As a country which may be considered controversial from historical and geo-political viewpoints, Israel started to make a name for itself in the world economy from the moment of its official founding. It has achieved a remarkable GDP and business ecosystem, especially in terms of technological innovation, in which it is a world leader.
In recent times, it has also been cited as exemplary in its Covid-19 vaccination drive, the quickest in the world in relation to the number of inhabitants. The campaign’s impressive results include a 96% drop in daily cases, a 90% fall in cases with serious symptoms, and an 85% reduction in deaths, as shown in a report by computational biologist Eran Segal.
What few people may know is that this year Israel also underwent a period of institutional upset, culminating in early legislative elections brought forward to 23 March.
Apart from a few percentage points of difference that may or may not indicate future trends, the election has not currently caused any major governmental changes. On 5 April the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (the equivalent of our President of the Republic) met the leaders of the political parties and confirmed the existing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, inviting him to form a new government.
If we move on to the linguistic aspects, however, we cannot fail to notice how, in a country so varied, the political question is closely linked to the cultural aspect and, consequently, to issues concerning language.
The most hotly-discussed linguistic topic of the moment is Arabic, which is spoken regularly by a minority of the population and which is also used as an additional language in various areas of the country, due to its status as the official language of the Palestine authorities. From this point of view, the linguistic issue takes a backseat, considering that the two factions identify strongly with their own language, which in turn depends directly on geopolitical issues.
From the point of view of Arabic as seen from the “inside”, i.e. by the Arabic-speaking population which in any case identifies as a real part of the Israeli state, we must reveal a rather controversial electoral story. In the previous elections, Netanyahu (who, as stated earlier, was the winner) proved hostile to the Arab minority, to the point that he received the serious accusation of trying to restrict the number of Arabs visiting the urns.
In the run-up to the latest elections, meanwhile, experts pointed out a radical change of approach in his behaviour, so much so that the Arabic political front (previously united in the “Joint Arab List”) underwent a schism that led to the birth of the “United Arab List”.
The biggest factor in this schism was in fact (again according to local commentators) a nod from the Joint List to Prime Minister Netanyahu and vice versa, something considered unacceptable by the most extreme fringe which, in fact, created the “United List”.
While this, from a practical point of view, improved the situation of the Arab minority, which from being excluded from the polls is now the target of specific efforts and campaigns, it has also resulted in the exploitation of communication and press, and media bombshells are now commonplace.
In order not to fall into the trap of pure speculation, we will leave this question aside while bearing in mind that there is still much more to be said on the subject, and that behind every corner is a different opportunity for future developments.
This is flanked by relatively new efforts to achieve a population that operates bilingually in Hebrew and English. Thanks to a large number of cultural and business agreements with the United States which have been set up over many years, English has now become a part of daily life for most inhabitants of Israel.
Finally, while Hebrew is undoubtedly the national language, its initial adoption hides some more complex dynamics and details that need mentioning.
The so-called “ivrit” (local pronunciation) or “Hebrew” in English, is in fact the only dead language in the world to be revived by conscious efforts from an entire population. According to linguistic theory, a language is dead when there are no longer native speakers of that language, as with Hebrew which fulfilled this condition from centuries BC until practically the birth of the state of Israel.
Literary and religious use of Hebrew was in fact common and continued from ancient times up to the present day, but experts have confidently rejected the possibility that any part of the population used Hebrew as a native tongue for speech in daily life between year zero and the early 1900s.
How did a language with no native speakers thus arrive at the status of being spoken by 7 million speakers today? There are basically two reasons.
At the moment that a main language needed to be chosen for the state of Israel, there was a huge diversity of culture and languages across the country, and the most common languages included Yiddish, Judaeo-Spanish, and Aramaic as well as Arabic itself and various other minority languages. In this context, Hebrew had a significant advantage in that the whole population while not using it as a mothertongue language did still know it, using it for their religious services and for some literary activity.
The second, and in no way insignificant, reason was the fact that many religious and cultural leaders at the time were convinced that, once established in Israel, the best choice of language to use as the main form of communication was surely Hebrew, in the hope that this could help strengthen national identity and unity.
We will not go further than explaining the key factors in the linguistic debate in Israel, hoping simply to have supplied a basic outline with enough information to help understand some of this complex situation.
We end this article by proposing an analysis of the relationship between language and politics in another country if we see that this is of interest to you. Let us know in the comments section below.