Teaching Arabic in Israel : A Linguistic Challenge in Majority–Minority Relations

Throughout Israel’s history, Jewish and Arab children have, with few exceptions, attended separate schools, each conducted in the native language of its pupils. The Arab school system teaches children Arabic, English and Hebrew as mandatory subjects from elementary school through to matriculation, along with other Jewish national and cultural elements. The study of Arabic in the Jewish educational system is, however, minimal or non-existent. Despite the fact that Arabic is an official language in Israel and the native language of over one million of the state’s citizens, laws mandating its study are not enforced and the proportion of Jewish students who can actually speak it after graduating school is tiny.
Traditionally, the educational establishment has promoted the study of literary Arabic, despite the fact that it is used only in formal settings and does not allow everyday interpersonal communication. This approach was influenced by the security establishment and the academia. Over the years, it has contributed to the low demand for Arabic instruction as students found no use for Arabic in their daily lives. Jewish Israelis’ resulting lack of practical Arabic is a key factor in the stalemate of Jewish–Arab dialogue and perpetuates the lower status of the languageJewish-Arab dialogue and perpetuates the lower status of the language.

Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens comprise almost twenty per cent (1,413,500) of Israel’s population (7.1 million) and are Israel’s largest minority. Traditionally, Jews and Arabs have lived in separate communities, with the primary form of interaction being exchange of services. In recent years we have witnessed a growing phenomenon of Jewish–Arab mixed regions, increasing the complexity of Israel’s multiethnic and multicultural nature. The Galilee, for example, home to the majority of Israel’s Arab citizens, is today fifty per cent Jewish and fifty per cent Arab.

Exposure to the language outside of the classroom is known to be highly beneficial both to language learning and to changing negative attitudes towards the native speakers of the language. However, despite the fact that Jews and Arabs often live in close proximity and face similar challenges, this physical reality has not engendered cooperation or relations of trust. Friendly relations are only rarely established and the majority of Israel’s Jewish citizens identify Arabic with feelings of fear, mistrust and even alienation.

The Declaration of Independence guarantees ‘complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender’, yet Arab citizens continue to suffer discrimination in budget allocation, land use, planning, access to government services, employment opportunities and education. Israel’s Arabs’ significant under-representation in the civil service hinders the participation of Arabs in decision-making processes, hampers social change and inhibits the transformation of negative attitudes towards Israel’s Arab citizens. In 2003, the Orr State Commission of Inquiry acknowledged that the government’s handling of the Arab sector has been ‘neglectful and discriminatory’, yet the vast majority of its recommendations to address the insensitivity to the Arab population and unequal distribution of state resources has not been implemented.

Based on the Mandate legislation King’s Order-in-Council, Israel’s legal system defines Hebrew and Arabic as official languages of the state. Despite its status as an official language, and the fact that Arabic is the mother tongue of more than one million Israeli citizens, it has little presence in the public sphere. Attitudes toward the Arabic language and the Arab culture are influenced, in large part, by the contemporary aggressive and confrontational public discourse; 75% of Jewish Israelis report feeling disgust when they hear Arabic spoken, 31% feel hatred towards the Arabic language, 75% oppose living in the same building as Arabs and 56% support separation of Arabs and Jews in places of entertainment (Racism Survey 2007, ACRI Report 2007).

Through communication, culture and tradition, language binds those using it to a social and ethnic community. Because of the fundamental role of language in shaping identity and thought, learning a second language has far-reaching and important consequences for individuals and groups (Clement et al, 2001). It is clear that knowing the language of the other is essential for mutual understanding and the development of good intergroup relations. The need to reinforce the status of the Arabic language in Israel’s public-cultural sphere, therefore, cannot be overemphasised.

The education system has a key role in the process of shaping students’ attitudes and in promoting values of equality and tolerance. It is therefore essential that the Ministry of Education take active steps to promote the study of Arabic language and Arab culture.
In making these changes, educational authorities must be aware that students’ attitudes do not (as we might hope) become more positive merely by studying a foreign language. In fact, without teacher intervention, students become not more, but less positive about other languages and cultures after initial exposure to language study (Mantle-Bromley, 1995).

The teaching of Arabic language and culture must, therefore, be accompanied by education for coexistence. This will promote a society based on democratic principles that include equality, respect for human and civil rights as well as understanding and respecting the identity, views and culture of Palestinian fellow citizens. Together, these programmes can be highly effective in inculcating values of equality, tolerance, understanding and equal opportunity.

Arabic teaching in Israel has fluctuated throughout the modern period according to the ebb and flow of the priorities of the local residents and their relations with their Arab neighbours (Naiman, 1999). In the Ottoman period, spoken Arabic was popular as residents valued the ability to communicate with their Arab neighbours. During the British Mandate, as contact with the Arab population decreased significantly, Arabic was almost exclusively taught within a security framework. Following the establishment of the state, Arabic teaching continued to fall. At the start of the 1960s, in response to a significant drop in conscription-aged Arabic speakers, the army began to call for more Arabic teaching to fulfil their needs.

