Arabic Language among Jews in Israel and the New Mizrahi Zionism: Between Active Knowledge and Performance
According to Command of Arabic among Israeli Jews, a report by Shenhav et al. (2015), the vast majority of the Jews in Israel neither speak nor understand the Arabic language. Proficiency in Arabic has declined dramatically with succeeding generations. While slightly more than half of the participants in the study believe that knowledge of Arabic is important, the majority of the participants also stated that its importance is security related. This bleak picture of Arabic as a vanishing language among Israeli Jews is related to the protracted ethnonational conflict, which has divided “Jews” from “Arabs.” This is in contrast to the recently expanding number of Jewish Israeli musicians, mostly of the third generation (the grandchildren) of migrants from Arab countries, who sing in Arabic and receive wide local and international exposure. In this article I examine the discrepancy between the low rates of proficiency and interest in the Arabic language and the growing number of singers and audiences in Israel who appreciate music sung in Arabic. I first summarize the findings of the report. I then examine Jewish Israeli musicians who perform in Arabic, focusing on Neta Elkayam and Ziv Yehezkel, to consider the possibilities of a cultural dialogue between Israeli musicians and local Palestinian, as well as regional, Arab audiences. I discuss the political significance of these performances, both in the context of Mizrahi identity among the third generation and in relation to local and regional Arab audiences. In the last section, I tie these musical performances to the policy of the right-wing government in Israel and the rise of a new Mizrahi Zionist discourse in relation to the Arabic language and culture. Finally, I point to the possible negative consequences of this cultural shift for Palestinians.