Fewer Jewish High-schoolers Taking Arabic Language Matriculation Exam

The number of Jewish students in Israel taking the exam has dropped by a third over the past five years

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
An Arabic class in a high-school in Haifa.
An Arabic class in a high-school in Haifa. Credit: Rami Shllush
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

The number of Jewish high-school students who took matriculation exams in Arabic as a language dropped by a third over the past five years, Israel's Education Ministry figures find.

From 2010 through 2016, about 3,600 students a year took the exams, some 5.5 percent of all students who took the matriculation exams. In recent years, the number has fallen to 2,600, or 3.5 percent of all high-schoolers taking matriculation exams.

The drop was explained by the Education Ministry decision to change the exam structure. The ministry no longer allows students to take the lowest or mid-level tests – known as one point and three points, respectively – and now only offers the highest level test, known as five points. As a result, only students enrolled in advanced Arabic are eligible to take the test, and fewer students are enrolled in these classes.

The figures show that in 2020 and 2021, the number of extra instruction hours allocated by the Education Ministry for high-school Arabic studies for schools with Arabic language programs dropped as well. In 2020, 2,259 additional Arabic classroom hours were allocated, versus 1,878 in 2021.

Dr. Yonatan Mendel, a researcher of the Arabic language at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, told Haaretz, “Arabic seems to be the most battered subject in Jewish schools in Israel. There is an enormous gap between its importance and its actual status. In practice, only 3.7 percent of Jewish students in Israel in 2020 chose to study Arabic for the bagrut – a very depressing statistic that testifies to the status of the subject, and its lack of attractiveness and irrelevance for a Jewish student in Israel. The time has come for a significant change.”

Junior high schools are required to teach all students three Arabic classes a week, but the data provided by the Education Ministry to the Knesset show that only two-thirds of junior highs meet this obligation. The report was written for the Knesset Information Center at the request of Knesset members Ayman Odeh (Joint List), Ruth Wasserman Lande (Kahol Lavan) and Mossi Raz (Meretz), also found that the ministry does not check whether schools are devoting classroom hours to mandatory subjects.

Elementary schools teach Arabic language only as an elective, as part of the school’s enrichment hours. In recent years, some grade schools offered classes through the “Ya Salaam” project, which taught spoken Arabic, and was developed with aid from the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit organization. In 2018, the program’s management was transferred to the Education Ministry, but the figures show the ministry did not expand the program.

The number of schools participating in the program has shrunk over the years: In 2017, the Education Ministry reported that Arabic was taught in 220 schools, while this year the ministry reported that only 191 schools were teaching Arabic. The Education Ministry admitted it was having trouble hiring teachers for the program, because in most teacher training programs the students are prepared to teach literary Arabic, and not spoken Arabic.

In general, Arabic language studies in Israel focus on the literary language – which is very different from the spoken one – and in particular on reading and translating newspaper texts. A study published a year ago by the Van Leer institute and the Abraham Initiatives included interviews from high-school students studying Arabic, demonstrating the gap between the students’ desire to know the spoken language and the material taught for the matriculation exam.

“We are memorizing for the test and that’s all, and it’s a shame because it makes it so technical, and it’s not,” said one of the students interviewed. “We want to learn about the places and things related to culture, but we never had time.” Naomi, a 12th grader from the south, stated: “I feel more comfortable talking about the defense minister than about hummus; they’re the words we learn here. You go study in a track for six years and in the end, you don’t know you don’t know how to use the language. It seems to me like a waste,” she said.

Odeh told Haaretz: “Studying the Arabic language and its presence in the [public] space are important tools for improving the status of the language and for promoting equality and peace. Jews almost do not study Arabic, but Arab citizens study Hebrew. I believe that two languages and two cultures are always preferred over one.”

The Abraham Initiatives nonprofit organization said, “The fact that even today students are leaving school without the ability to hold a basic conversation in Arabic is a deep systematic and ongoing failure of the Israeli educational system.”

Arabic high-school lesson.

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