More Israelis are learning to speak Arabic than ever before

More Jewish Israelis are taking classes in spoken Arabic than ever before, both in formal and informal frameworks.

A page from Madrasa’s free online courses in Arabic for Hebrew speakers. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A page from Madrasa’s free online courses in Arabic for Hebrew speakers.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 Noa Katzover does not seem like the typical student of spoken Arabic. An organizational consultant, she lives in what she calls the City of David, and most call the Arab neighborhood of Silwan in east Jerusalem. Her family is one of about 100 Jewish families amid tens of thousands of Arab families.
“I live here for ideological reasons,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “I think there has to be a Jewish presence in east Jerusalem. This is the most ancient place in the state of Israel. King David established the Kingdom of Judah from here.”
She defines herself as a “hardline right-winger” while insisting that she still wants to live with her neighbors in peace. So once a week for the last three years, she has walked over to the Jerusalem Intercultural Center on nearby Mount Zion for a three-hour Arabic class. This year, of course, the class is on Zoom rather than in person.
“I live in a mixed neighborhood of Arabs and Jews and to have good neighborly relations, you need to know the language,” she says. 
Arabic is a difficult language and a challenge, she admits, but her neighbors appreciate her efforts.
“They laugh because of my mistakes,” she says. “In general, it is very calm here and there are a lot of people who have very good relations with their Arab neighbors.”
Noa Katzover at her home in Silwan. (Photo credit: Noa Katzover)Noa Katzover at her home in Silwan. (Photo credit: Noa Katzover)
Katzover is not alone. More Jewish Israelis are taking classes in spoken Arabic than ever before, both in formal and informal frameworks. One of the largest informal frameworks is Madrasa, a free online site which has 80,000 registered users and a wide social media presence. 
Gilad Sevitt, the founder and professional director of Madrasa, says that at least 250,000 people are exposed to the site’s materials every month. The Arabic is taught in transliteration, so there is no need to learn the Arabic letters. Each lesson is broken down into digestible videos, most four or five minutes long, including dialogues and explanations of grammar. There is no charge to register for the courses.
“After six years of learning Arabic in school and three years in the army in a job that entailed using the language, I couldn’t actually speak to anyone,” Sevitt tells The Jerusalem Report. “I decided I wanted to share my knowledge of Arabic as a means of communication.”
Sevitt was referring to one of the most frustrating characteristics of Arabic that every student of the language encounters. Arabic is not really one language, but a series of languages. There is classical Arabic, which is the language of the Quran, as well as modern Standard Arabic (fusha), which is the language of newspapers and radio broadcasts. Then there are a series of dialects of spoken Arabic (Amiya) including Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Egyptian, Iraqi, and Moroccan. 
While most native Arabic speakers will understand you if you speak in modern standard Arabic, they might laugh at you. It’s a little like using Biblical Hebrew to order a falafel. The dialects also differ, sometimes to a large extent. Many years ago, I spent a year living in Egypt and studying Egyptian Arabic. When I spoke in Egyptian Arabic in Jerusalem, people would burst out laughing, saying I sounded like an actor in the melodramatic Egyptian films that were once screened on Israel Television on Friday afternoons. 
Israeli schools, if they teach Arabic at all, teach Modern Standard Arabic. Students spend the better part of a year learning the alphabet and often finish without being able to speak to anyone. That lack of communication intensifies the separation between Jews and Arabs, says Gilad Sevitt of Madrasa.
“We don’t speak the language of 20 percent of Israel, and almost 40 percent of the people of Jerusalem,” he says, referring to the fact that a fifth of Israel’s nine million citizens are Arab. “This is not Chinese. It’s a language that is part of the Jewish tradition and Jewish experience. Almost half of Jewish in Israel originated in Arabic-speaking countries and a lot of our religious texts were written in Arabic. Arabic was a crucial part of the Jewish heritage.”
Sevitt says that Madrasa has helped make Arabic “cool”, and it is catching on among many young Israelis.
Some students of Arabic are going even further than just studying. Robby Berman, an American Israeli who has studied Arabic intensively for the past 10 years, has just released a book with more than 2,000 Arabic idioms he compiled called Min Taq Taq: A Collection of Arabic Idioms in the Palestinian Dialect. The title itself is an idiom. “Min taq taq lisalamu aleikum,” which literally means “from the knock at the door until we say goodbye,” meaning all the details from start to finish.
“I named my book that because I tried to put in all the idioms I could find and explain them as well as I could,” Berman says, arguing that idioms are one of the best ways to learn a language. “Like most creators, I invented something that I wanted for myself. I realized that idioms in any language are important if you want to speak fluently. I collected 1,000 idioms over many years.”
At his coronavirus-restricted book launch, live-streamed on Facebook from his home on Jerusalem’s Rehov Aza (Gaza Street) on January 21, Berman launched yellow balloons into the air with the title of the book, offering street viewers “free Arabic coffee and a chance to catch a free copy of the book.”
The idioms in the book are not proverbs which sometimes have a taint of Orientalism, and focus on camels and coffee, Berman says. Rather, they contain “cultural and language-specific words that are not meant to be understood in their literal form.”
As an example, he tells the story of when he first made aliyah and told an immigration clerk “At noheget li bananas,” meaning “You’re driving me crazy” in Hebrew. She, of course, didn’t understand the reference as there were no bananas in sight.
