Knesset Approves Arabic Education Bill in Preliminary Reading

Coalition conditions its support on further discussion in the cabinet, leading to assessments that it wants to bury the bill.

Gil Eliahu, Lior Mizrahi

The Knesset approved on Wednesday the preliminary reading of a proposed bill that would compel schools to teach Arabic, starting from the first grade.

However, the coalition conditioned its support on a return vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and further ratification of the bill by the cabinet. Observers believe that the coalition's intention is to bury the bill, rather than allow it to proceed further.

The Knesset decision was unusual because the bill has been promoted unsuccessfully for many years by MK Haneen Zoabi (Joint Arab List). The ministerial committee decided to support it only after it was submitted separately in the current Knesset by MK Oren Hazan (Likud,) instructing coalition members to support it. “We aren’t deluding ourselves; we doubt that the coalition really wants to pass this bill," a coalition source said. "It’s clear that this is a perk for Hazan in exchange for his support of the budget in November.”

Five similar proposals were tabled during Wednewsday's session. In addition to Hazan and Zoabi, MKs Eyal Ben-Reuven and Yoel Hasson from the Zionist Camp and Esawi Freige from Meretz proposed similar bills. It became clear during trhe session that the government intended supporting all, except the bill submitted by Zoabi. The ostensible reason was that Zoabi's bill would include the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector, though many MKs saw it as an act of political vengeance.

“These are five identical proposals," said MK Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Camp.) "MK Zoabi has proposed her bill in previous Knesset terms, yet the coalition decides to support four proposals and reject hers for irrelevant motives. This is a dangerous precedent that everyone should oppose. Tomorrow another MK could be similarly disqualified.”

MK Oren Hazan said that “in 40 years in which the left was in power such a law didn’t go anywhere. We have to learn how to live together. When you understand the language it’s easier to march together. We have to learn to know each other. We teach English and French, but learning Arabic is voluntary. No more. This is the first step towards peace.”

Zoabi said that “the bill proposes mutual respect. There is no equality in the absence of a recognition of one’s cultural affiliation. Arabic is an official language, despite occasional attempts to change this. Incitement has two causes – people don’t know us and don’t listen to us without middlemen. We don’t want mediation.”

MK Moti Yogev from Habayit Hayehudi said that he opposes the bill since it coerces schools. He suggested “encouraging Arabic studies and financing their teaching, but not as a compulsory subject. It’s wrong and will be hard to enforce.”