Languages get twisted around many tongues. Arabic, in its Modern Standard form, is one of only two non-European languages with official status at the un (Chinese is the other), and the official language of 27 states and territories across Africa and Western Asia, where this formal register is used together with other, variable, spoken registers including the vernacular forms of Arabic. In November 2015, another type of Arabic resounded in the Israeli Knesset: three minutes’ worth of threats and vituperation delivered by Yinon Magal, an elected member of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party. Magal served in the Special Operations unit of Israeli Military Intelligence and has a degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The speech he gave was the result of a language-education programme that Yonatan Mendel calls ‘Israeli Arabic’.footnote1 Mendel’s book, based on a dissertation at Cambridge, offers a detailed study of its custodians’ aims and pedagogic methods. Mendel is an Israeli scholar probably best known outside his homeland for his revealing portraits of it in the London Review of Books; he has also provided a striking city study of Jerusalem for nlr. For The Creation of Israeli Arabic he has mined the archives of the Israeli Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Education, the Prime Minister’s Office, the idf and two Arabic-teaching colleges, uncovering some real gems in the process.

Mendel begins with a long-run survey of the Jewish people’s relations with the Arabic language. Though few Israeli-born Jews are able to speak it today, for centuries Arabic was the idiom of Jewish communities living around the Mediterranean and indeed much Jewish scholarship was produced in medieval Arabic: notably this was the case with Maimonides’ writing. Arabic was, of course, the predominant spoken language of Ottoman Palestine, of which Jewish communities were a part, and the small number of East European religious Jews who came to live there before the rise of Zionism suffered economically partly as a result of not knowing Arabic. They produced the first Yiddish–Arabic dictionary in 1839.

From the late nineteenth century, Zionist immigrant organizations in Palestine also stressed the importance of learning the majority’s language: criteria for membership in the Zionist defence squad, Hashomer, included proficiency in ‘guns, horsemanship, Arabic’. One stream in the movement for the revival of Hebrew drew heavily on the work of Arabic enlightenment intellectuals in coining modern terms—railway and so forth—from the Arabic root system, seeing it as a common Semitic lexical reservoir. There was, to be sure, an element of essentialist re-framing here: ‘These are not foreign roots’, argued Eli’ezer Ben-Yehuda, the Lithuanian-born father of modern Hebrew, in 1912. ‘They are not even Arabic roots. They are our roots. They are the roots that we lost, and now we are coming back to find them.’ The issue divided the movement: Tunisian-born Nissim Malul argued that the Jews in Palestine should ‘consolidate our Semitic identity and not obfuscate it with European culture’. Others deplored such ‘Levantinization’, Herzl famously arguing that Zionism should serve as an outpost of European culture against ‘oriental barbarism’. From this standpoint, Arabic was no longer the language of the neighbour but the language of the enemy, to be spoken in a tone of command.

Mendel sees this harder approach crystallizing with the 1936–39 Arab Revolt, crushed by the British, after the acceleration of European-Jewish immigration with the rise of Nazism in Europe. In 1941 the Jewish Agency (ja), the quasi-state body of the Mandate era, appointed Yisrael Ben-Zeev as its Education Department’s supervisor of Arabic teaching in Zionist schools which ran their own, European-modelled curriculum. With the backing of the ja’s intelligence service, Ben-Zeev introduced colloquial Arabic to the curriculum, at the expense of literary engagements. He clashed in particular with the notable Damascus-born scholar Eliyahu Habuba, who taught Arabic Studies at the prestigious Hebrew Reali School of Haifa: Habuba’s methods might be suitable for a European university, but the Zionists required Arabic ‘for specifically practical needs’. Ben-Zeev’s curriculum stressed basic vocabulary and the rote learning of simple Arabic sentences, so settler farmers could talk to their neighbours. Yet with the founding of the State of Israel after the militarized land-grab and ethnic cleansing of 1948, these ‘practical needs’ lessened, with fewer day-to-day contacts between the two peoples. From the 1950s, Israeli parents and school-students shunned non-compulsory Arabic classes, regarding it as a low-prestige language compared to French or English. Ben-Zeev also began to complain of a shortage of Arabic teachers—despite the fact that, thanks to waves of Arab-Jewish immigration from Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Morocco, Arab Jews would make up the majority of the Jewish population of Israel by the early 1970s. Other than teaching, the principal source of employment for educated Arabic-speaking Israelis was Military Intelligence. For the most part, of course, these were Arab Jews who had brought their language with them from their native lands. The Creation of Israeli Arabic quotes a 1960s joke about the idf’s Unit 8200, a signals-monitoring outfit, comprising eight European and 200 Iraqi Jews. Mendel has reported elsewhere how Arab Jews working as undercover agents were taught to ‘behave as Arabs’ in order to glean information, or to ‘pass for’ Arabs while spreading alarming rumours. Thus Arabness was made to feel like something foreign even to those who were, actually, Arabs. They could have simply had coffee in Jaffa, but instead they had to be instructed to have coffee in Jaffa like an Arab. Yet this estrangement had unintended consequences. Growing up in a European-dominated country, the second-generation Arab Jews—classified as Mizrahi (‘Eastern’) by Zionist immigration authorities—fought to prove their Jewishness and Israeliness by differentiating themselves from the Palestinians. They did not acquire Arabic as a mother tongue; like the European Jews, they saw it as a foreign language, associated with low socio-economic status. Thus when the first generation began to retire from Military Intelligence in the late 1960s and early 70s, the shortage of Arabic speakers in the relevant departments became acute. (The ‘de-Arabization’ process has gone full circle: today Tel Aviv’s Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre offers a course in ‘spoken Jewish Iraqi’, which the third and fourth generations, secure in their Israeli status, can study as part of their ‘hybridized heritage’, without even mentioning the A-word.)

The second turning point in Mendel’s account comes with the shock of Israel’s near-defeat in the 1973 War, saved only by the us airlift. Intelligence failure was blamed for the fact that the idf had been caught off-guard. Golda Meir and her Defence Minister Moshe Dayan were forced to resign. The Agranat Commission established to investigate the debacle—some of its findings are still secret—held the top idf and intelligence chiefs responsible, and was harshly critical not only of Military Intelligence but also Mossad and the Research Department of the Foreign Ministry. (‘The Egyptian desk was run by an experienced woman’, confessed a top Foreign Office official. ‘But the Syrian and Iraqi desks were run by a person who, as far as I know, does not speak Arabic.’) The new Intelligence Chief, Shlomo Gazit, appointed in 1974, initiated a concerted effort to raise the level of Arabic-speaking recruits. A Military Intelligence ‘Unit for the Encouragement of Oriental Studies’, Telem, was set up within the Ministry of Education, and Arabic-language teachers were encouraged to report promising pupils. Lapid, the Military Intelligence general in charge of Telem, insisted the country needed 250 men every year with a good knowledge of Arabic—able to ‘understand in a few seconds what the enemy says’. At the same time, the paucity of language teachers was addressed by drafting female military-service conscripts into an idf-funded Soldier-Teacher programme: after an 8-month crash course, the young women were sent off to teach Arabic in schools in the process of ‘securitization’ of the education system. Importantly, for Mendel, these new initiatives came wrapped in an official ideology of ‘security and peace-seeking’. Gazit spelled this out in a 1976 foreword to a new textbook, Colloquial Eretz-Yisraeli Arabic: the language would not only be a ‘tool’ for eavesdroppers and interrogators, but would ‘lay the foundation for peace-making’, through the broadest possible ‘dialogue and discussion’.