Berman says there has been a dramatic increase in Israelis studying spoken Arabic. He adds that his language study has also moved him to the left politically.
“There has been a breakout of private teachers, tutors, and an explosion of institutions that teach Arabic,” he says. “I find that the higher you go in Arabic, the more left-wing you become. The more you speak the language and are able to speak with Arabs, you realize that the situation is not black and white.”
The Jerusalem Intercultural Center, which runs the Arabic language center, has more than 200 students annually, although this year it is closer than 170, as some students said they didn’t want to learn on Zoom. 
The center’s director, Hagai Agmon Snir, says that the population studying Arabic at the center has changed significantly.
“Years ago we assumed that most people studying here were from the left,” he says. “Now we have as many people from the right and we even have a few settlers who learn with us.”
Snir says that there are sometimes political arguments in class, which is fine with him as long as the arguments take place in Arabic.
He says that the reason that most people study Arabic has also changed – a change he welcomes.
“Until ten years ago people learned Arabic because of ideology,” he says. “Now most people who learn it do it because they need the language either for work or volunteering. Arabic is hard, and that is a better motivation.”
Rabbi Elhanan Miller, who teaches Arabic and makes videos explaining Judaism in Arabic said he once taught an Arabic class in the Jewish settlement of Tekoa.
Rabbi Elhanan Miller’s site, People of the Book, explains Judaism in Arabic. (Photo credit: Elhanan Miller).Rabbi Elhanan Miller’s site, People of the Book, explains Judaism in Arabic. (Photo credit: Elhanan Miller).
“They were the most serious student’s I’ve ever had,” he says.
Miller started his project in 2017 after realizing that a large number of Arabs and Muslims are very curious about Judaism but do not have anyone to ask as there are almost no Jews left in the Arab world. 
“The breeding ground for hatred, extremism and violence is ignorance of the other,” he says. “Religion is a powerful humanizing vehicle especially in the Middle East where so many people are traditional.”
Miller says language is also a unifying force and he has seen a significant growth in the number of Israelis who want to learn Arabic.
“There is a large wave of interest especially among younger Israelis who suddenly come to realize that Israel is in the Middle East and is both surrounded with Arabic speakers and has Arabic speakers inside it,” he says. “I don’t think it happened in one day. It’s a social process, and is a maturing of Israel’s Jewish society.”
Perhaps ironically, the growing interest in Arabic comes as the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement are receding. It has also been a relatively quiet time in terms of terror attacks.
“There’s a sense that Arabic is less threatening, and the bite of Arabic may be less sharp,” Miller says. “It allows Israelis to relate to it as the language of the neighbors and not just the language of the enemy.”
For some students, it is specifically violent Palestinian attacks that pushed them to intensify their study of Arabic. 
Michal Shuster, who teaches community interpreting at Bar Ilan University, has always had many Arabic speaking students. She used Arabic during her army service, but hadn’t taken an Arabic class in many years.
But in 2015, when lone wolf Palestinians began attacking Israelis, she decided to start speaking more Arabic to friends and colleagues as a way to bridge the mutual fear that Arabs and Jews felt during that time.
“Palestinian friends said they were afraid to speak Arabic in the street,” she says. “My response was to start speaking Arabic with friends and colleagues, even if I make mistakes. I wanted to dome kind of trust-building measure using the language to connect. I decided to take the Arabic out of my head and I waited for the opportunity to start learning again.”
This year, with the classes of the Jerusalem Intercultural Center on Zoom, she joined an Arabic class. She said many Arabs are surprised when she approaches them or answers them in Arabic. She said there is an Arab restaurant in the Galilee that she often stops in. A few months ago, she said she was able to have a “real” conversation with them in Arabic, and the owners encouraged her to keep studying Arabic.
“It is such a shame that not many Jewish Israelis speak Arabic,” Shuster says. “It shouldn’t be so exceptional but it still is.”
Osher Seaton, a lawyer and activist, has been studying Arabic for five years, and runs a Hebrew-Arabic language exchange. When she moved from Modi’in to Jerusalem she heard much more Arabic in the bus, the park and the mall and she wanted to be able to speak with people. Seaton believes that language is also the best way to learn about Arab culture.
“There is so much to learn about Islam and Palestinian culture,” she says. “And Palestinian culture is different depending on whether you are from east Jerusalem, the Galilee, or Bedouin from the south.”
In one of Israel’s recent elections, Seaton says, she had a chance to practice her Arabic for a good cause. During the recent Israeli election, she volunteered to drive Bedouin women in southern Israel to the polls.
“They are dependent on their male family members to get driven places and they don’t always prioritize women getting to the polls,” she says. “The men wanted to interview me to make sure I was OK, and I was able to speak to them in Arabic.”
While there are a lot of places to learn basic Arabic, she says, there are not enough opportunities to learn advanced Arabic. In her language exchange, she observes, the Hebrew speakers want to talk about politics much more than the Arabic speakers do.
Almost 40 percent of Jerusalem residents are Palestinians, and many, especially the women, do not know Hebrew. As a result, there is a growing demand for both Hebrew and Arabic teachers in Jerusalem.
In addition, an increasing number of Israelis are learning Arabic so that they can speak to locals when they visit the United Arab Emirates, Dubai and Morocco, which all recently established relations with Israel, and host guests from those countries.
“I feel it is important to be able to speak with people in their own language rather than requiring them to speak my language,” Shuster says. “But I find practicing enough to be a real challenge.”■