Lamenting linguistics in Israeli schools

Children of the 1.2 million-strong FSU community should study Russian to connect with their rich heritage.

My son was born in Israel. We speak Russian at home, but his native language is Hebrew. And so it should be. Yet, I would like him to be able to study Russian in school (in addition to English as a foreign language) and to have full access to the rich Russian culture that is part of his inheritance. As the law stands today, only children born in the former Soviet Union are entitled to study Russian in school instead of a second foreign language (French or Arabic). Children, like my son, born to immigrants from the FSU do not have the same choice. Therefore, I have put forward an initiative in the Knesset that would give children born to parents from the FSU the option to study Russian as a second foreign language. The element of free selection is essential in this initiative. It is commonplace that when a child studies a subject by choice, the results are measurably better. A few months ago, in coordination with the Beersheba Municipality, I launched an initiative to place an Israeli flag in every classroom. I believe that seeing the national symbol in the classroom every day silently yet potently links what is taught in school with feelings of national pride. Isn't there a contradiction here? Does my Russian language bill come at the expense of the development of a strong Jewish and Zionist identity? Absolutely not. Building a rich national Jewish culture requires us to know who we are, where we've come from and why we're here. The many communities that make up the mosaic of Israeli society each bring with them different cultural inheritances. Sustaining familiarity with those immigrant cultures, in addition to Jewish culture, deeply affirms who we are. INSTEAD OF harnessing children's early exposure to the Russian language and advancing it to fluency-level, Israel is missing the opportunity to raise a generation of fluent Russian speakers, a critically important language in the global market. My main motive, however, is not the economic or political advantage Israel would gain from boasting close to a million Hebrew/Russian/English speakers. I want children from Russian homes to be able to have a meaningful bond with their grandparents and their cultural milieu. I would like my son to be able to read Pushkin and Chekhov in the original. A meaningful bond requires much more than passable spoken Russian, which is standard fare among children who do not study Russian in school. With an estimated 1.2 million immigrants from the FSU, it is feasible to provide Russian instruction for the Israeli-born generation, to give them the best chance possible to learn about the culture of their forebears. Ideally, the school system should provide the tools for every child to explore and enjoy the cultural world of his/her ancestors in the Diaspora. While many groups do not have the critical mass to make such a project viable, the Russian-speaking community can make it work. The same holds true for the Amharic-speaking community. I am equally supportive of children of Ethiopian parents having the chance to study Amharic in school. I would like to see all Jewish children in Israel acquire at least the same proficiency in our shared Jewish birthright that I wish for my son in our particular Russian culture. One of the major tasks of the education system is to imbue in our children a spirit of Jewish and Zionist pride. The millennia-old tradition should be a source of guidance and pleasure in their lives. I want my son to not only have the competence to read the Torah and Prophets in the original ancient Hebrew, but to know their relevance to his life. I also want him to have to tools to read modern giants like Agnon and Bialik. The Jewish and Zionist identity I envision and or which I have taken steps to strengthen, is knowledgeable and assured of its place in the world. When we are confident in who we are, exposure and even expertise in the best of other cultures only makes our own identity richer. I believe that the ideal Jewish and Zionist identity is multifaceted, confidently Zionist and Jewish and therefore able to incorporate the best of world cultures, especially those that are part of our family histories. MK Alex Miller (Yisrael Beiteinu) is Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and a member of the Knesset Committee on Education, Culture and Sports.