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The 1967 war led to a change as people began to hope for peace in the region. Spoken Arabic again became popular to facilitate greater contact with Arabs, to the extent that it was made compulsory in some primary schools. It was taught in transliteration, using Hebrew letters. From 1986, spoken Arabic was replaced by literary Arabic (also known as Modern Standard Arabic — MSA). The aim was to offer a solid foundation in Arabic language and grammar and to introduce the spoken language intensively in the later years.
Complaints that students could not communicate in Arabic, despite their studies, gained momentum, culminating in renewed efforts to teach spoken Arabic. One particular initiative to start teaching spoken Arabic at an early age began in the Tel Aviv – Jaffa area in 1996. By 1999 the programme had been implemented in 36 schools with 6,400 students. But, despite the obvious success of the spoken Arabic programme, the Ministry of Education mandated literary Arabic as the official curriculum.
Today, the law requires all pupils aged thirteen to sixteen in Jewish public schools to study three hours of Arabic per week. In practice, however, this requirement is implemented only in part. Many junior high schools do not teach Arabic or offer Arabic as an elective subject; in the Jewish public-religious educational system and the technological high schools, most schools do not teach Arabic at all.

Teaching Arabic in Israel presents unique challenges beyond those associated with teaching a second language. Firstly, the subject suffers from extremely low status; many parents and pupils regard it as a waste of time while others resent having to study ‘the language of the enemy’. Secondly, the diglossic nature of the language itself presents huge teaching challenges. Literary Arabic and spoken Arabic are very different languages, added to which there are many varied dialects. Teaching Arabic has required a unique, tailored approach and methodology to standardise the language for schoolchildren.

To date, the solution has been to start with literary Arabic, on the assumption that in the senior years students will be able to learn the spoken language. Unfortunately, so few students continue their studies into the senior years that the vast majority never have any exposure to the spoken language: of the 40,000 pupils aged thirteen to fourteen that study Arabic each year, only 8,400 continue to take the high school matriculation exam. Teaching spoken Arabic before literary Arabic is supported by research on children’s cognitive development, which suggests that learning the language orally first, bears greater resemblance to natural language learning and that developmentally, elementary school children are not capable of dealing with the difficulties of the literary language (Brosh, 1988). People now believe that an integrated approach, where both spoken and literary Arabic are taught with situation-specific considerations, should be introduced as early as possible. This enables children to communicate (students and parents agreed that communication was the most important language skill), while preventing students from feeling that they have to learn two entirely distinct languages in order to be proficient (Naiman, 1999).

In addition to these technical challenges, there is a lack of appropriate teachers; many of the Jewish Arabic teachers lack basic knowledge of oral expression (in both literary and spoken Arabic) and in Arab culture. The situation is compounded by a chronic shortage of resources, especially teaching hours.

There are two leading initiatives, which operate in full coordination with the Ministry of Education. ‘Ya Salaam’, a programme of The Abraham Fund’s ‘Language as a Cultural Bridge’ Initiative, is active in one hundred Israeli schools and caters to 10,000 students. The programme is implemented nationwide: in the Haifa district, northern and southern district, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and in several kibbutzim and agricultural communities around Israel. ‘Lets Talk’ is a project of Merchavim, the Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel, and operates in twenty-four schools in the central district of Tel Aviv. Four bilingual schools run by ‘Hand in Hand’ are attended by Jewish and Arab pupils who study together in both languages. The four schools are in Jerusalem, Kfar Qara, Misgav and Beersheba. Crucially, these initiatives include: elements of spoken and literary Arabic; the study of contemporary Arab culture; integration of Arab teachers into Jewish schools; and bilingual and multi-cultural study frameworks with an emphasis on aspects promoting coexistence and tolerance. Arab teachers are trained to lead class discussions on sensitive subjects and help children examine their own prejudices. Having an Arab teacher who is sympathetic and stimulating is an important first step in redressing negative stereotypes among Israeli schoolchildren. The modernised, lively curricula also involve music and theatre and have proved popular; positive responses by parents and school principals have increased demand for the programme in other schools. Ya Salaam also includes a web-based learning programme to encourage children to engage with the language at home.
Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive: most students acknowledged that learning Arabic was the first step towards improving relations between Jews and Arabs. As a result of their studies, many developed more positive views of Arabs in Israel and expressed a greater willingness to engage with Arab neighbours (Meltzer-Geva & Awade, 2007).

These findings, alongside the increasing demand for the programmes from schools and local authorities, demonstrate that cooperation with the Ministry of Education and local authorities is attainable and contributes to the further success of the programmes.

The education system has the power to affect social change. Exposing Jewish children to Arabic language and culture is a powerful and effective means to improve negative perceptions and increase the willingness for Jewish-Arab interaction. But until the government implements a programme of mandatory Arabic from elementary school across the whole of Israel and with the appropriate teacher training, the gap between Jews and Arabs will continue to expand.

The Abraham Fund Initiatives is a non-profit NGO working for an inclusive and just society for all of Israel’s citizens, Jewish and Arab.
For more information, visit www.abrahamfund.org.

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