Study: Only 1% of Israeli Jews Can Read a Book in Arabic

While 17% say they can understand Arabic and 10% can speak it fluently, only 1.5% can write a letter in the language.

A man reads an Arabic newspaper - only 2.5 percent of Israeli Jews can read one, a new study finds.
David Bachar

Only 1 percent of Israeli Jews can read a book in Arabic, according to a new study unveiled last week at a Tel Aviv University conference.

Some 10 percent of Israeli Jews say that they speak Arabic fluently, but the percentages plunge dramatically where reading or writing is concerned: Only 2.5 percent can read an article in an Arabic newspaper, while 1.5 percent can write a letter in the language.

The study’s importance is not just its revelation – for the first time – of the extent to which Jewish society knows Arabic, but its efforts to undertake a precise social analysis of its constituent groups. In this regard, what stands out are the differences between those Jews who were born in Arab-speaking countries and their children and grandchildren, the overwhelming majority of whom were born in Israel. These differences are expressed not just in the younger generations’ knowledge of the language, but in their negative attitudes toward it.

The similarity in the attitudes of third-generation Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin) to those of other Jews (Ashkenazim and those whose ethnic origins are unknown) shows that, at least in this area, the gaps have closed, perhaps as a result of a double erasure – of the Arabic language and Mizrahi identity.

The conference, entitled “Ana Min al-Yahud” (“I am one of the Jews”), was sponsored by Tel Aviv University’s sociology and anthropology department and focused on the complex relationship between Jews, Mizrahi identity and the Arabic language. During the lectures, some of which were given in Arabic, there was a presentation of the study conducted last summer that polled 750 people, constituting a representative sample of the adult Jewish population.

According to the data, some 17 percent of the participants said they understood Arabic. But the fact that only a few percent of them said they could identify letters, and an even smaller percentage said they could use the language effectively and write in it, hints at a far more monolingual reality.

The study and conference were part of an effort to promote the Arabic language in the academic world, and were organized in conjunction with the Van Leer Institute; Dirasat, the Arab Center for Law and Policy; and Sikkuy: the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, with financial assistance from the European Union.

“There is no doubt that among Ashkenazim in Israel, there has also been a process of losing the grandparents’ languages, including German, Yiddish or Polish,” the report states. “But one must distinguish between the loss of these languages and the loss of Arabic among Jews, because of Arabic’s uniqueness as an official language of the State of Israel from its inception, as an official language of the land during the prestate period, as the ‘lingua franca’ of the region in which Israel lies, and as the mother tongue and sign of culture and identity for Israeli-Arab citizens.”

Edna Dahari-Davidovich teaches Arabic in TAU’s Middle Eastern studies department. Every year she asks her students to note if they have any previous knowledge of Arabic. “This year I got a blank page back,” she related.

“There wasn’t a single student in a group of 25 who wrote that he had previously learned the language. I said that’s not possible, Arabic is still a required subject in schools – at least in junior high schools.

“It turned out that two-thirds of the students had studied Arabic at various stages, but they remembered nothing and so didn’t think they had to mention it,” Dahari-Davidovich said. “As far as they were concerned, it was as if they hadn’t studied it. That’s an utter failure of Arabic instruction.

“There is almost no chance that we’ll succeed in teaching Arabic,” the veteran teacher concluded. “Most of the teachers are Jews who conduct a large part of the class in Hebrew. There are no sanctions against the many schools that avoid teaching the subject, particularly in the religious educational system. And instead of stressing the cultural aspects of the language, the connection to military intelligence is emphasized.”