“You are in the Knesset! You need to speak Hebrew!”, shouted Likud MK David Amsalem
According to Wikipedia, the first known instance of derogatory use of the phrase “speak white” against French-speaking Canadians occurred on October 12th, 1889, when Henri Bourassa was booed by English-speaking members of the parliament. They shouted “Speak White!” during debates in the Canadian House of Commons on Canada’s engagement in the Second Boer War.
Some historians contest the specific reference, but whether or not “speak white” was actually used as frequently as alleged, there is no doubt that for many years English Canadians felt that Quebecers should accept their second class status. Quebecers, Acadians and Franco-Ontarians certainly felt its sting. The pain and anger were captured in a famous poem “Speak White by Québécoise Michèle Lalonde.”
While the use of English and French had been formally recognized in our Parliament since 1867, it was not until 1959 that simultaneous translation was provided. Prior to that, Francophone MPs had the right to be heard, but not to be understood. And it was another ten years before Canada finally passed its Official Languages Act. After years of struggle, French speaking Canadians finally won the right to use their own language in the federal sphere. It wasn’t an easy struggle, but their right to do so is now law.
In the Israeli parliament – translation for whom?
Twenty percent of Israelis are Palestinian Arabs for whom Arabic is the mother tongue (approximately the same percentage as those who have French as a first language in Canada.) But in terms of recognition of linguistic rights for its Palestinian Arab minority, Israel seems to be back where Canada was in 1889.
During a visit to the Knesset (Israel’s parliament ) in 2016, I asked our young Israeli guide whether translation was provided for parliamentarians in the Knesset, thinking of the simultaneous translation in the Canadian parliament.
Her answer stunned me. “Yes“, she smiled, “Whenever foreign visitors speak to our Knesset we provide translation into Hebrew.” The notion of providing translation facilities so debates could be carried on in both Hebrew and Arabic, which at the time were both OFFICIAL languages of Israel, apparently did not occur to her.
When I pressed further, I was told that Arab speakers had the right by law to speak in Arabic in the Knesset, but “they don’t do so because nobody will understand them.”
Palestinian citizens of Israel stripped of their linguistic rights
But it seems that linguistic rights for the Palestinian citizens of Israel has gone further BACKWARDS since that visit. With the passage of the “Nation State Law” in 2018, Arabic lost its status as an official language. Today Hebrew is Israel’s only OFFICIAL language. Use of Arabic is no longer a right in the Knesset and has apparently become a cause for racist derision.
When MK Mansour Abbas, head of the Ram party, dared to speak in Arabic a few days ago he was ridiculed by Likud members.
“An Arab lawmaker speaks his language Arabic and the right loses its mind!!” reported the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “Shall I bring you baklawa and coffee? Knesset of Israel, what have we come to?” Amsalem asked, turning red in the face. “You are in the Knesset! You need to speak Hebrew!”
Other Likud members of Knesset piled on. “Disgraceful!” tweeted MK Miri Regev a former spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Forces. “This morning in the Knesset of Israel, (…) a speech in Arabic. Shameful.”
The racist uproar even made it to Israeli television. “There is no need for me to learn Arabic because Hebrew is the language of the Knesset“, fumed Naveh Dromi on Israel’s Channel 14 television.
A Jewish and democratic state?
Israel likes to claim that it is a “Jewish and Democratic State”, and points to the fact that all Israeli citizens, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, have the right to vote and to be elected to the Knesset. However, when Palestinian citizens of Israel are elected to that body, they find they are still second class citizens.
“The fight for French language rights in Canada was long and painful,” notes Richard Nadeau, former Member of Parliament for the Bloc québécois. “But today the right to use the French language in Parliament is inscribed in law. There is no going back.”
“Even Stephen Harper learned to speak pretty decent French“, noted Nadeau. “I’m sure Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennet could learn Arabic if he put his mind to it.”
Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.
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