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  • Hebraizing the Arab-Israeli: Language and Identity in Ayman Sikseck’s To Jaffa and Sayed Kashua’s Second Person Singular
  • Rachel S. Harris (bio)

Hebrew unified Jews from disparate countries and ethnic backgrounds as part of Israel’s nation-building process; consequently, linguistic mastery of the Jewish language served as the sine qua non of social mobility. Arab citizens living within the new state were caught in this wide net; knowing Hebrew and becoming familiar with secular Jewish Israeli culture was a precondition for advancement and integration.1 In time, Arab writers, such as Emile Habiby, would write in Hebrew, which like Jewish writers in Israel who continued to write in their mother-tongue Arabic, confronts what Lital Levy has described as the conventional binaries of Israel: “Hebrew Arabic, Arab and Jew.” By disrupting these traditional dichotomies, writers “engage translation inside their texts as a creative alternative to barking, as a mode of resistance to the authority that has displaced them from their pasts and their homes.”2 This binary division has traditionally assumed that Arab means Palestinian, and is separate from Israeli, which implies Jewish; but two young writers, the prolific and widely known Sayed Kashua, and the first-time novelist Ayman Sikseck, offer a new hybrid identity in which the Arab-Israeli (non-Jewish Arab citizens of Israel) casts off the polar division the two options represent, and instead these writers present a third path.3 Rejecting the isolated position of the Arab within Israel, and arguing his increasing assimilation in the twenty-first century through mastery of language, integration within the education system, changing social values and economic status, as well as a radical reformulation of political values, the hybrid identity offers ways in which a generation of Arabs coming of age within Israel have staked out a cultural and intellectual space that confounds previous categorizations.

The history of Arab writers using Hebrew has been viewed within a framework of post-colonial criticism in which writing in Hebrew is deemed an act of protest. Arab-Israeli writers are considered to produce minor literature: literature by a minority in the language of a majority. This position assumes, as Hanan Hever has shown in his study of Anton Shammas’s novel Arabesques, that Arab-Israeli authors de-familiarize and de-territorialize Hebrew by separating it from its Jewish identity while simultaneously opening up space within Hebrew for the Arab-Israeli.4 Writers such as Shammas and Habiby satisfy the criteria of writing minor literature that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari [End Page 35] consider an act of dissent by the colonised protesting against established hierarchies of power.5 Arab-Israeli writers, moving between Hebrew and Arabic in poetry, prose, political writing, and journalism have established Hebrew as a space of “otherness,” creating a distance in representations of self.6 In an Israeli context, Hever has argued that Arab minor literature, in Hebrew, “invades and subverts the majority culture,”7 whereby Arab writers, as Lawrence Silberstein elucidates, “problematize and subvert the dominant Zionist/Israeli conception of Hebrew literature as Jewish literature and Israeli culture as Jewish culture.”8

In inscribing the Arab’s story in Hebrew, Arab-Israeli writers have called attention to identities that remain separated within the otherwise Jewish social space. Nonetheless, writing in Hebrew is not only a political act against the Jewish/Zionist elements of Israeli culture, as Hever and Levy claim. It can also, as Yael Feldman contends in discussion of Arabseques, release the Arab-Israeli from the constraints and taboos of his own Arab language and culture: “[F]or Shammas the Hebrew language has become the language of liberation that set free the forbidden story of an internal Arab conflict.”9 Scholars view the dichotomy of Arab-Hebrew writing from multiple perspectives. Rachel Feldhay-Brenner has claimed that an Israeli Arab uses Hebrew as a “relational act that accepts the status of second class citizens and appeals against it at the same time,”10 and Hever has described the use of Hebrew by Arab writers as an “Achilles’ heel,” attacking Hebrew culture from within. Catherine Rottenberg, who argues in reference to the writing of Sayed Kashua that the Arab subject is not a “free...


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