violate Palestinian Rights and Oppose Democracy”. February 2018. https://www. pdf (accessed September 10, 2018). 

2 Fisherman and Fishman, “The “Official Languages” of Israel”, pp. 499-500.

3 Jacob Landau, “Hebrew and Arabic in the State of Israel: Political aspects of the language issue,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 67 (1987): pp.117-133. 

4 Landau, “Hebrew and Arabic”, pp.119-120. 

5 David Kretzmer, The Legal Status of the Arabs in Israel. Westview Special Studies on the Middle East (Boulder. San Francisco. Oxford, 1990), pp.65-166. 

6 Bernard Spolsky and Robert Cooper, The Languages of Jerusalem (Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1991), pp. 116-118. 

7 Amnon Rubenstein, The Constitutional Law of the State of Israel (Tel Aviv: Schocken,1980). (in Hebrew) 

8 Shukri Arraf, Geographical Locations in Palestine: Arabic Names and Hebrew Labelling (The Institute of Palestine Studies, 2004). (inArabic) 

9 Salma Arraf, Sociolinguistic Impact of Ethnic-State Policies. The Effects on the Language Development of the Arab Population in Israel. Peter Lang. EuropäischerVerlag der Wissenschaften,2004).

10 Elana Shohamy and Smadar Donitsa-Schmidt, Jews vs. Arabs: Language Attitudes and Stereotypes (The Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research. Tel Aviv University,(1998). 

11 Majed Al-haj, Education, Empowerment and Control: The Case of the Arabs in Israel (State University of New York Press,1995). 

12 Arraf, Sociolinguistic Impact, pp.176-178. 

13 Arraf, Sociolinguistic Impact, pp.230-253.