Know Your Enemy: How Arabic Is Taught in Israel's Jewish High Schools

The teaching of the language has been coopted by the army's intelligence corps, leading to teachers who don't speak Arabic and students who study it only in the hope of foiling terrorists.

Alon Ron

“Students studying Arabic ... We need your help in foiling a terror attack about which we have received numerous alerts.” This is how a lesson taught by soldiers to junior high school students begins. The goal of the activity — which is part of larger joint program of the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Corps and Israel's Education Ministry — is motivate students to “learn and understand the importance of the Arabic language.”

The method chosen to convince students to study Arabic is a series of threats and fear mongering. The imaginary terror attack is meant to take place in the students' own school, apparently in order to make the experience even more powerful.

“For years the educational system has focused on training ‘intelligence fodder’ for the IDF,” says Prof. Reuven Snir, Dean of Humanities at the University of Haifa and a professor of Arabic language and literature.  

This lesson plan, from August 2012, was written by instructors a unit called TELEM — a Hebrew acronym for “fostering Arabic and  Middle Eastern studies,” — which is part of the IDF’s elite 8200 intelligence unit, and operates in schools. The lesson plans say it is intended for eighth and ninth grade students, but elsewhere it states it may also be used for seventh grade. During the lesson the students must complete four tasks: The first is discovering the location of the terror attack through a crossword puzzle. The second is obtaining information on the terrorist ("who has a mustache, black hair and is serious looking"). Their third task is to decipher a conversation in Arabic about the transfer of weapons; and finally the fourth is uncovering the timing of the attack.

If the students succeed in translating the sentence in Arabic, then “it is possible to say that because they knew Arabic they saved a great number of students in their school,” suggests the lesson plan, which ends with these words: “The Arabic language is essential for existence and coexistence in the State of Israel.”

This lesson plan is the clear result of the subjugation of Arabic studies to military needs, along with the increasingly tight relationship between the educational system and the IDF.

Lesson 1: The assassination of Abu Jihad

The classes TELEM offers to students in higher grades continue to focus on dangers. For example, the activities for the 9th grade include an “experiential lesson” about the threat of tunnels (from Gaza) and a fascinating battle story about “the assassination of Abu Jihad," (the Palestinian co founder of Fatah, who was assassinated by Israeli commandos in 1988). Students can also elect to learn about the assassination of Yihya Ayyash (a Palestinian bomb maker). In the 11th grade they can study "the impact of Islamic thought on the activities of ISIS and Hamas,” while in 12th grade they can choose one of two options: the assassination of Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi or a lesson on “the expansion of jihadi violence in Europe."

Another lesson, which “is to be taught only on Holocaust Day”, is about the contribution of the Military Intelligence to the capture Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

Military roots

This military-educational collaboration is not something new. A recent study by Dr. Yonatan Mendel, a researcher at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, exposes the roots of cooperation between the security system and the education system in Israel, in the field of Arabic language studies for Jewish students. Using documents from several archives in Israel Mendel highlights how, for example, in 1956 the Prime Minister’s adviser on Arab affairs, Shmuel Divon, wrote to the Israeli Chief of Intelligence, Jehoshaphat Harkavi, a letter titled “Recruiting Graduates of the Oriental Class." The letter states that “we need to ensure the development of cadres that will fulfill roles in Arab affairs  a task that requires adapting the education system to these new special needs." Eight years later, a letter sent from Military Intelligence to the national committee of teachers of Arabic, noted that “in light of increased demands of IDF Chief of Intelligence a series of meetings were set between the Military Intelligence and the Ministry of Education to encourage the study of Arabic." Another letter, from 1976, refers to a regular “coordination meeting” between the head of military intelligence, General Shlomo Gazit, and the Minister of Education, Aharon Yadlin.

Among other findings, Mendel's study found that the TELEM Unit was established after the Yom Kippur War, and was one decision among many, made by Military Intelligence regarding the study of Arabic in schools.

It seems that not a whole lot has changed since then, even if in recent years the Military Intelligence's involvement in Arabic studies has moved back behind the scenes.

A veteran Arabic teacher who did not want to be mentioned by name, says that “The lessons of TELEM bring to the classroom cute and articulate soldiers, but they obviously have a completely military agenda they come in uniform, and the kids are fascinated. Not only does the Ministry of Education not fight this, but it invites them into the classes. I know that some teachers think it is a natural connection, but some find this militarization to be disruptive, but they are very careful not to voice criticism. Perhaps the Ministry of Education is afraid that without the army no one would want to study Arabic."

Another person, who is very familiar with the teaching of Arabic in Jewish schools, says that “because of excessive patriotism, Iran, Iraq and ISIS all look the same in Israel. The Ministry of Education should balance this security-oriented outlook, but that rarely happens."

The TELEM Unit also operates the Gadna Middle East Youth Battalions — a semi-military activity in which students are sent for four days to Military Intelligence “to encourage them to broaden their Arabic studies." This is mentioned in a brochure which was recently sent to all Arabic teachers. In the last school year, 3,388 students from 128 schools attended this program. The TELEM Unit also operates the seminar entitled “Intelligence on the Horizon” intended for 11th graders, special conferences for 12th graders, the “national Arabic quiz," for high school students, and more.

