This September, for the first time in Israel’s history, children as young as 11
and 12 will be learning Arabic as part of their core curriculum.
next week, when the new school year begins, all fifth- and sixth-grade students
in the northern district will have to attend two weekly hours of Arabic language
and culture studies. In the Haifa district, Arabic studies will be mandatory in
all state schools, but not for those who attend schools belonging to the
national religious stream.
Despite being Israel’s second official
language, Arabic has not been taught in elementary schools up until now. Unlike
English, which is taught as early as grade four, Arabic was only studied for
three years in junior high school, after which students could decide whether
they wished to continue studying it as an elective.
Dr. Shlomo Alon,
supervisor of Arabic studies in the Education Ministry, explained that the
reasoning behind the decision was rooted in the ministry’s understanding that
knowledge of the Arabic language was vital for people who wished to live in the
region in coexistence with Arab neighbors.
“There is an understanding
that we live in a country with two official languages,” said Alon. “Knowledge of
the Arabic language and of Arab customs will enable more familiarity between
Jews and Arabs.”
Alon said the ministry had decided to start the project
in the northern district because it is a region where there is a mixed
population of Arabs and Jews.
“We are talking about 170 elementary
schools where Arabic will be a mandatory subject. In other places, like Haifa,
it is only partially mandatory, for students who attend state schools, and in
other places it is a program that we are offering as an elective,” said
“We are doing this at a great expense,” he added. “We’re talking
about hundreds of instructional hours, which cost millions of shekels. The
rationale is that the program will expand in future years to other places
As part of the project, the Education Ministry hired 50 new
teachers from the Israeli Arab population to teach the classes in the Jewish
“This offers two major benefits. Firstly, it provides jobs for
Arab teachers. The Arab school system is overflowing with teachers, and this
helps ease the pressure. And secondly, we believe that by introducing teachers
who come from the Arab community into Jewish schools, it will help bridge the
gap between the people, said Alon.
“When an Arab teacher becomes part of
the school and by extension part of the community, it helps to show that the
differences are not as great as we may believe and that the commonalities are
greater than the differences,” he continued.
“We in Israel are the
largest test case of teaching Arabic as a second language anywhere in the world.
In all of the United States, there are maybe 300 Arabic teachers. We in Israel
have thousands. Our curricula and textbooks are studied worldwide,” he
“What we teach the students in elementary school is communicative
Arabic. In the past we taught literary Arabic, but we realized that it was
better to give the young students the tools to communicate,” he
When asked if there was any resistance to the new curriculum
on the part of school administrators or parents, Alon said it all depended on
“If the mayors, the principals or the parents know Arabs
or speak the language, it reflects on the whole community,” he said. “There have
been cases where people objected, but the fact is, they have no
choice. The schools have to follow the instructions that the ministry
Minority Affairs Minister Avishai Braverman congratulated the
Education Ministry on the move.
“I think it should be adopted
nationwide. Every young person who lives in Israel should know how to
communicate in Arabic. I myself am learning Arabic now and can only regret that
I didn’t choose to study it when I was in school,” he said.
“In order to
reach true equality and true partnership in Israel, Jews need to study Arabic,
just like the Arabs study Hebrew. One of the problems in the country is that the
people from the Jewish population simply don’t know Arabs, and because they
don’t know them, many fear and distrust them,” said Braverman.
encourage as much coexistence as possible and think that every Arab teacher who
enters a Jewish school is a blessing,” he added.
Another supporter of the
project is Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu, director- general of the Abraham Fund. For
the last six years, the Abraham Fund has been introducing Arabic language and
culture education programs in elementary schools. Beeri-Sulitzeanu said that the
program, called Ya Salaam, was first introduced as a voluntary enrichment
program in Haifa and Karmiel, where they received the full support of the
cities’ mayors to offer a program of formal education alongside Arab-Jewish
“Politically it wasn’t easy for them, but they managed to
push it through because they understood the importance of the cause,” he
Over the years, the program expanded, and in 2009 it was taught in
“All along we have said that it is not our role to teach the
students, but we wanted to make a case to the Education Ministry out of hope
that they would see and understand the program’s values,” said
“For us it was vital that the teachers be
Arabs. We think there is enormous value in the Jewish students meeting
young, charismatic and dynamic Arabs who can serve as role models and
ambassadors of the Arab population. We hope that once they enter the schools,
they will remain there, and we look forward to the day when they become homeroom
teachers and part of the regular educational staff,” said
He expressed hope that once it proved successful in the
North, the program would spread to the rest of the country.
When asked if
the Abraham Fund also introduced Jewish content to Arab schools,
Beeri-Sulitzeanu said that this year for the first time, the fund was initiating
programs for the study of modern Israeli culture in Arab schools.
programs look at things like current Israeli theater, cinema and music in hopes
that it will lead to a better understanding of Israeli life and society,” he
The program was even lauded in the Knesset. In a rare moment of
shared interests, the extreme ends of the Knesset spectrum were united in their
support for the initiative.
MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) said that the plan
was “the obvious policy that should have been adopted 50 years ago, as Arabic is
an official language of Israel and the issue is not simply a recognition of the
language, but of a national identity.
“The population of Israel will
learn the Arabic language, which is part of recognizing the existence of
second national group,” she said.
On the other side of the political
discourse, MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) said that the plan would
Israelis to “finally understand well what MK Ahmed Tibi (UAL) and Zoabi
not just in their niceties when they are speaking Hebrew, but also in
language. That way we will know our enemies better.”
He did, however,
warn that the plan should not come at the expense of teaching “the world
values and heritage.”