An elementary project?

A new initiative aims to bridge the Hebrew-Arabic language gap in Israel’s schools.

Elementary school 521 (photo credit: Sherihan Abdel-Rahman)
Elementary school 521
(photo credit: Sherihan Abdel-Rahman)
An old quip says Britain and America are two countries separated by a common language. Israel is a single, minuscule country, but one starkly divided by its two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic.
Language as a Cultural Bridge is a six-year-old grassroots education program designed to connect members of Israel’s two largest ethnolinguistic communities that would otherwise barely interact, if at all. And it aims to reach them young.
The initiative was developed by the Abraham Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Jewish-Arab integration and equality in Israel, and adopted last year by the Education Ministry, which made it mandatory for all Jewish fifth-graders in the Northern District.
The program – better known as Ya Salam, the name of its innovative curriculum – is groundbreaking in a number of ways. First, it exposes Jewish students to Arabic in fifth and sixth grades. Arabic instruction in Jewish schools has been mandatory between seventh and ninth grades for years, but enforcement has generally been lax. Only about half of schools teach Arabic in any form, and many only require students to take a year or two of the required three.
Ya Salam also incorporates elements of both colloquial Arabic and the Classical (or Modern Standard) language traditionally used in literature, education and media. The program’s planners hope this integrated curriculum – the first such attempt anywhere in the world – will allow pupils to begin to understand Arabic texts while also letting them converse at a basic level with Arab neighbors.
Another innovation is Ya Salam’s use of Arab educators. In the past, Arabic instruction in Jewish schools was typically the domain of Jewish teachers, many of whom had studied Arabic but may not have attained fluency in either the colloquial or formal language. The introduction of Arab teachers to Jewish schools means students benefit both from instruction with a native speaker and from what is often their first extended contact with a member of the Israeli-Arab community.
Students study Arabic twice a week in one-hour classes, using original textbooks and workbooks augmented with Web and DVD lessons. Launched in 2005, the initiative spread within four years to more than 100 schools around Haifa and the north. Today it operates in some 15 percent of Hebrew-language state schools, reaching around 24,000 students and growing fast.
This school year the ministry expanded Ya Salam to include sixth-graders across the North, and the program is now being introduced to fifth-graders in select Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Beersheba schools.
“Beersheba has a certain uniqueness,” said Bilal Shqair, a teacher with the program. “This is a city where Jews have a lot of exposure to Arabs, because of the Beduin Market and because Beduin often come into the city for social welfare and medical services... That’s the good side. The bad side is that Beersheba has suffered no small amount of rockets from Gaza. So the situation is complex – on one hand, the kids are used to seeing Arabs on the streets or the market or Soroka University Medical Center, but on the other, they’re also used to hearing about Arabs on the news after a missile strike.”
“There’s a lot of excitement, but also a lot of curiosity. Some ask me where I was born – ‘Were you born in Gaza?’ I told them that no, there are Arabs not only in Gaza, but in Israel as well,” said Shqair, who hails from the Lower Galilee village of Tamra and has an education degree from Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University. “But many questions are raised in connection to security. Students say, ‘Hamasniks speak Arabic, and they fire missiles at us.’ I tell them that there are also Arabs who are citizens of the State of Israel, and that Israel is after all situated in the Middle East, where Arabic is the most common language. So we try to bridge those gaps.”
Beersheba’s Gevim Elementary School poses altogether unique challenges. The area in the city’s west in which it is situated ranks at the bottom of virtually every socioeconomic marker, and 70% of its students speak a language other than Hebrew at home – mostly Amharic (a quarter of students have Ethiopian roots), Russian and the languages of the Caucasus. Some students are unable to communicate with teachers in Hebrew, and use classmates as translators.
Dadi Komem, the Abraham Fund’s director of education, said the role of Arabic teachers goes far beyond predicates and pronouns.
“They serve as hall monitors, go on field trips and watch over students during breaks. The Arabic instructor becomes just another one of the teachers, one of the surrogate parents who is with the kids half the day. So the students start becoming comfortable with them and asking questions.”
Komem said teacher-student relations inevitably become strained in times of violence or war. Still, he said, instructors would neither ignore conflict nor let it take over their lessons.
“It’s not worthwhile to start a political discussion with 10-year-old children, but of course these things are talked about, and questions are asked,” he said. “I’ve been in lessons when the students ask the teacher, ‘So are you with Hamas? Do you agree with them?’ And the teacher answers. To keep quiet in order to avoid problems is not the answer.
“You’ll see that if there is, God forbid, a terrorist attack, people will look at Bilal differently. He’ll be sitting in the teachers’ lounge, during a war or the day after a terrorist attack, and he’ll get looks from the teachers as well,” he said. “How many Jews and Arabs really live together and have the opportunity to ask questions? Suddenly you have an Arab colleague and the chance to ask a question. Everything is more sensitive and more volatile.”
Abraham Fund Co-Director Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said he hopes to see the Education Ministry make Ya Salam mandatory in all of Israel’s schools. Beyond teaching Arabic as required by law, he said, the ministry should strive to “educate the citizens of tomorrow for coexistence – to teach them about living together, Jews and Arabs, and how to do that. That objective is no less important – and this program does both.
“You don’t need to be a genius to see that Hebrew speaking students come out of their three years of Arabic instruction unable to speak the language. So we say this is a program that has proven itself able to teach Arabic, change attitudes and lay the groundwork for shared citizenship.”