Israeli Arab Students' Hebrew Skills Are Declining, Together With Their Employment Prospects

They don’t watch TV in Hebrew or speak the language at home, and prefer to study English. All that doesn't hurt their college admission chances, but research shows poor Hebrew leaves them literally poorer

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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Hebrew class in ORT Sallama school in the Bedouin village of Sallama, February 27, 2020
Hebrew class in ORT Sallama school in the Bedouin village of Sallama, February 27, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

Mahmud Souad, the principal of the ORT Sallama school in the northern Israeli Bedouin village of Sallama, still remembers his first day as a university freshman. “I walked in like a good student who wants to succeed and I started writing down everything the instructor said,” he recalls. In his dorm room, he carefully read over his notes. “It turned out that I even wrote down his jokes and things that had nothing to do with the course.” Today it might seem comic, “but it was very painful at the time,” he says.

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Souad, now a grandfather, often tells this story to Hebrew teachers at his school. To him, it illustrates the enormous gap between Hebrew instruction in Israel’s Arab schools and the language skills of native Hebrew speakers. “You can get high scores on the bagrut without being fluent in conversational Hebrew,” Souad says, referring to Israel’s matriculation exams.

Anecdotes aside, fewer Arab high school students are taking the advanced bagrut exams in Hebrew because institutions of higher education put greater emphasis on knowing English. Most say they don’t use the language outside of their Hebrew classes.

“A teacher in the Arabic school system says to themselves, in any event [the advanced bagrut in Hebrew] doesn’t give the students anything and only adds to the pressure,” Marian Tehawkho said at a conference held last week at Umm al-Fahm’s town hall.

Tehawkho, a senior researcher at IDC Herzliya’s Aaron Institute for Economic Policy, was presenting an analysis of inequalities in the education system and the Hebrew language gaps for Arab students.

Hebrew class in ORT Sallama school in the Bedouin village of Sallama, February 27, 2020
Hebrew class in ORT Sallama school in the Bedouin village of Sallama, February 27, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush

One telling statistic from the research indicates the dramatic change. While 66 percent of all Arab students took the advanced bagrut exams in 2003, only 23 percent of the 2018 cohort took them.

The study, conducted by the institute in cooperation with the Finance Ministry and based on a self-reported survey conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics, found a correlation between better command of Hebrew and better job prospects as well as higher wages among respondents with identical levels of education. The research indicates that men with good Hebrew have a 15 percent better chance of joining the labor market than those with poor Hebrew, and the gap grows to 18 percent for women.

The study also found disturbing signs that emerge at a young age in this regard, such as low level of exposure to English outside of school. Only around 40 percent of Arab schoolchildren watch Hebrew TV programs or movies and use Hebrew on the internet, and only around half speak Hebrew with people outside of school. “The Israeli media doesn’t address Arab audiences, so why should they watch these cultural products when there are innumerable Arabic channels?” asks Yael Maayan, director of Academia as a Shared Space at the Abraham Initiatives.

Fewer Arabs major in Hebrew.

In 2017, an oral exam was added to the Hebrew bagrut for Arab speakers, as part of an effort to increase their skills in the language. The tests, however, are administered and graded by teachers at the schools. Tehawkho recommends bringing in external testers, as is the case with the English-language bagrut, and also for institutions of higher education to make the advanced Hebrew bagrut an admissions requirement. Souad says: “I want [students] to be ready to interact at the bank, at the post office and of course in academia. They must have a command of [Hebrew].”

He and the researchers say the high school curriculum must be revised, with less Hebrew Bible and poetry and more practical, conversational Hebrew. The scholars and the policymakers also agree that more native Hebrew speakers must be hired to teach the language in Arab schools. While the Eduction Ministry adopted a plan in 2015 to boost the number of native Hebrew speakers in Arab schools, only 350 Jewish teachers taught in the Arab school system in the previous school year, a drop in the bucket considering there are over 1,000 such schools.

Symptom of a wider problem

Mudar Younis, the mayor of the central Israeli city of Arara, thinks the ills of the Hebrew bagrut are just a symptom of a wider disease. “Some young adults [in the Arab community] have a problem with Hebrew because it reflects the current discourse, which is largely hostile toward the Arab community,” he says. “The young people don’t feel they’re part of Israeli society.”

Use of Hebrew.

He’s far from being alone in his assessment. “The problem is in Israeli society,” says Dalia Fadila, the former president of Al-Qasemi Academic College of Education in Baka al-Garbiyeh. She is the founding director of a network of private schools that teach English. She says that Israel’s so-called nation-state law and the recently issued U.S. plan for Middle East peace “further lowered the status of the Arab community,” and with it the desire among Israeli Arabs to learn Hebrew.

A surprising contributor to the generally poor level of proficiency in English is a concomitant low level of Arabic proficiency among native Arabic speakers in Israel. The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, which operates a project to foster reading to preschoolers in the Arab community, explains the issue on the (Hebrew) website of the project: “Awareness of the importance of reading is lower, access to quality books is limited and there’s a shortage of linguistically and culturally appropriate instructional material for professionals and parents.” Maayan, of the Abraham Initiatives, adds that studies have shown that people who do not have full command of their native language find it harder to learn additional languages.

Hebrew isn’t the only subject in which Arab schools lag behind their Jewish counterparts. Education Ministry officials were surprised by the significant gaps between Jewish and Arab students on the Program for International Student Assessment of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for 2018. Arab students scored significantly lower on the PISA in math, science and native language, despite the narrowing of the gap in school funding between the Hebrew and Arabic school systems in recent years and an overall increase in school funding.

“There was funding specifically directed to the Arab community, yet still we see a decline in PISA scores,” says Lior Brown, education coordinator in the Finance Ministry’s Budget Division. “There’s a problem with the efficacy of employing the budget resources,” she adds.

Fidela agrees that the problem isn’t the amount of money allocated by the Education Ministry, but rather the inadequacy of the local governments in Arab communities. “The Arab local authorities don’t have personnel who know how to make the best use of the funds provided by the ministry, to respond to calls for proposals to fund various projects and to demand the money for which they are eligible. There’s a similar problem with the schools. A lot of money is returned to the state without being used properly.”

Lesson at ORT Sallama school, Israeli Bedouin village of Sallama, February 27, 2020
Lesson at ORT Sallama school, Israeli Bedouin village of Sallama, February 27, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush

The national Meitzav achievement tests, administered in the fifth and the eighth grades, also show a gap between Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking students. Even in the fifth grade, the former lag behind the latter in math. However, a study that will be presented at an Aaron Institute conference in May points to an even more serious problem: Even when an Arab elementary school student gets the same Meitzav score as a Hebrew counterpart, the Arab student has a much lower chance of graduating high school with a full bagrut exam.

There are some bright spots, however. The number of Arabs studying in institutions of higher education doubled within a decade to 51,000, and school dropout rates have dropped significantly for Arab students. Just think how much more significant their studies could be if their Hebrew skills were better.

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