IDF reaches out to Arab combat soldiers with Hebrew literacy, military values

Nine IDF Arab combat soldiers - the majority of whom are Beduin - are immersed in a three-month Hebrew literacy and education program.

IDF soldiers gaza 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
IDF soldiers gaza 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
IDF Cpl. Shulamit Ferber stands at the whiteboard where she has scrawled three Hebrew letters and their vowels. "GE-SH-ER," she says, holding up a different finger as she carefully sounds out each syllable of the Hebrew word that means "bridge" with her students. "Gesher." Three tall Beduin soldiers, distracted by unfamiliar visitors in the classroom, are trying to focus and keep up as they crack jokes in Arabic among themselves. "The next word is 'MA-GEN,'" she says in Hebrew as she begins to write the word on the board. "Ani ma-gen al hamedina." (I protect the country.) Today, nine IDF Arab combat soldiers - the majority of whom are Beduin from throughout the country - are immersed in a three-month Hebrew literacy and education program, which the IDF has been running since the early 1990s. The program, which improves their Hebrew literacy and accounting skills, is designed to help the soldiers integrate better into Israeli society, as well as the army, while introducing them to military values, norms and ethos. The soldiers in the program belong to the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion, a predominantly Beduin infantry combat unit based near the Kerem Shalom crossing which specializes in combat near the Gaza border. Last year, the unit made headlines when it successfully thwarted a complex Hamas operation at Kerem Shalom during Pessah. While most of the students that join the program already speak Hebrew well, some arrive without being able to read or write their own names. Others want to enhance the basic literacy skills they already have. "For many of these soldiers, it's a second chance at school," said Nivi Lahavi, one of the program's instructors. For Beduin and other Arabs for which military service is voluntary rather than mandatory, better integration into Israeli society could lead to longer and more advanced military service. One student, who arrived completely illiterate in Hebrew, successfully entered a commander's course with the aid of skills he learned in the program. "Our job is everything related to teaching Hebrew and helping them advance, whether in the language or in general knowledge," said Sec.-Lt. Ella Hayat, who is in charge of the soldier's education at the Amitai military base where the courses are conducted. To be in a commander's course, "you need cultural knowledge about, for example, Israeli wars or Judaism and this is difficult. There are a lot of guys that want to be commanders, and it's not fair, that because of this gap, they wouldn't do it." The instructors admit that the intensive language and education program - which lasts from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. - isn't suitable for everyone. Nearly two months ago, 11 students started the current course but two have since dropped out. "It's only for those who are serious," Hayat said. In one instance, a soldier went home instead of reporting for duty one Saturday and was dismissed. Another tried to steal ammunition from the base. Some have familial obligations that complicate an intensive course of study. Some who enter the program haven't been in a classroom for years, while others have very limited schooling. Meanwhile, the IDF is in the midst of developing a Hebrew literacy program that would reach Beduin students in the 11th and 12th grades - to give them a head start in improving their language skills even before they voluntarily enlist, one military source told The Jerusalem Post. The hundreds of Beduin that are serving in voluntary IDF service usually see it as a ticket to better employment within Israeli society, increasing their chances be to serve in the police force or securing a job with a government ministry, recruiters say. It is also a way to secure benefits, such as a plot of land at a reduced rate on which to build a home. But recruitment within the Beduin sector has become more difficult since last December, when Israel launched its three-week military operation against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip - since some feel that the IDF used excessive force vis-a-vis Palestinian citizens there, a volunteer Beduin military recruiter told the Post Thursday, asking that he only be identified by his first name Mohammed. But "I don't accept that people will boycott the army because of what happened in Gaza," he added. "They need to be in the army and influence the IDF commanders to prevent the same thing from happening." In addition, demolition of illegal houses - particularly in unrecognized villages - and restrictive agricultural policies have also influenced the level of recruitment in recent years, he said. But for participants of the literacy program and their teachers, the pride in their service - and particularly in their Hebrew progress - is clear. "Before I couldn't read very well. Now, I can read well," said Tariq, 21, from a village near Acre, who requested that his last name not be used for unspecified reasons. He described himself as an ideal student for the program. "They want someone for this course who is good who doesn't make any problems," he said, as an army spokeswoman looked on and took careful notes. "This is my country and I want to advance," he said, adding that he would like to continue in the military "his whole life." "I live in our country and we must help our country," he added. His uncle, who will be released next year, served as a tracker during his 20 years of military service. Tariq hopes to follow in his footsteps. "My entire family did tracking. It's an honor," he said. Tariq said while some in his community "talk behind your back," he has never personally heard any opposition to his military service. "If I did, I would tear him apart," he said.