Language Out of Place

Orientalism, Intelligence and Arabic in Israel


Yonatan Mendel

Publisher Van Leer Institute Press and Hakibbutz Hameuchad
Language Hebrew
Year of Publication 2020
Series Theory in Context Series

Of all the spoken languages, Arabic is the closest one to Hebrew. It is the language of the Middle East, the language of the Palestinians in Israel, and the language of the cultural heritage of nearly half the Jews in the country. Moreover, Arabic was an official language in Israel for seven decades, and it is a compulsory subject in school. Nevertheless, Jews in Israel are totally ignorant of everything related to Arabic: Most do not understand or speak the language and they are unable to read or write it. The language of the region has been replaced by Israeli Arabic, a sociolect for Jews only, which expresses the security distance kept between those who study Arabic (that is, Jewish society in Israel) and the Arab world. How did this anomalous situation come about?

Language Out of Place: Orientalism, Intelligence and Arabic in Israel is devoted to an examination of this question. It traces the development of the teaching of Arabic in Israel over the past century and considers its underlying rationale. The book exposes two axes around which Arabic studies in Israel were shaped: The first is the philological approach to teaching the language, imported by Jewish Orientalists from Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, and the second is the intelligence context, an outgrowth of the Israeli–Arab conflict, in which civilian–defense networks were formed in the field of Arabic teaching. This is the first book that analyzes the social and political history of Arabic teaching in Israel, exploring its dialectic—movement between the discourse on peace and the discourse of security—and showing how the two seemingly contradictory types of discourse complement each other in a vicious cycle. Thus, as the book describes it, a situation is created in which Arabic studies in Israel, instead of bringing Arabic speakers closer to each other contribute to distancing them from each other.

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