The Arabic Education of Israel's Jewish Students

With support from the Israeli Ministry of Education, the Abraham Fund's Language as a Cultural Bridge program is paving the way toward mandatory Arabic classes for all Jewish students in public schools.
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With support from the Israeli Ministry of Education, the Abraham Fund's Language as a Cultural Bridge program is paving the way toward mandatory Arabic classes for all Jewish students in public schools.

They call her the witch — because she bewitches her students. As 27-year-old Mayada Beem walks into the classroom, her long waves of black hair trailing her every step, the room full of sixth-graders grows quiet for a second.

"Marhaba!" she announces, greeting them with "Hello!" in Arabic.

The blonde, blue-eyed girl jumps into her seat. The boy with dark skin and curly black hair swivels his chair around from his friend behind him and looks straight ahead. Then, on cue from a girl in the front row, everyone breaks out in the birthday song. "Hayom yom huledet l'Mayada!" they serenade their teacher, wishing her a happy birthday in Hebrew. Mayada's cheeks turn pink and she quiets them down with "Shukran," Arabic for "Thank you," smiling as she launches into the day's lesson.

Alternating between Hebrew and Arabic, she asks them what day it is, what month, what year. She asks them what traditional Arabic treats she will be eating when she celebrates her birthday with her family in the Israeli-Arab city of Shfaram, about 10 miles east of this classroom in Haifa. "Baklawah! Knafeh!" they yell, visibly excited about the box of sweets Mayada has brought for today's lesson on Arab foods.

For these Jewish sixth-graders, it is their second year learning conversational Arabic from an Arab teacher. But what's happening here is a rarity in Israel: an Arab in charge of a Jewish classroom, and Jewish students learning Arabic at such a young age - or learning spoken Arabic at all.

Arabic is the language of Israel's neighbors, and of 20 percent of its own seven-and-a-half million people. And while it is Israel's second official language, few Jewish Israelis speak it fluently. The vast majority of Israeli Arabs speak Hebrew, which most need in order to work and get by in the country.

Yet in Haifa and the rest of Israel's Northern District, known for being more coexistent than other parts of the country, 100 percent of Jewish public schools are now teaching Language as a Cultural Bridge. The program began in Haifa in 2006, launched by the American-Israeli nonprofit organization The Abraham Fund, which promotes understanding between Jews and Arabs. With support from the Ministry of Education, the program strives to promote coexistence through language. This school year, in September 2010, the ministry approved the program's expansion, doubling its scope to reach 220 public schools, 10 percent of all secular Israeli schools.

Those behind the initiative hope that Arabic will soon echo through the halls of every Israeli school, from the mouth of every Israeli student. In addition to the stated goal of increasing understanding between Jewish and Arab Israelis, some supporters of Arabic education stress the national security value of being able to understand the Mideast's dominant language. And while right now the program only reaches the fifth and sixth grade, its proponents hope that one day Arabic will be taught in every Jewish classroom, from grades one through 12.

"We've been working to mandate that just as Arab kids learn Hebrew, Jews should learn Arabic," says Ami Nahshon, international president of The Abraham Fund.

By law, every Arab student in the Israeli public school system is obligated to learn Hebrew, Israel's official language, from at least third through 12th grade, along with mandatory English classes. As part of the matriculation exams that every Israeli takes at the end of high school, they must show that their proficiency in both Hebrew and English meets state standards.

"Our students understand the language and culture of the Jews, but it's not vice versa," says Sister Renee Soussa, who heads a Catholic school at which Muslim as well as Christian Arabs study in the northern town of Kafr Kanna. Three quarters of the subjects at Soussa's school are taught in Hebrew, which her students start learning in the first grade.

One of her students, 13-year-old Katren Muqary, says that learning Hebrew has given her a positive outlook on her Jewish neighbors, whom she is able to speak with and relate to. "If they taught Arabic in Jewish schools," she says, "then Jews and Arabs might be friends, because we would understand each other more."

For Jewish students, Arabic is not part of the matriculation exams unless they opt to major in the subject. Most graduate high school with little knowledge of the language, save for the occasional word that has found its way into Hebrew slang.

"We're hopeful for steps towards a tipping point to a national mandate," says Nahshon.

But in a country that walks a tightrope between being a full-fledged democracy and a Jewish state, many hurdles stand in the way of that goal. Israel's school system is as segregated as America's was half a century ago, divided among Arab schools, secular Jewish schools and religious Jewish schools.

