Private Israeli College Forbids Teachers From Speaking Arabic to Students

Guidelines issued by staff at the Center for Academic Studies in Or Yehuda's education school ahead of summer semester deemed problematic as nearly 30 percent of the students in the program are Arabs.

A private Israeli college's school of education has prohibited its lecturers from speaking to students "in any language other than Hebrew," even though about 20 percent of the students in the program are Arab.

The heads of the School of Education at the Center for Academic Studies in Or Yehuda issued the order in a set of guidelines sent recently to the private college's teaching staff, in advance of the summer semester.

"The exam period is almost behind us and the summer semester is before us, and I would like to refresh a number of rules," wrote Dr. Hanna Bar-Yishai, deputy dean at the School of Education, to the lecturers. Among the rules that she wants enforced: "Do not address the students in any language other than Hebrew - neither during the lesson nor during an exam, not even in jest."

She added that this is "a complaint that comes up every semester," noting, "If you want to explain something to students in Arabic, for example, that should be done outside the formal classroom - during the breaks or office hours."

A source at the Center for Academic Studies calls the rule "very problematic. It's hard to understand, for example, why it's forbidden to help an Arab student in his own language during an exam when there is great stress and the conversation is private. This is a rule that confirms a lack of tolerance toward the Arab students. Instead of helping them, they make things harder for them." The dean of the School of Education, Prof. David Chen, said he was unaware of the posting of the instructions.

"Students who come from the Arab school system are dealing with difficulties of adapting to academia, one reason being the transition to studying in Hebrew," said Auni Banna, the director of the Arab Minority Rights Department in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. "The sweeping prohibition against the use of Arabic only strengthens the atmosphere of exclusion of Arab students in academia. Absurdly, according to the rule, speaking Arabic is forbidden even in a classroom in which all the students and the teacher are Arabic speakers."

Banna adds that "a self-respecting academic institution is supposed to give its teachers tools for dealing with the language issue from a pluralistic viewpoint - and not to silence the language of the minority by coercion."

"The refreshing of the rules" by Dr. Bar-Yishai also includes a request for lecturers to "review the exams carefully. This time we encountered a large number of exams that included errors in spelling, syntax, repeated questions, etc."; to make sure that the length of the exam "is no more than two hours, including an extension"; and not to "release the students half an hour before the end of the lesson, even at the end of the day. This semester, there were quite a few complaints about lecturers who regularly arrive late and release classes early."

A few months ago, the Center for Academic Studies, together with the Carmel Academic Center in Haifa, were at the center of an investigation by the television program "Hamakor" on Channel 10. The program raised a series of questions about the conduct of the two institutions, which are owned by private educational entrepreneur Avi Bitan, and about weak supervision, at best, on the part of governing body the Council for Higher Education.

At the beginning of the year, the CHE published a plan to expand access to higher education among Arabs. "In addition to reducing inequality between the sectors and promoting relations between Arabs and Jews, increasing the percentage of participation by the Arab population in higher education is of great importance in the social and economic spheres as well," wrote Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, the chairman of the council's budget committee, at the start of the program.

Haaretz asked for the CHE's position with regard to the ban on speaking Arabic with students, without mentioning specifically the Center for Academic Studies. The CHE responded: "We are unaware of a case of this kind, and to date we have received no complaints on the subject. If we receive details about the case, we will examine them individually."

The Center for Academic Studies had not responded by press time.

The insensitivity to Arab students is also reflected in the decision of most higher education institutions to begin the academic year on October 13 - only two days before the start of Id al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice), which lasts for four days. This means Arab students will be absent from most of the lessons during the first week of studies.

"I'm afraid that our Muslim students and teachers will interpret the start of the academic year as a demonstration of disrespect, and even a direct insult," said Prof. Miriam Hirschfeld, head of the nursing department at Jezreel Valley College. "I see no reason why the academic year shouldn't begin one week earlier or later. Although students are allowed to be absent from studies during the holidays, when it comes to the first week of school that isn't a real solution."

Part of the education council's policy for expanding access to higher education among the Arab population is "a plan for high-quality absorption during the first year," which includes "reducing the sense of alienation on campus and expanding the opportunity to fulfill learning potential." This objective, wrote the CHE, will be achieved by means of personal and group mentoring of Arab students, workshops for learning skills, psychological support, cultural adaptations in a learning context - and also consideration of non-Jewish holidays.

In response to a question by Haaretz, the CHE preferred to pass the buck. The start of the academic year, they said, falls within the context of " the academic and administrative freedom of institutions of higher learning, and is therefore the responsibility of the academic institutions."

Yaron Kaminsky
Emil Salman