When will Israelis start speaking Arabic in public?

A disturbing encounter at a Jerusalem mall reminds Mya Guarnieri that speaking a second or third language does not mean you have to give up your own.

Living in Bethlehem, working at a Palestinian university, studying Arabic; writing about the occupation and Israel’s treatment of migrants; standing by my partner, who is under intense pressure from his family to leave me because I’m Jewish. All of this could be considered “political work.” But maybe this isn’t the type of work that affects change. Maybe change happens on a smaller scale? With smaller seeds?

I was in Jerusalem’s Talpiyot neighborhood running errands when, as I entered a shopping center, an Ethiopian security guard was arguing with a Palestinian employee. “You shouldn’t speak Arabic here,” the Ethiopian man yelled. “This is the Jewish state and, here, we speak Hebrew. You want to speak Arabic? Go to Ramallah!”

A year ago, I would have yelled at him that this is Palestine and that Hebrew is the occupiers’ language. But I’ve learned that coming out swinging doesn’t sway anyone’s opinions.

“Wait a second, wait a second,” I smiled. “We should all speak Arabic, we should all speak each other’s languages. We’re here together, there’s no other way forward.”

“You speak Arabic?” the Palestinian fellow asked.

“I’m learning.”

“You see?” the Palestinian fellow said to the Ethiopian security guard. “She speaks Arabic and Hebrew. We can use both here.”

It might seem ridiculously simple. But it reminds that the conflict isn’t just about land and borders. It’s also about public space and which language we hear and use in that space.

Speaking Arabic in public can be considered an act of resistance. I remember Palestinian boys from Jaffa cruising down my old street in central Tel Aviv, driving slow, playing Arabic music at top volume: a moving protest that said “We are here and we refuse to disappear. We refuse to sit quietly where you tell us.”

But having one language in public doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for the other language. Speaking a second or third language— simply including it in the public space—does not mean you have to give up your own. Language can be about more than protest, and perhaps the way we use it can also forge new spaces.

Which, perhaps, is what I was trying to tell the Ethiopian security guard. I wonder if I made him think. Did telling him, in Hebrew, that Hebrew-speakers do indeed have a duty to learn Arabic make him realize that not everyone in the Jewish state agrees with him? Will he realize it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game? Does he know that we are already living in one state and it’s just a matter of time before the political system comes around? Did I make the Palestinian man feel, just for a moment, that he has allies here? In a country that probably feels like it’s closing in on him all the time, did I widen the space for him a tiny bit in that moment, when I spoke with him in my halting Arabic?

Do interactions like these make a difference? Might these small moments add up to more than the big work, which often seems to take us all nowhere?

Read more:
The power of speaking Hebrew in Gaza
I Don’t Know Arabic, but I do. And yet don’t
Who speaks Arabic anyway?