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Ahlan wa sahlan, welcome to the balagan!

This blog post is written by Ethan, a Yahel fellow living in Lod.

“Sababa.” “Walla?” “Ahla!” — many American Jews exposed to Israeli culture at some point in their Jewish communal engagement have been taught a few words, integral to modern Hebrew speech and yet Arabic in origin. Thus, when I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in late October, sleep-deprived and N95-ed, I was not surprised to be shepherded through a long chain of COVID and visa stations by stressed airport workers with a few choice “yallah!”s. I studied Arabic and Hebrew at university and quickly learned to love the three-letter root system and grammatical structures underpinning both Semitic languages. Thus, I entered Israel with a modicum of confidence that I understood the basic relationship between the two languages: the shared roots (e.g. ‘-k-l; أكل; אכל: to eat), the similar abjads (e.g. shin; ش; ש); and the shared Middle Eastern origins. [1]

But later, as I started to teach English at an Arabic-language high school in the Train Station neighborhood of Lod, I realized that studying each language in the sterile environment of a university classroom had not allowed me to begin to experience the complex set of connections that characterize the two languages within Israel, undergirded by the complicated and sometimes-fraught communal, social, and political relationships between (native Hebrew-speaking) Jews and (native Palestinian Arabic-speaking) Arabs here. [2] This realization came slowly, beginning with the unexpected sounds of Hebrew words inserted into conversations between Arab teachers and students (who, needless to say, were speaking Arabic): “I need a kvutza (קבוצה, group) of four of you to go practice with Ethan.” [3] “Ethan, can you write that word on your mahshev? (מחשב, computer).” [4] Next, my fellow Yahelnik Sarah and I made an English- and Hebrew-language video inviting Arab women to a program of cultural exchange we were planning. Our program organizer complimented us on the Arabic section, noting that she sometimes finds it very difficult to remember the correct Arabic word in certain contexts, while the Hebrew word comes naturally.

"Love", "peace", "dream", and other words written in Aravit, a blend of Hebrew and Arabic script readable in both languages. Painted at the high school where I teach.

Another moment of awareness regarding how mixed Arabic and Hebrew are in Israelis’ speech came during my weekly Arabic tutoring session. My teacher informed me that she expects me to send her haklatot (הקלטות, recordings) every day so I can practice my verbal Arabic skills -- inserting a Hebrew word into her Arabic-language sentence. “Do you mean tasjeelat (تسجيلات)?” I asked, smiling. She laughed and commented that the integration of Hebrew into spoken Arabic is pretty widespread. “The other day,” she said, “my son asked what the Hebrew word for do’ar (post) is!” The rub of this anecdote was that do’ar (דואר) is the Hebrew word for post! Her son had assumed it to be a native Arabic word because he had never before heard the Arabic word. [5]

All of the above anecdotes illustrate borrowing from one language into the other, but it’s important to note that this process is not random or arbitrary. Rather, it is influenced by social and political dynamics, as I discovered when I began to look at research on the subject. [6] The assimilation of Hebrew into Palestinian Arabic is deeper than that of Arabic into Hebrew because of the postition of Hebrew as the dominant language in Israel. With the passage of the Nation-State Law in 2018, Hebrew is legally privileged over Arabic. Hebrew is a mandatory part of the curriculum in Arabic-language schools from elementary school onward, and the average proficiency level of Arab Israelis has increased in each generation. (Only a tiny fraction of Israeli-Jews, in contrast, have proficiency in Arabic.) Arab men have on average stronger abilities, because of their more significant participation in Hebrew-language workplace environments. Some Arab Israelis seek to avoid the using Hebrew that has been assimilated into Arabic due to nationalistic or religious sentiments. Researcher Roni Henkin has found that Arabic has borrowed more heavily from Hebrew in certain semantic categories, including education (e.g. bachelor’s degree., to’ar rishon, תואר ראשון), transportation, and technology (as I encountered with the word mahshev in my classroom).

