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The Education Ministry has decided against including Arabic in the compulsory core curriculum that was made public several weeks ago for the first time. Previously, secular and religious state schools had to teach three hours a week of Arabic in Grades 7 and 8. Ministry officials said the decision was motivated by an effort to create a curriculum acceptable to ultra-Orthodox schools.

The same reason was cited for the reduction of the number of core instruction hours, which are to be devoted to mathematics, English and sciences.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir will hold a meeting next week to reconsider the decision regarding Arabic studies.

Although a compulsory subject in junior high, Arabic is actually taught only in some schools, and with varying intensity. According to Education Ministry data, some 40,000 pupils in Grades 7-8 (each year) study Arabic, and some 8,400 take the high school matriculation exam in this subject.

The need to publicize the compulsory core curriculum arose following a High Court of Justice ruling that bars secondary schools from receiving government funds if they do not teach the program. In responding to new petitions on the matter, Tamir suggested a two-year exemption from the program for some 26,000 pupils of so-called small yeshivas. Both the published curriculum and Tamir's proposal were rejected by the Haredim. So Tamir asked the court two weeks ago to put off implementing its ruling for a year.

Meanwhile, according to one ministry official, Arabic was removed from the curriculum to try and placate the ultra-Orthodox.

"It was clear that this is the price we have to pay so that maybe they will agree to accept a program that includes mathematics and English," he said, adding that "we made painful compromises with regard to other subjects, too." "The desire to be liked by the Haredim didn't work out," another official said, "while we got stuck with a partial core curriculum that returns like a boomerang to hurt state schools."

Attempts to find out how it was decided to remove Arabic from the core curriculum brought contradictory answers. Various officials said the possibility of reaching an understanding with Haredi educations leaders was never properly explored, nor was the question of how including Arabic in the core curriculum might impact budgeting for Haredi institutions.

Yet another official said the matter was settled by the ministry's professional staff. Tamir's associates said the minister was not called upon to decide the matter, and did not hold any discussion on it with Haredi representatives.

Some ministry officials lamented the decision to exclude Arabic, saying it sends a negative message regarding the need to integrate Israel's Arab minority and expose its culture to Jewish pupils.

Several months ago, the Knesset Education Committee discussed the need to bolster Arabic studies. "Now the Education Ministry, for all the wrong reasons, wants to do the opposite," the committee chair, Rabbi Michael Melchior, said in response.