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Gaelic, Arabic and the decolonisation of Ireland & Palestine

From Ireland to historic Palestine, recognising native languages is a crucial step for decolonisation
6 min read

Lisa Hanania

06 December, 2021
Embracing Gaelic and Arabic as formal languages, and allowing them and the cultures attached to them real space within Northern Ireland and Israel, is a crucial step to further decolonisation and ensure sustainable peace, writes Lisa Hanania.  
Pro-Palestinian protesters seen on O'Connell Street, Dublin, during a 'Rally for Palestine' protest. On Saturday, 22 May 2021, in Dublin, Ireland. [Getty]

A sign I bought in Belfast hangs on a wall in my apartment in Jaffa, alongside numerous Palestinian arts and crafts. In Gaelic - the Irish language - it reads:" Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin", which translates in English to "home sweet home".

I made an active political decision to devote a special space to this Irish sign because we share a similar struggle: the fight to recognise the native languages of the land.

When I visited Belfast, Northern Ireland, organised by the co-director of IPCRI, Liel Maghen, in October 2021, I found a core issue yet to be resolved: Gaelic, the Irish language, is still not formally recognised and given the status it deserves. Similarly, where I live, Arabic – my mother tongue, and the mother tongue of the native Palestinians who live in Israel –  has yet to receive its historic and formal status. Legally recognizing these languages and giving them back their natural place in their respective countries is a critical step for decolonisation and one step to fulfilling the self-determination of the Palestinians in historical Palestine and the Irish in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreements, signed in 1998 and ended most of the violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, recognised a need for "linguistic diversity" and emphasises the notion that the Irish language, as well as the Ulster-Scots language, are "part of the cultural wealth of the Island of Ireland."

More than 23 years later after the peace agreements, Northern Ireland is still unable to pass the Irish Language Act, a legislation that would give Irish an equal status to English. Political disagreement over this legislation has been a major obstacle in preventing the Northern Ireland Executive from forming from 2017 until 2020.

While I have heard many reasons as to why it is not "a good time" to pass this law, the real catalyst behind the resistance is fear: fear of losing hegemony and power that comes with the exclusivity of knowledge and culture. Making Irish a formal language and equal in status in Northern Ireland means that the English language, and thus in extension English colonization, no longer enjoys exclusive cultural power.

It has been over two decades since the peace agreements, formalising the Irish language would further advance the status of peace preservation and ensure decolonization. Yet, the effort for recognition still languishes in Northern Ireland. 

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Arabic, on the other hand, is even further away from recognition, and despite the trendiness of the language, it continues to live within the power structures that exist between Israelis and Palestinians as conflict continues to divide both communities. 

As part of an ongoing radicalization in Israeli society with more extreme right-wing parties gaining seats in the Israeli knesset, a Basic law was passed in 2018 which defined "Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish people" thereby giving Jews a formal special status in the re-defined Jewish state, and specified Hebrew as the official language of Israel. Arabic, the native language of 20 percent of Israel's population, the Palestinian Arab citizens, was now demoted from the 'semi-formal' status based on laws from the Mandatory Palestine era.

Arabic triggers fear and hatred amongst many Israelis because it is, foremost, the language of the "Palestinian enemy." Despite Arabic being the mother tongue of 20 per cent of Palestine 1948's population, the language is not formally taught in Jewish schools across the country. Schools that do teach Arabic often teach military jargon alongside it, in order to serve these students when they later become soldiers in the Israeli army, therefore preserving the occupation of the West Bank and the siege on Gaza. With this mentality, Israelis strip away Arabic from its beauty, richness, and vibrancy, and instead transform the language into a tool of war.

In recent years, particularly following the normalization agreement between Gulf countries and Israel, Arabic has gained a new desensitised status amongst Israeli Jews, despite the formal changes in the law. Arabic words and names have increasingly infiltrated the Hebrew language such as in restaurants and bars in Tel Aviv boasting Arabic names and food on their menus, while the owners are Jewish Israeli. Demand for Arabic classes amongst Jews are increasing in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and the various Israeli army radio stations play music of the famous Lebanese singer Fairouz and others during popular shows.

Through a non-political lens, this shift could be considered to be positive. However, in fact, this language continues to function within power structures that exist between Israelis and Palestinians. There is an almost deliberate attempt to disconnect the “Palestinian-ness” from the Arabic language in Israeli society, something Israelis have done before with the cultural appropriation of Palestinian culture.

Treated in this atomised way, divorced from its cultural meaning and people, Arabic is on the verge of now becoming the new "Israeli Falafel."

In East Belfast, an initiative started by a prominent language rights activist, Linda Ervine, to teach Irish to Protestants has been extremely successful, and now an all-Irish speaking kindergarten is being proposed to open. While her journey has not been easy, and she has faced much opposition, what Ervine has done in East Belfast is revolutionary – she almost single-handedly helped jumpstart a process to ease tensions around the Irish language. She is doing so by asking people to embrace the Irish language as part of a shared history and identity of the various people in Northern Ireland, no matter what "side" they were or are on.

Gaelic and Arabic have travelled different paths in the process of seeking recognition as the native languages of the land. While Northern Ireland has become more aware and active in the process of depoliticising and decolonising Irishness and the Irish language; in historical Palestine, Arabic is still either used as a tool of war or practised along with a colonial desensitised context. 

Without embracing these languages as formal languages, and allowing them and the cultures attached to them their real and true space in society, we will never be able to create equality, which is the only basis for sustainable peace. 

Lisa Hanania, Palestinian from the city of Jaffa, is the founder and manager of the largest online community in the city "Secret Jaffa - مفتاح يافا". 

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