The complex impact of closeness: Studying Arab adolescents in Israel

Michal Tannenbaum, Essa Rania

Tel Aviv University, Israel


This paper explores the relationship between language and identity in the Israeli conflictual context, focusing on the attitudes of Israeli-Arab adolescents to bilingualism (Arabic-Hebrew) and to the culture of the Israeli Jewish majority, and on its association with personal and collective identity. Whereas research has generally approached the ‘Arab’ community in Israel as one, the present study compares these dimensions in two groups of Arab adolescents—one living in a mixed city (Jewish-Arab) and one in a homogenous Arab town, which provide different models of interaction with the Jewish majority.

Each group included 86 participants from grades 10-12, who completed items in a 6-point Likert scale related to the use of Arabic and Hebrew; attitudes toward Arabic and Hebrew; sense of belonging to the majority and to the minority, and personal and group identity.

Results showed no differences between the groups with regard to Arabic use or attitudes toward Arabic, but participants in the mixed city reported using Hebrew more extensively, and having more positive attitudes toward it. Although both groups were positive toward the majority culture, both reported a low sense of belonging to the majority. Significant positive correlations also emerged between identity and linguistic aspects—a greater sense of belonging to the minority or majority cultures correlated with positive attitudes toward Arabic or Hebrew, respectively, and with greater use. The mixed city residents, however, reported a significantly higher sense of belonging to the minority group, a higher sense of Arab identity, and a significantly more frequent self-perception as ‘Palestinians’ and less as ‘Israelis’ when compared with their counterparts. Findings showed that adolescents from a mixed city, who are more extensively exposed to Hebrew and to Jewish culture, develop a stronger sense of ‘Arab’ identity, while adolescents from an Arab homogenous town use Hebrew less but have a lower sense of aversion toward it and a lower sense of Arab group identity.

The findings highlight the impact of the context of living variable in circumstances of a conflictual reality, posing interesting questions concerning the contribution of contact to the promotion of closeness. The group highly exposed to Jewish culture and language showed stronger aversion toward it, including the development of a stronger ‘minority identity,’ than the group living more ‘protectedly’ in a homogeneous setting, where they may feel more secure to develop their own identity. The discussion of the findings touches on their implications for the Israeli context specifically and for adolescents growing up in conflictual contexts in general.

- Amara, M. H. & Mar’i, A. (2002). Language education policy: The Arab minority in Israel. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
- Shohamy, E., & Donitsa-Schmidt, S. (1998). Jews vs. Arabs: Language attitudes and stereotypes (Research Rep. No. 9). Tel-Aviv: The Tammy Steinmetz Center for Peace Research.
- Smooha, S. (1992). Arabs and Jews in Israel, Vol 2. Boulder: Westview press.

Session: Paper session
Attitude 1
Friday, April 4, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 09