The Ministry of Education mandates the teaching of Modern Standard Arabic — the form used in writing and the electronic media. But MSA is not spoken by people on the street, and the requirement only applies to seventh through 10th grades. Many schools ignore that rule.

"In Israel, compulsory is a recommendation," notes Shlomo Alon, who heads the ministry's Arabic education division. Alon estimates that only half of Jewish schools actually enforce the requirement, and even in those that do, the students are unable to speak the language, since what they learn is geared toward reading and writing. "I hope that Israelis will understand that Arabic is crucial to their life, to peace and to security. This is part of our future, our coexistence."

Of the 220 public schools incorporating Language as a Cultural Bridge into their curriculum, only 25 are religious. And unlike the secular schools in the program, in which the vast majority of the Arabic language teachers are Arabs, only 24 percent of Arabic teachers in religious schools are Arabs themselves. To encourage religious schools to offer Arabic classes, The Abraham Fund and the ministry compromised by allowing them to hire Arabic-speaking Jewish teachers. "The dominant challenge with the religious schools," according to Nahshon, "is that those schools have a harder time being open to and integrating an Arab teacher into their faculty."

Dadi Komem, the education director at The Abraham Fund, says the organization's goal is to convince the Ministry of Education to enforce mandatory Arabic classes, start those classes earlier in students' education, teach conversational Arabic and have Arabs teaching the classes. He is well aware of the obstacles.

"There are dozens of Arabic dialects," he says, "and that's one of many excuses for not teaching it or not being successful at it." Not only does Arabic spoken in Egypt differ from Arabic spoken in Syria, the Arabic heard in the markets of Jerusalem diverges from the Arabic spoken in the Galilee.

Mayada Beem, an Israeli Arab, teaches Arabic to Jewish sixth-graders at a public school in Haifa. (Yardena Schwartz)

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Some Israeli officials point to budget and infrastructure concerns, but most of all, they blame "the situation." That is to say, Arabic is the language of Israel's enemies, spoken by those who wish that Israel would cease to exist.

"There is an understandable animosity towards the language of the countries which declare they would like to eradicate Israel rather than coexist," says Gil Lainer, the consul for public diplomacy at the Israeli Consulate in New York.

That attitude is reflected through Jewish Israelis' perceptions of Arabs in general. In a 2007 survey of 1,600 Israeli high school students, 75 percent of Jewish students associated Arabs with being unclean, uneducated and uncivilized. Conducted by professors from Haifa University's Center for Research on Peace Education, the study also revealed that more than a third of the Jewish students were afraid of Arabs. Arab attitudes toward Jews included similar assumptions, but in far lower percentages. For example, 75 percent were willing to meet with Jewish students, while 50 percent of Jewish students said the same.

It is this animosity toward Arabs that supporters of mandatory Arabic education in Jewish schools hope to eradicate. Although Jews and Arabs live side by side in Israel, few children on either side have ever had a conversation with someone on the other. For students in the Language as a Cultural Bridge program, their teacher likely is the first person they've ever met who was both an authority figure and an Arab.

Usually, if they've met Arabs, says Sophia Berger-Drassinower, the coordinator of the program, "they would be servers at restaurants, or janitors, people they don't feel they have to respect." She refers to Mayada and Arabic teachers like her as ambassadors for their culture, and says they balance the power struggle. "They love her," she says of Mayada's class. "You have to start early, before their misconceptions are formed."

According to Komem, some people were surprised that the Ministry of Education agreed to fund and expand the initiative this year. The education minister, Gideon Sa'ar, a member of the right-wing Likud party, has been known for pushing more nationalistic programs. Sa'ar recently gained publicity for a campaign to deepen Jewish attachment to contested land through school visits to the West Bank city of Hebron — the location of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy site claimed by both Jews and Muslims.

Many Israelis, including those within the coexistence movement, say that teaching Arabic in Israeli schools, while a noble effort, is just one drop in a very turbulent sea - nowhere near enough to bridge the widening gap between Arabs and Jews.

Even Alon, one of the biggest champions of Arabic education in Israel, finds his support at odds with his devotion to Israel's roots as a Jewish state.

"Hebrew is the language of the country," he says. "It's not a binational state, it's a Jewish state. If we speak about Jewish states, there is only one. If we speak about Muslim states, there are so many." And while he wants to hear Israelis speaking the language of the region in which they live, he concedes they may not be ready to speak in the tongue of their neighbors: "If it was my decision, I would make it compulsory, but Israeli society feels we're not prepared yet."

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