From Morocco to Saudi Arabia, from Syria to Sudan, Israel lies in a region where Arabic is the dominant language. How is it possible then that the number of Arabic-speaking Jews in Israel remains so low, becoming lower and lower as Jewish immigration from Arab-speaking countries is becoming less prevalent?
The reluctance of Israelis to learn the Arabic language has various sources. These include the fact that the language is identified with our enemies, a situation which creates an aversion to the language. There is also a tendency in Israel to focus on subjects which are perceived as more practical, on sciences rather than languages. This tendency affects all of the social sciences and the humanities. Finally, there has also been longstanding neglect of this subject by the education establishment in Israel, and this has also contributed to the reluctance of Israelis to learn the language.
The learning of the Arabic language in Israel is important not only because of the basic need to understand the language of the nations among whom we live. There are other very important reasons that extend beyond the simple needs of communication.
We cannot continue ignoring the fact that we live in the Middle East. In order for Israel to integrate into this region, we must understand our neighbors’ culture and we must be able to communicate with them. We must understand their way of thinking and what motivates them. It is almost impossible to do so without understanding the language they speak.
Moreover, the future of our region depends on economic cooperation. After the various failed attempts at diplomatic solutions to the Middle East conflict, many are starting to understand that economic cooperation, and not the superficial signing of peace treaties, is the key to co-existence. Speaking a common language makes this economic cooperation possible.
By speaking Arabic, Israelis become accessible to the Arab world. Even if we have still not arrived at the age in which economic trade between the Arab states and Israel is significant, it is important for us to give the tools to the next generation so that when the time comes, we will be able to create economic ties with all the Arab nations interested in such ties.
Furthermore, there is no doubt that the knowledge of Arabic is also related to our security needs as a nation constantly attacked by Arabic-speaking enemies. The intelligence needs of Israel are clear and enabling Israelis to understand Arabic will make it easier to provide for these needs. More than that, just as we previously mentioned the importance of understanding the positive side of our neighbors’ culture, it is clear that we also need to have a deep understanding of the negative side of things as well. It is important for Israelis to understand the true motivation of their enemies, to understand their values and their way of thinking. This is possible only when we understand their language.
Unfortunately, in the past few decades, the Arabic language has lost its allure. If it was once thought to be prestigious to learn Arabic, today, people prefer to focus on other European languages, even if these languages have no practical application in Israel.
This reality has led several schools to completely close their Arabic-language offerings. Certain schools that do offer Arabic instruction do so at a very low level. The speed of instruction is incredibly slow and this makes these classes uninteresting and unchallenging to students.
This in turn pushes students away, and the vicious cycle continues.
Now is the time to change our approach to the Arabic language. The bill recently proposed in the Knesset, co-authored by Issawi Frej, Moshe Mizrahi and myself, proposes to make the learning of Arabic mandatory. This law would be a first step in the right direction.
However, this alone will not solve the problem.
This law needs to be the basis for a broader reform which will allow for a revamping of the material used in Arabic language instruction, making it more interesting and relevant to the Israeli student. This new material must include things which interest the student, including literature and poetry. By making the Arabic-language culture once again relevant to the Israeli student, Arabic language instruction will regain its prestige.
This change in policy, if implemented, will help Israel integrate better into the geographic area in which it is located. The direct access which language can provide to cultural, religious and historical attributes of other nations will give Israelis the ability to better understand their neighbors, the ability to collaborate with them economically and promote regional trade, as well as the ability to properly deal with their enemies instead of depending on false, utopian hope for an unreachable regional peace agreement.
The writer is the coalition chairman of Likud Beitenu. He served as the commander of the Arabic to Hebrew translation course in the IDF Intelligence Corps.