Language and citizenship in Israel

Elana Shohamy*, Tzahi Kanza

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


This article discusses citizenship policies in Israel within the context of language, ideology, and nationalism. According to the Law of Return, Jewish immigrants are entitled to be granted citizenship with no prior conditions; Arabs who were living in Palestine in 1948 (the time the state was founded) and their children are entitled to citizenship as well. All other groups, including Arabs who were not living in Israel in 1948, can obtain citizenship only in very rare cases. In these cases the law requires that they have "some knowledge of Hebrew," yet official tests are not used. In Israel, both Hebrew and Arabic are official languages but Hebrew has a preferred status by being the language that symbolizes the collective national identity of Israel as a Jewish sate. Although Hebrew is not required for citizenship, Jewish immigrants are faced with strong ideological pressure to acquire and use Hebrew in all domains of life. For Arabs, Arabic is used in Arab communities, at home, and as a medium of instruction in schools, but not at universities. Thus, while Israel does not implement "a language testing regime" for citizenship, knowledge of Hebrew plays a central role in implicit and covert ways and thus prevents full participation in civic life (Shohamy, 2006). By using the term "hollow citizenship" (Jamal, 2007), we demonstrate that in Israel there are different levels and types of citizenship. Thus, discrimination based on language is experienced by both Jews and Arabs despite their citizenship because language plays a crucial role in meaningful civic participation. Specifically, we show that for Arabs in Israel hollowness implies limited rights for entering and participating in higher education. Moreover, we claim that the hegemony of Hebrew in Israel is a gatekeeping device from societal participation to all linguistic minorities, including Jews, as the power of Hebrew as the single hegemonic language "hollows" the citizenship of various groups.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-88
Number of pages6
JournalLanguage Assessment Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2009


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