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Shvili: The benefits of a bilingual Israel

Road sign in the Negev, Israel. (Wikimedia photo)

Canada and Israel are two very different countries, but they do share some significant similarities. Canada promotes itself as a multicultural country, and I would contend that Israel, while still being the Jewish state, is just as diverse as Canada.

Three-quarters of Israel’s population is Jewish, but the Jewish population of Israel is certainly not uniform in terms of culture and traditions. There are Ashkenazic Jews and Mizrachi Jews, with very distinct cultural, linguistic and religious traits.

There are even subcultures within the Ashkenazic and Mizrachi communities. A Jew from Russia and a Jew from Germany may share some traditions, but certainly not all and a Jew from Ethiopia will have traditions that are quite distinct from a Jew whose origins are in Iraq or Yemen.

The key difference between Israel and Canada is that the former is the construct of people returning to their ancestral land, while the latter is composed mostly of people whose origins are in other parts of the world. Both countries continue to wrestle with accommodating the rights of the different communities that live there.

And while Israel is light years ahead of any country in the Middle East when it comes to accommodating the rights of different ethnic, religious or linguistic groups, I believe there are some measures that Canada has taken to accommodate different groups of people that could –  and perhaps should  – be taken in Israel.

For example, both countries are officially bilingual but Canada has gone further in entrenching the equality of status for both official languages than Israel has.

Canada has a very comprehensive law dealing explicitly with the use of English and French, designating both as official languages and requiring that all federal services be available in both languages upon request.

Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms proclaims English and French as Canada’s official languages and states that they are equal in status. It also provides the right for both English and French speakers to be educated in their first language regardless of where in the country they live.


Israel provides many government services in Hebrew and Arabic, including in education. However, Arabic maintains an inferior status in Israel, both in theory and in practice.

For instance, only the Hebrew versions of laws drafted by the state are considered the authoritative versions. In addition, although education is provided by the state in Arabic at both the primary and secondary levels, the Arab education system in Israel is substantially inferior to its Jewish counterparts. Standardized test scores in Arabic language schools are significantly lower than those in Israel’s Jewish schools.

While Arab Israeli students are required to learn Hebrew, in most cases, Jewish Israelis are not required to learn Arabic. There is no university in Israel where the primary language of instruction is Arabic (although there are Arab colleges).

Making Israel officially bilingual to the extent that Canada is would have a number of advantages for the Jewish state and its citizens.

To begin, Israel’s Arab citizens would have a greater sense of inclusivity. Once they realize that Arabic is treated with the same respect as Hebrew, they will also realize that although Israel is a Jewish state it also strives to meet the needs of its non-Jewish citizens. Arab citizens who think of themselves as equal in Israel will be significantly less likely to engage in acts against the state.

On top of that, Jewish children around the country would begin studying Arabic in school, and in the process, learn to appreciate the language and culture of their Arab neighbours both within Israel and outside of it, thereby promoting peaceful coexistence.

There would also be tremendous economic benefits for Israel. A greater understanding of the Arabic language will make it easier for Israelis to do business with the Jewish state’s Arab neighbours. This is especially important now as the Arab states begin to realize that it is better to have Israel as a friend rather than a foe. Trade ties between Israel and the Arab states will grow, leading to new jobs and opportunities for all Israelis.

Israel would be wise to adopt Canada’s practices regarding official languages. That would mean a Basic Law on official languages, proclaiming Hebrew and Arabic as the official languages of the state and decreeing that both languages are equal in status. Such a law would establish an enforcement mechanism to ensure that Hebrew and Arabic are on equal footing in respect to delivering government services and educational opportunities.

Those who are opposed to putting Hebrew and Arabic on equal footing probably think that doing so would make Israel less of a Jewish state. But this is not true at all –  quite the opposite, in fact. Equality is a Jewish value. We are supposed to treat others as we would like to be treated, remembering the treatment that our ancestors received when they were enslaved in Egypt. Enacting official language laws and policies similar to those of Canada would make Israel more of a Jewish state, not less.