Yalla coexistence!

Arabic to be introduced as a mandatory subject beginning in the fifth grade in some schools.

School children (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
School children
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
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.
Starting 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 Alon.
“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 too.”
As part of the project, the Education Ministry hired 50 new teachers from the Israeli Arab population to teach the classes in the Jewish schools.
“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 said.
“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 explained.
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 the leadership.
“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 orders.”
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.
“I 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 encounters.
“Politically it wasn’t easy for them, but they managed to push it through because they understood the importance of the cause,” he said.
Over the years, the program expanded, and in 2009 it was taught in 95 schools.
“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 Beeri-Sulitzeanu.
“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 Beeri-Sulitzeanu.
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.
“The 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 said.
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 the second national group,” she said.
On the other side of the political discourse, MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) said that the plan would enable Israelis to “finally understand well what MK Ahmed Tibi (UAL) and Zoabi say – not just in their niceties when they are speaking Hebrew, but also in their true 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 of values and heritage.”