restricted access Orienting Language: Reflections on the Study of Arabic in the Yishuv
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Orienting Language:
Reflections on the Study of Arabic in the Yishuv

Pre-State Jewish Palestine, like other emerging national societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was beset by the anxieties of a people seeking to recover its voice. Language was among the most concrete focuses of its energy. Ultimately, Hebrew was crowned the singular language of Zionist discourse and the sole path to the elusive "Hebrew Spirit." But it achieved its cultural victory amid a constant awareness that the Zionist project was painting only a veneer of homogeneity over the Babel in which its adherents continued to dwell. Through the years between 1910 and 1920 and again in the 1930s German battled with Hebrew but failed to remain a language of high Zionist discourse and academic exchange. Yiddish, the language of Eastern European autonomists and some Zionists, was the mother tongue of most immigrant Zionists but was forcefully and publicly denounced as zhargon. The movement to promote Hebrew, though it slowly silenced other voices, could not evade them altogether. Indeed, in an environment where language was existentially significant, the diverse languages of the Yishuv pushed to the fore larger questions of cultural affiliation and national identity.

In this note I would like to discuss a rather neglected chapter in the story of the Yishuv: the study of Arabic. Some Zionist leaders shared a sense, often inchoate, that Arabic—the language of the Arab majority in Palestine and one with its own long and storied Jewish history—was an essential tool for their new society. "Learning Arabic is a part of Zionism," wrote the scholar Shlomo Dov Gotein in a 1946 pamphlet, "a part of the return to the Hebrew language and to the Semitic Orient, which today is completely Arabic-speaking. We desire that our children, when they go out into the world, be able to feel that they are children of the Orient and able to act within it, just as we aspire that they do not lose the precious inheritance of European spirituality that we have brought with us."1 Educators [End Page 481] and politicians, and not a small number of ordinary Jews, offered variations on this theme, requesting and instituting Arabic-language courses in as many as a third of the secondary schools and in the cities and kibbutzim of the Yishuv. In the process, however, they struggled to articulate a coherent rationale for this undertaking.

Teasing out the logic of Zionist Arabic study requires identifying the various coexisting sets of meanings that Jews in this setting imparted to the Arabic language. Arabic study was a highly charged pursuit, and any discussion of it revealed a complex web of symbolic associations and strategic assessments of the Yishuv's political condition. On one level, Arabic, as the spoken and written language of the modern Middle East, represented contemporary engagement with the Arabs of Palestine and a means of managing an increasingly tense political situation. But Arabic operated on a number of other historical planes as well. Indeed, Jewish interest in Arabic predated the European Jewish encounter with contemporary Palestine. It was, of course, the spoken and written language of medieval Jews in the Islamic world. But it also served as the source of intrigue for modern European Jewish scholars and laymen, for whom it signified cultural achievement and a model of successful integration.

The Yishuv's interest in learning and teaching Arabic had a dual aspect. On the one hand, language education was a strategic response to a set of largely unforeseen political tensions. At the same time, it was an organic product of a centuries-old Jewish engagement with the Orient that had reached a cultural and political crescendo with Zionism's call for a return to the East. Both claims, and their attendant implications for contemporary Jewish identity, inspired passionate discussions that cut across the major political and cultural organizations of the Yishuv.

The Yishuv's history of Arabic study must be located in a narrative about Jews and the Orient that reaches both backward in time and outward in space. Arabic, this narrative begins, had long been a Jewish tongue, and Islam a familiar cultural idiom. In the Middle...