New Israel Fund of Canada Panel Offers Inspiring Perspectives on Bilingualism as a Means to Equality

On November 18, 2012, I took part in a panel entitled How Can Bilingualism Be a Means to Equality? Perspectives from Israel and Canada. The panel was hosted by the New Israel Fund of Canada and held in conjunction with the release of an Equality Index that focuses on Arab-Jewish equality in Israel.

Mr. Ali Haider and Mr. Ron Gerlitz, Co-Executive Directors of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, flew from Israel to take part in this panel and discuss the findings of this Equality Index. The panel itself was also a great opportunity to delve into current issues relating to bilingualism in Israel and in Canada. I indeed pointed out a few examples relating to French-language rights in Ontario, such as the Ontario Court of Appeal Montfort Hospital Case decision in 2011 in regards to the role of institutions into the development and enhancement of the Francophone minority in Ontario.

As with Sri Lanka, Canada shows similarities with Israel as to official languages. Indeed, in Israel, Hebrew speaking citizens account for the majority of the population (as English speaking citizens do here in Canada), and Arabic speaking citizens are Israel’s largest minority (as French Canadians are in Canada). Moreover, as with French is in Canada, Arabic is recognized by law as an official language in Israel.

Today in Israel, the public space however contains almost exclusively Jewish-Zionist-Hebrew symbols, language, and culture; Arab language, symbols and culture being largely excluded. Sikkuy believes that the expression of Arab language and culture in the Israeli public sphere represents a fundamental human, social and legal right of the Arab citizens. This precisely translates into Sikkuy’s new Shared Public Space initiative which aims to increase the Arab citizens’ cultural, linguistic and symbolic presence and participation in the public space of Israel. Sikkuy says the outcomes of this project will lead to a more equitably shared public space and improved relations between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.

Founded in 1991 as a shared Jewish-Arab organization, Sikkuy seeks to achieve equality between the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel by mobilizing a transformation of the relations between the state and the Arab minority in Israel. Sikkuy seeks through its work and projects such as the Shared Public Space initiative to advance shared society, cooperation and equality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.

Sikkuy is jointly governed by Arab and Jewish co-chairs, managed by Arab and Jewish co-executive directors and staffed by Arabs and Jews. As to the New Israel Fund of Canada, which hosted the panel in Toronto, it funds and develops programs on-the-ground with a focus on civil and human rights, religious pluralism and economic and social equality.

I wish to thank Orit Sarfaty, Executive Director of the New Israel Fund of Canada, and all of her team members for giving me the opportunity to meet with Sikkuy’s Co-Executive Directors and discuss challenges Israel and Canada experience in their respective official languages settings. I must say the presentations of both Mr. Haider and Mr. Gerlitz were extremely interesting and highly inspiring. I was very impressed by the work done by Sikkuy. We can certainly learn from each other, even if circumstances are, literally, worlds apart. I truly hope to stay in touch with this organization.

I am honoured that my Office increasingly gets to share its expertise in the field of language rights with other highly committed international organizations.

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