On my mind: Multilingual nation

The Hazan-Bennett bill strengthening Arabic should be supported.

‘RACISM IS not me,’ this image from the Bokra Facebook page promoting coexistence proclaims in Hebrew and Arabic. (photo credit: BOKRA.NET)
‘RACISM IS not me,’ this image from the Bokra Facebook page promoting coexistence proclaims in Hebrew and Arabic.
(photo credit: BOKRA.NET)
A Hebrew University student speaking in Arabic on her cell phone is told by the driver of a city bus not to board. She will now think twice about speaking Arabic, one of Israel’s two official languages, in public in the country she calls home.
While Hebrew is the principal language of Israel’s citizenry, the country’s diverse Jewish population from all corners of the world brings to the public space Russian, French, English and many other languages.
Thus Israel is in fact multilingual. Since the state’s founding, however, Arabic, the tongue of 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, Christians and Muslims, has enjoyed legal recognition. But that standing has diminished over the years. Some consider Arabic the language of Israel’s adversaries, sparking suspicions when it is heard in public spaces. There have been incidents of Arabic being removed from road signs.
And, in a particularly demeaning gesture, several MKs have talked about ending Arabic’s distinctive status as an official language in the Knesset and elsewhere in Israeli society.
Fortunately, the Knesset has recently boosted the importance of Arabic language by adopting legislation requiring teaching Arabic in Jewish schools.
“When the Jewish people will understand Arabic the way the Arab public understands Hebrew we will see better days,” said Likud MK Oren Hazan, who co-authored the bill with Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
A majority of Israeli Jews agree. The Israeli Democracy Index 2015, released last month by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), found that 63 percent of Israel’s Jewish citizens agree with the statement that “It is important for every Jewish child in Israel to learn Arabic from the early grades in elementary school.”
Arabic language studies have been included in Jewish school curriculum, beginning in third grade, several hours weekly, but implementation has been inconsistent.
“Just like it cannot be that Arab citizens complete 12 years of school without knowing Hebrew, the existing situation, in which Jewish citizens complete 12 years of school without knowing Arabic, cannot continue,” MK Hazan said in May when introducing the bill.
At the same time Minister Bennett is spearheading a parallel initiative to step up Hebrew language competency in Arab schools. Some 32% of Arab students do not pass the matriculation (bagrut) exam in Hebrew, according to the Council on Higher Education (CHE), a critical factor that has hindered Arab students’ entry to Israeli colleges and universities.
EXPOSURE OF Jewish Israelis to Arabic in the classroom, ideally by Arab teachers, would instill an appreciation for the language, help dispel fears, and benefit Israel’s shared society. Arabic education has been advocated for years by, among others, Moshe Arens, a former Likud defense minister who also served as the prime minister’s adviser on Israeli Arabs.
“Arabic should be made obligatory and taught at a sufficient intensity and level so that all high-school graduates will master the language,” Arens wrote in Haaretz last year, at a time when a few MKs were proposing to abolish Arabic’s official status.
“One might expect that in an attempt to advance the integration of Israel’s Arab citizens into Israeli society and the Israeli economy,” wrote Arens, “steps would be taken by the government and Knesset to raise the status of Arabic as an official language in Israel.”
Arens maintains that compulsory teaching of Arabic in Jewish schools would be “a sign of Israel’s respect and consideration for its Arab minority,” and would help improve Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.
Efforts are also progressing to enhance the status of Arabic on college and university campuses.
As part of a multi-year CHE project to increase the numbers of Arabs attending and graduating from colleges and universities, those institutions are creating duplicate versions of their websites in Arabic. These will serve Arab students and professors and also send a message to the entire campus community that the country’s Arab minority is entitled to respect.
The Hazan-Bennett bill should be supported, passed in the next Knesset readings and appropriately funded by the government so that an appreciation for Arabic is deepened and sustained.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.