Hebrew Man, Speak Arabic!: The Symbolisms of Arabic in the Zionist Movement before 1948

By Liora R. Halperin
Submitted to Session P1984 (Perspectives on Arabic in Palestine/Arabic in Israel, 2009 Annual Meeting
Arab-Israeli Conflict; Israel Studies;
My paper examines the motivations surrounding Arabic study and promotion among Zionists prior to Israeli statehood. As others have made clear, the Zionist discourse around Arabic during the post-1948 period has been most concerned with the Israeli military apparatus. I argue that in the pre-state period, Zionist interest in Arabic stemmed also from a complex of two other internal factors, not contingent in and of themselves upon military conquest but deeply linked to Zionist national ambitions.

First, the intensive Zionist construction (“revival”) of Hebrew as a modern language in this period led to a renewed interest in Semitic languages in general and Arabic in particular. Materials from the Hebrew Language Committee, the Hebrew University, and Hebrew schools demonstrate that Arabic, because it was taken as a model for accent and vocabulary, was instrumental in debates about the desired nature of Modern Hebrew. Archival sources also indicate the pedagogical function that was attributed to classical Arabic in imparting to students an understanding of Hebrew grammatical structure, in the way that Latin and Greek were employed in Europe. Discourses about Arabic reflect educators’ uncertainties regarding the merits of a Humanistic education as opposed to a spoken language-based methodology, increasingly prominent in Europe, that implied in this setting a focus on spoken Arabic rather than classical texts and grammatical forms.

Second, the socialist orientation of some Zionist parties theoretically required a degree of contact with Arabs and a knowledge of spoken Arabic. On one level, the labor Zionist belief that Arabs could and would come to esteem Zionist efforts led to attempts at meetings between small groups and propaganda efforts within the Arab community, including the newspaper Haqiqat al-'Amr from 1937. On another level, the very desire to establish rapprochement among workers was based on a claimed rejection of bourgeois cosmopolitanism and a return both to Semitic roots and socialist lifestyle. Sources from labor and Kibbutz movements suggest that this rejection of (European) multilingualism in general was consistent with, and in fact paradoxically required, a turn to Arabic study.

In surveying a range of archival sources, my aim is to understand the perceived function of Arabic within the complex linguistic system of the Jewish community at the time. As I show, Arabic was both a richly imagined symbolic asset and a multivalent and variously deployed instrument in service of Zionist nation-building.