Resituating the Yishuv in its Arabic Speaking Context

By Liora R. Halperin
Submitted to Session P3049 (Jews, Muslims and Christians in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine: New Perspectives for Research, 2012 Annual Meeting
The Zionist polity of Mandate Palestine proudly fashioned itself as a majority Hebrew culture equipped to assimilate a diverse body of Jewish immigrants into a hegemonic Hebrew center. In practice, however, it was a clear minority society within a majority Arabic-speaking territory and region. The Arabic-speaking context of Palestine was not simply the “outside” or “other” beyond the borders of a sealed Jewish or Hebrew enclave, but rather a multifaceted context around and within the Yishuv that impressed itself upon the Hebrew Zionist project and forced a series of negotiations, both conceptual and practical, by a nominally all-Hebrew society. My paper explores how Zionist discussions about the persistence and functions of Arabic within and beyond the Yishuv shed light on the limits of Hebrew hegemony and the shifting contours of Jewish-Arab relations over the course of the Mandate period.

Historians of the Zionist project have often emphasized the growth and development of Hebrew culture with minimal regard for the non-Jewish, non-Hebrew, and non-European context of the Yishuv. The now growing study of Jewish-Arab relations in the late-Ottoman and mandate periods is an important step towards rectifying this oversight. Looking at the Arabic language as an object of Zionist discourse—as reflected in a myriad of Zionist archival and non-archival sources, journalistic works, journals, memoirs, and records of inter-communal correspondence—allows us to relate between spheres of Zionist concern often regarded separately, demonstrating the scope of the Arabic-speaking context of the Yishuv and emphasizing that this context must be thought of as a convergence of political, commercial, bureaucratic, as well as symbolic pressures, some complicated by coexisting pressures from other non-Hebrew languages, namely English and major European Jewish immigrant languages. Zionists (of both European and non-European origin) reflected on Arabic as a language of propaganda and surveillance; they debated the linguistic implications of employing of Arab labor and buying Arab produced goods in both agricultural and urban contexts; they considered the pressures on the Yishuv of the trilingual (English-Arabic-Hebrew) bureaucracy that had emerged in the mandatory context, and they reflected on Arabic in educational settings as a key toward unlocking the authentic Semitic identity of a people long in European exile. To be a minority entailed persistent and revealing reflections on the language of the majority.