The Education Ministry's decision to have the Arabic language taught in 179 elementary schools in the north of the country is both important and to be commended. As the Arab minority comprises about one-fifth of Israel's population and Arabic is an official language, teaching the indigenous language is not merely a practical necessity but should be part of our concept of citizenship.

For decades, teaching Arabic in schools was seen as a security-oriented task, granted legitimacy by the slogan "know thy enemy." Most students of the Arabic language envisioned a vocation in intelligence or security, fields which themselves set up advanced language courses to train workers exclusively for their job - not as a means of getting to know the neighbors or their culture.

This trend fell in line with the attitude that Israel, as part of the West, was obliged to help its students acclimatize themselves to Western society. Israel's being part of the Middle East, surrounded by states whose people are Arabic speakers and part of the Arab culture, was reflected only through the conflict - and even then most Israelis could not understand the Arab side.

On the practical side, not knowing Arabic results in the infringement of civil rights. For example, the branch of the National Insurance Institute in Haifa has not even one Arabic-speaking official. Arab citizens of Israel who are not fluent in Hebrew have found themselves hassled and deprived simply because nobody could explain their rights to them in their own tongue.

But the Education Ministry's decision is not enough. The Arabic teaching departments at many of the country's universities have shrunk, and some offer Middle East studies without requiring the student to learn Arabic. These facts demonstrate the accumulative damage of neglecting the language. Even the scope of the new syllabus for the north - two hours a week - is no more than a taste of what is required, and years will pass until the project spreads, if it ever does, to the entire education system.

Still, despite its limitations, this is an important decision - one which, if expanded and applied properly, could serve as a vital stage in eliminating the hostility toward the Arabic language and bringing the two populations in Israel closer together.