(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Eleven MKs from across the political spectrum - Jews and Arabs alike - voiced support for the establishment of an Arabic language academy in a meeting of the Knesset Education Committee on Wednesday. There was no opposition on the panel.
The proposal is sponsored by the Citizens' Accord Forum between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
Israel has two official languages - Hebrew and Arabic. However, Arabic receives considerably less support. The Hebrew Language Academy's 2005 budget comprised NIS 5,538,000 from the Education Ministry and NIS 1,340,500 from private contributions. Academies for the preservation of Yiddish and Ladino also receive state funding.
Three years ago, the Or Commission examining the October 2000 riots recommended that the state find ways to allow Arab citizens to express their identity and culture in public life.
Dr. Yitzhak Reiter of the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told the Education Committee that an Arabic language academy would play an important role in Jewish-Arab relations.
"This has important political significance. Following the events of October 2000 and in light of the Or Commission Report that recommended the authorities find ways to enable the Arab minority to express itself, the establishment of an Arabic language academy would provide the Arab minority with more space in the public sphere."
Dr. Muhammad Ghanem, head of the department of Islamic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said, "Today, there are many Arab citizens who are unable to write a letter in Arabic because they haven't mastered their language. An Arab student finishing 12th grade has no connection with the Arabic language.
"Academies like this exist in every other Arab state. However in Israel, despite the fact that Arabic is an official language, there is no Arabic language academy. Although there are Arabic language and literature departments at the universities, an academy like this would publicize the richness of the Arabic language, help it flourish, and contribute to research in the field."
Ibrahim Abu Shindi, co-director of the Citizens' Accord Forum, said, "Israel often thinks it is located in Europe and forgets that it belongs to the Middle East. The establishment of an Arabic language academy would be the first time since 1948 that the State of Israel formally recognizes Arabic as an official language of the state."
Dr. Yosef Ofer of the Hebrew Language Academy welcomed the proposal and said there would be opportunities for joint cooperation between the two academies.
However, MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) said, "The establishment of the [Arabic language] academy is a very small step. The attitude toward the study of Arabic in Israel is always in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is no point establishing a symbolic academy. We must give it real authority, so it won't just be seen as being equal, but so it actually will be equal."
Knesset Speaker Collette Avital (Labor) said the Education Ministry needed to strengthen Arabic instruction in both the Jewish and Arab sectors.
MK Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad), the chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, also welcomed the support for an academy. "It would act as a cultural bridge between the different populations in the State of Israel, and for relations between Israel and neighboring countries."
The Citizens' Accord Forum said an academy would focus on the dialect, culture and folklore of Arab citizens of Israel, and address issues facing the younger generation who have grown up in a bilingual environment that has led to a simplified, hybrid version of Arabic. Arab students often experience difficulties reading literary texts in their mother tongue and matriculation pass rates for Arabic are very low.
The proposal also received support from representatives of Kadima, Israel Beiteinu and Hadash.