Both Israel and Palestine rely on English to communicate with the world and each other, would a new mixed Semitic language finally help heal the deep gulf between them?
The world has received a linguistics lesson from Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, Yair, who unintentionally revealed the centrality of the English language to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza siege.
Bibi Jr, like his counterpart Donald Trump Jr, is a fan of playing the social media troll, inventing a whole new genre of hasbara, or Israeli propaganda. The younger Netanyahu, 27, old enough to be implicated in allegations of corruption like his father, gained a few cyber-minutes of attention online by saying that Palestine could not exist as there is no letter ‘p’ in Arabic.
Some rejoiced in Yair’s trollish observation, and thousands more took the opportunity to challenge his assertion. The appetites of the internet moved on.
The provocation was not meaningless, however, and revealed the depth to which Israel relies on English not only economically and socially, but in the everyday application of the humiliation of occupation on Palestinians living under it.
Yair also accidentally revealed the necessity of establishing a new binational language for binational state yearning to be born out of the rubble left by decades of violence and occupation.
In the meantime, Palestinians and Israelis have only English as a poor substitute for a novel, binational language, and, as it stands now, English only makes life worse.
Checkpoints in the West Bank would grind to a crawl if everyone involved suddenly forgot English. For Palestinians who are not bilingual in Hebrew and Arabic, and for Israelis who do not know Arabic, the chore of going through a checkpoint or negotiating passage through one requires English.
It is that language, the one Yair used, that gives the Israeli occupation a colonial character, along with all of the ethnic cleansing and casual acts of cruelty that arise as part of military occupations.
But how did this all happen?
The now global lingua franca is a remnant of the British Empire’s colonial endeavour in historical Palestine between the end of World War I and the end of World War II when Israel established itself a country in 1948. Zionist militants had spent the last 20 years using deadly force to repel British imperial rule.
Thanks in part to the British Empire’s collapse after World War II and the influx of Jewish Holocaust survivors fleeing a shattered, smouldering Europe, British colonial forces withdrew.
While the soldiers left, the English language was still there, and Israel took up the leftover levers of colonial coercion the British Empire used to control both Palestinians and Zionist settlers.
This was, in part, thanks to English remaining a common language for both Palestinians and the citizens of the freshly established Israel, an experience Palestinians refer to as the ‘Nakba’, or catastrophe. Accounts of the Zionist seizure of the British mandate of Palestine, amid attacks by newly minted Arabic-speaking neighbour states, also loosed from the grip of the crown’s control, include descriptions of the wholesale slaughter of Palestinians.
The last 80 years of history have seen the rise of new horrors to befall the Palestinians at the hands of Israeli forces, and the advent of violent forms of Palestinian resistance to military occupation, which began after 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza.
To say that any side of the conflict always uses violence for legitimate, ethical ends would be wrong, but Israel has always had a major advantage over the Palestinians under occupation. Among those advantages, aside from American financial and military support, has been proficiency in English, something Yair demonstrated in his discussion of how to spell Palestine.
His statement seems meaningless in the alphabets of both Hebrew and Arabic. Palestine begins with an ‘f’ in both of them (‘Filistine’), although the letter doubles as a ‘p’ sound in Hebrew. But publicising these facts about the two Semitic languages does not reach Yair’s intended audience: English speakers.
However, not every Israeli or Palestinian has the privilege of education like the Israeli prime minister’s son, which he has put to use to inform others on Arabic phonetics as the reason Palestine doesn’t exist.
Although uttered by a person with more prominence than the average Israeli soldier or Palestinian pedestrian, Yair’s English language post uses words fundamentally foreign to the Holy Land. Explaining the imperatives of occupation in English has for decades worked to Israeli leaders’ advantage because it obscures the bitter divisions in Israeli society, divisions usually discussed in Hebrew or Arabic.
Distributing propaganda in English allows Israel to present a false front of unity to the rest of the world, and has become inseparable with the further legitimisation of the occupation. No American president and perhaps only a smattering of politicians have ever had any kind of competence in reading or speaking Hebrew or Arabic.
It is one of the great ironies of history that the language of British colonialism and, later, American hegemony would give Israel such an advantage over their Palestinian neighbours. Zionist armed groups, after all, bombed British colonial fixtures in their bid for independence. But English became an indispensable tool in the subsequent subjugation of Arabic-speaking Palestinians by the Israeli army. And it is another historical irony that Palestinian pleas for justice are made to the world using English, too.
The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement gets its biggest global boost out of English, too, but this is a relatively new development.
So what is to be done?
The two-state solution is a dead letter, thanks to occupation, wall building, and the carving up of Palestinian land. If the status quo remains, Israel will continue to explain the necessity occupation to the world in English, as Palestinians try to explain the injustice of the occupation in English. But this will not make a two-state or one-state solution possible.
What is necessary is a reinvention of the formula for building a national identity that Zionists seized upon so successfully in the early 20th Century, combining a revived, standardised version of Hebrew with a set of national founding stories that had the authority of a religious text.
If a one-state solution can ever see success, then both Palestinians and Israelis need a new language for this country, one they can both learn to speak easily.
Inventing a new language is not impossible, and has been done in the recent past. Hebrew and Palestinian Arabic already share loan words (the Hebrew word for ‘checkpoint’ is the Palestinian word for ‘checkpoint’, for instance) and Israelis are fans of saying ‘yalla’ whenever necessary, Arabic for ‘come on’. And, of course, the grammar and vocabulary of both Hebrew and Arabic are astoundingly similar.
Using loan words from ancient or even extinct Semitic languages to fill in linguistic gaps when necessary, an ‘Arabrew’ language could help form the foundation for a single, cooperative and just national identity that both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Muslims could use to communicate, building a shared community and identity to present to the world.
Inventing a new language for Israelis and Palestinians seems like a far-fetched idea, but it is no less far-fetched than creating two equal countries out of the West Bank/Gaza and Israel, when the latter will always have a military advantage over the former, in the form of hundreds of nuclear weapons.
Sitting Palestinian and Israeli kids down to learn a new language together does not involve the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of people to satisfy policymakers in Washington DC trying to redraw a map they don’t understand. Sitting down in a classroom and learning something new is always a better idea than trying to realise a peaceful form of ethnic cleansing, which, so far, is the best idea the two-state solution offers.
This idea would take generations to realise. But that’s the case for any Israel/Palestine peace plan. It’s probably best to choose an idea that at least involves learning something new.
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