(Pictured above, left: Feeling school pride. The sign says "Raise your head up high, for you are at the Lod Ort Science and Engineering School")

Despite the dominance of Hebrew in Israel and the more apparent direct borrowing of Hebrew into Arabic, modern Hebrew owes a significant part of its vocabulary to Arabic. Modern Hebrew pioneer Elizer ben Yehuda and many other early Zionists saw Arabic as both a source for recovering Semitic words whose Hebrew versions had been lost to time, as well as a means through which to connect more deeply with land. The enthusiasm for Hebraicizing and incorporating Arabic words waned after the 1948 War. However, a new wave of Arabic entered Hebrew with the arrival of Judeo-Arabic-speaking Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, particularly in the seventies and eighties when awareness and acceptance of Mizrahi culture became more widespread. While the Maghrebi Arabic dialect of North African olim and Palestinian Arabic are generally not mutually intelligible, certain terms and structures common to both were assimilated into Hebrew. For example, it has been a topic of discussion in our Yahel group how strange it sounds to us when an Israeli mother calls her child “mami.” However, this phenomenon, known as reversed kin terms, is present in both Maghrebi and Palestinian Arabic and made its way into Hebrew.

Communicating in a foreign language is often challenging. Sometimes equally so for the native speaker trying to understand error-filled speech. "I didn't understand so well. If u prefer to speak English it's fine."

This rich history of linguistic cross-pollination carries with it the

possibility of deep cultural and social connections between Israeli

Jews and Arabs. However, the full realization of this possibility continues to be elusive in Lod. When I reflect on my own cross-linguistic encounters — the Jewish man who told me he was feeling mabsut (مبسوط, happy); the Arab student who, seeing my lack of school uniform and pale skin, defaulted to greeting me with shalom (שלום, hello) — I notice that they have occurred almost exclusively in settings where all the Israeli interlocutors were either Jewish, or Arab, but not within mixed groups of Arabs and Jews. This mirrors a social reality in which de facto segregation between Jews and Arabs is common — while Jews and Arabs coexist and interact in public spaces and services (like medical clinics, supermarkets, and parks), deep friendships or romantic relationships are rare. A boulevard named Kugel, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English

However, many organizations affiliated with Yahel are at the front lines of bringing to fruition the promise of full partnership, a promise embedded in the extensive and complex network of linkages between Arabic and Hebrew. Abraham Initiatives is working to bring equity and cooperation to city development and management through their Shared Cities initiative. Blend.Ar (where I work) is bringing colloquial Arabic skills to young Israeli Jews through cultural and linguistic immersion. Melodika is providing a safe home for Jewish and Arab children to hang out and build connection. At the national level, Member of Knesset Michal Cotler-Wunsh submitted a bill in December mandating Arabic-language education for Jewish students for the first time, from elementary school through high school.

Working at Blend.Ar

The challenges to strong Jewish-Arab relations in Lod, and Israel more broadly, are formidable: racism and antisemitism; disparities in resource allocation; distrust; and social and geographic separation. However, we can all work to support those on the ground who strive for a brighter future every day. And as a further step, we can all work to build linguistic and cultural skills that facilitate greater connection and understanding. The trajectories of Modern Hebrew and Palestinian Arabic are, historically as well as today, connected, mutually reinforcing, messy, complicated, and, most importantly, permanently intertwined. A shared Hebrew-Arabic future is guaranteed, as is an Israel built, shaped, and developed by both Jews and Arabs. We must do all we can to ensure that this shared future between Israeli Jews and Arabs rests on a foundation of mutual-understanding, equity, and partnership.


[1] Abjad: languages where the basic written symbols are consonants, and vowels are inferred from context or written supplementally.

[2] Many of whom identify as Palestinian-Israelis or Palestinian citizens of Israel.

[3] Instead of the standard Arabic word مجموعة, majmu’ah.

[4] Instead of the standard Arabic word حاسوب, hasub, or the common English loan كومبيوتر, combyuter.

[5] bareed, بريد

[6] For the next two paragraphs, I will be presenting research conducted by sociolinguist Roni Henkin, found in: Henkin-Roitfarb, Roni. "Hebrew and Arabic in Asymmetric Contact in Israel" Lodz Papers in Pragmatics 7, no. 1 (2011): 61-100.


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