In Israel, a push to learn the language of ´the enemy´ (CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR) By Ben Lynfield JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 06/26/12)
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The current decline in the study of Arabic in Israeli schools could
compromise coexistence efforts and the military´s ability to gather
intelligence. But one program is countering that trend.
Arabic teacher Essam Shihada´s casual dress – sneakers and a Mickey
Mouse T-shirt – contrasts with the seriousness of what he is trying
to do: endear Israeli Jewish pupils to the study of the ´´enemy´s
A few minutes after fielding questions from Mr. Shihada and each
other about how many siblings they have and where their parents work,
the class of Israeli youngsters is enthusiastically singing the words
of an ancient Arabic folk song about harvesting olives. ´´God, bless
the olive trees. The olives of my land are especially delicious. They
give fine oil. All the world wants to eat them,´´ the two dozen
The singing is a major achievement in a land where Arabic and its
speakers are often viewed with suspicion and where instruction of the
language is widely seen as being in decline, with a shortage of
qualified teachers and few students choosing to take it for their
high school matriculation exam.
Despite Arabic being an official Israeli language alongside Hebrew,
most Israelis can neither read nor speak it competently, if at all –
a situation that critics of government education policy say hinders
coexistence prospects with Israel´s sizable Arab minority and could
hinder the military´s intelligence-gathering efforts.
Israel is only beginning to come to terms with the problem.
´Many Arabic teachers don´t know how to speak or write Arabic´
The Israel Academy of Sciences recently issued a report detailing
Arabic teaching deficiencies, concluding among other things that
making the language a matriculation requirement is necessary to
redress the situation. The academy´s report said only a few Arabic
teachers were native speakers.
´´Teaching of Arabic is done mostly in Hebrew, including in teacher
training programs, and the result is that many of the Arabic teachers
do not know how to speak or write Arabic,´´ the report said.
´´This situation is improper and abnormal,´´ says Yaron Friedman, who
teaches Arabic at the Technion Institute in Haifa. ´´What is being
done is not enough,´´ he says.
He warns that Israel is raising a young generation that is ´´detached
from the Middle East´´ both linguistically and culturally.
The Ministry of Education declined to respond directly to the
criticisms but says the subject of Arabic instruction ´´is one
undergoing constant development.´´ It added that the ministry
is ´´striving´´ to make the language a requirement for matriculation
in the future but did not give a date.
The military, meanwhile, is also worried about the troubled state of
Arabic instruction, fearing it will not have a large enough pool for
future intelligence officers. ´´The army has identified in recent
years a severe problem in the level of exposure of pupils to Arabic
and we have seen that among those who learned, the knowledge level is
not high to put it mildly,´´ an intelligence officer who deals with
Arabic instruction told Ynet news.
From 15 schools to 200, the program expands
Despite the overall woes, Shihada´s class is part of a growing bright
spot on the Israeli linguistic horizon. Known as the Ya Salam
(literally Hey Peace) program, it is a significant effort to upgrade
Arabic and introduce Jewish students to Arab culture spearheaded by
the US and Israel-based Abraham Fund, in cooperation with the
Ministry of Education.
The program was launched at 15 schools in northern Israel seven years
ago and is now taught in 200 schools all over the country for two
hours a week in the fifth and sixth grades.
The fund´s officers say that by enhancing the standing of Arabic, the
situation of Arab citizens – who were promised equality in Israel´s
declaration of independence but face discrimination in land use,
jobs, and other realms – will also be improved.
"Recognizing and accepting the other is part of the program,´´ says
Dadi Komem, director of education for the fund. ´´Beyond being just a
regular second language, Arabic has had a connotation of being an
enemy language. We are going from a ´Know your enemy´ approach to
Arabic study to one of, ´Get to know your neighbor who has shared
Innovation: Training Arab teachers for Jewish schools
Foremost among its innovations is introducing Arab teachers into
Jewish schools, but it also exposes pupils to the language at a
younger age than previously, and draws simultaneously on both spoken
and written Arabic, which have traditionally been taught separately.
Menachem Milson, former dean of humanities at the Hebrew University
who served on the Israel Academy of Sciences panel, praises Ya
Salam: ´´Training Arab teachers to teach their mother tongue to
[Israeli Jews] has not before been tried in Israel and is a very
important thing. I´m optimistic about it,´´ he says.
But in Jerusalem, all state-run religious schools refuse to
participate in the Ya Salam program because they do not want an Arab
joining the faculty, Komem says. Jerusalem deputy mayor David Hadari,
from the National Religious Party, explains: ´´It is proper to teach
Arabic, but you need teachers who are appropriate to the school.´´
In the Yefe Nof school and other Jerusalem schools in which he
taught, Shihada had to overcome the initial suspicions of pupils. At
one of the schools, some students refused to sing a song he taught
them urging the diverse groups in Lebanon to coexist. ´´They asked
me, ´Why did you choose this song? If they unite then it will make
them stronger against the Jews,´ ´´ he says.
Fifth-grader: Less fearful of Arabs now
Yefe Nof principal Ronit Shema says Ya Salam has been ´´a big
success´´ despite some initial wariness.
´´In the beginning, psychologically, it was not easy for a portion of
the students to learn. But Essam is a good teacher and gradually the
students connected and the barriers fell and they started to love
what he expressed.´´
In the class, one fifth-grader says learning Arabic was making him
less fearful of Arabs. ´´If you understand what they are saying then
you know they are not talking about you,´´ he says.
In Shihada´s view, the program can make a difference in promoting
coexistence: ´´The problem is bigger than an Arabic class in a
school. But maybe if the program expands, is given more hours, and
starts at a younger age it could help raise a new generation with new
points of thought. Maybe.´´ (© The Christian Science Monitor.
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