It seems that the Ministry of Education prefers to hide its close collaboration with the military. “The goal of teaching Arabic in Israel is to familiarize the students with the culture, language, heritage and history of the Arab people,” said Sigalit Shoshan, the current Supervisor of Arabic Language Studies in Jewish Schools. She said that last year at a meeting of the Knesset Education Committee. When the chairman of the committee, MK Amram Mitzna, said that he believes Arabic studies should not only be used as part of the “military preparation” framework, the head of the Ministry of Education’s Arabic subject committee, Prof. Eliezer Schlossberg from Bar–Ilan University corrected him, insisting that “the days in which the education system was used as a stage for preparation for the IDF has passed." Interestingly, just a few months earlier, the same Prof. Schlossberg noted that if the Ministry of Education was to stop teaching Arabic in the 10th grade (a decision made by previous the minister of education, Shai Piron) this would mean first and foremost, “harm to Israeli national security."

Dr. Mendel’s research, completed for his doctorate at Cambridge University and soon to be released as a book (in Hebrew) called "The Creation of Israeli Arabic," concludes that the teaching of Arabic in Israel does not connect the learners to the native speakers of the language, but just the opposite — it distances one from the other, in sharp contrast to most case studies of learning a second or third language.

Mendel traces the roots of Arabic instruction in Israel to the 1950s when it was established as a joint initiative of the training division of the IDF Intelligence Corps and the Military Government, together with the Prime Minister Office, especially the Bureau of the Advisor on Arab Affairs, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to Mendel, “strikingly, the Ministry of Education was the least important body in establishing the Oriental Classes, and was only CCed to messages sent by the Adviser on Arab Affairs.” Mendel highlights that this is how the field of Arabic studies was shaped in Israel, “as a field in which the Arab is a foreigner, and in which the Military Intelligence people are seen as natural partners.”

No Arabs teaching Arabic

This, he proposes, may explain the striking absence of Arab teachers in the field of Arabic studies in the Jewish school system, as well as the absence for decades of a single Arab member in the Arabic subject committee in the Ministry of Education. “At the end of the day, this field was shaped and operated as a closed system in which ex-intelligence soldiers taught the next generation of Israeli Military Intelligence," says Mendel.

Dr. Basilios Bawardi, who teaches at Bar–Ilan University and at Oranim College, is the only Arab member — out of 15 — in the Israeli subject committee of the Ministry of Education. “I am not a Zionist," says Bawardi, "but I do not mind if students of Arabic go on to Military Intelligence, because ultimately this can serve other purposes."

The Ministry of Education employs 1,317 Arabic teachers, but only 167 (12%) of them Arabs. This rate does not include the teachers employed by “The Abraham Fund Initiatives," which operates the program “Ya Salam” in nearly 190 elementary schools. “For decades the Education Ministry prefers that Jewish teachers teach Arabic,” says Amnon Be'eri-Sulitzeanu, associate director of the organization, “and we are trying to offer a new outlook." According to him, “It is difficult to explain why the minister of education would prefer to hire teachers who are not fluent in Arabic while there are so many Arabic teachers in Israel from the Arab community and I guess the only explanation to this is the military motives and role in the teaching Arabic, which means that Arab teachers can not be part of the game."

Teachers who can't speak the language

According to a person who is very familiar with the subject, the ability to speak Arabic is almost never part of the Arabic studies curriculum. This should not be a surprise, because, strikingly, many of the teachers of Arabic do not know how to speak it, relate several sources. “I am not sure that even 10 percent of Arabic teachers in Israel are able to speak freely and lead a lesson in Arabic,” says one senior figure.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, Arabic is one of the least popular subjects in Israeli high schools, with only a negligible minority of 3.% percent taking the matriculation exams.

According to Mendel, “the main reason for the ongoing failure of Arabic studies is the way the security concept and involvement were cemented into the system, which has shaped the way the Arabic is taught in Israel and the way Arabic teaching personnel are trained.”

He calls for a wideranging revolution in the teaching of Arabic in Jewish schools. "We will have to make Arabic a civil language, not a security-defense language...and free ourselves from the norms that has determined the direction of study up until now."

The Education Ministry said in response that the military is not involved in formulating the curriculum in Arabic. Yet according to various sources, even if Arabic committee members don't meeting regularly with representatives of the Ministry of Defense, the damage has already been done as the method of teaching Arabic has become institutionalized, with a military focus.

"I spent years in both systems of Arabic”, says Snir, dean of humanities at the University of Haifa, “in ‘know your enemy’ and in ‘know your neighbor’ and the difference between  them is huge. The sums and seriousness invested in the first type of Arabic to ‘know your enemy’ are dramatically higher. In fact, the government had never had an interest in developing the second type of Arabic to get to ‘know your neighbor’.

“There is a Gordian knot between Military Intelligence and the teaching of Arabic in Israel," continues Snir, "and this knot has damaged the study of Arabic and its status. It is very difficult to see how we can change the direction of the ship.”