A Revolution in Arabic Studies Is Shaking Up Israeli Universities

From the Negev to the north, universities are changing how Arabic is being taught, challenging both Jewish and Arab students. Could new trends in academia transform Jewish-Arab relations across the country?

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Arab students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Arab students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Jonathan Shamir
Jonathan Shamir
Jonathan Shamir
Jonathan Shamir

On a tense Tuesday at Hebrew University’s hilltop campus, two rival protests are in full swing following the arrest of two Palestinian students on campus by a fellow student, for allegedly singing a nationalist song in Arabic.

As the chanting continues outside on this March day, Iyas Nasser is about to start teaching an undergraduate class on 10th-century poet Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani. In Arabic.

In January 2021, Nasser became the first self-defining Palestinian lecturer to receive tenure at the Arabic Language and Literature Department at Hebrew University since its establishment in 1926, and has insisted on using Arabic as the language of instruction.

After almost a century of Israeli universities treating Arabic like an irrelevant language, and following the Jewish nation-state law demoting Arabic as an official language, Nasser is one of many trying to breathe new life into the discipline and harbouring aspirations of transforming Jewish-Arab relations in the process.

Students studying Arabic studies at Ben-Gurion University, Be'er Sheva.Credit: Courtesy of Yonatan Mendel

Major departure

Even the corridors leading to Nasser’s classroom bear signs of the incipient change, with the lecturer undertaking a project to correct the university’s Arabic-language signage.

In the classroom itself, dimly lit by a receding sun, 15 students – split almost evenly between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis – read and discuss Isfahani’s “The Book of Songs.”

Aptly, the passage deals with a conversation between two singers named after their shared forefather: Avraham (or Ibrahim) and Yitzhak (Ishaq), where the Abrahamic religions split.

When one Jewish student interjects in Hebrew to check she has fully understood, Nasser’s explanation is accompanied by a light jibe encouraging her to test her Arabic.

Nasser’s wry encouragement aside, the approach represents a major departure for Arabic studies in Israel and is part of a quiet, belated revolution in the discipline.

Arabic studies in Israel has always been guided by a “philological German approach that focused on studying history through text and understanding the grammar and syntax of classical texts,” explains Yonatan Mendel, a senior lecturer in the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, and head of the Arabic Language and Culture Division.

In the same way there was no need to teach biblical Hebrew and its tomes in the original language, “using Arabic as a language of instruction was not part of the question – creating a field more fitting for Jewish Israelis than Palestinian Arabs,” Mendel says.

Such an approach may have made sense in 19th-century Germany, where there were no Arabs around. But it quickly became anachronistic when transplanted to Mandatory Palestine, and became even more exclusionary when tied to military considerations in Israel.

For Palestinians, this has meant they have always faced barriers of entry to study or teach their own language and culture at a university level, creating Arabic studies classes mostly devoid of Arabs.

On their way out of the Hebrew University class, two Palestinian students from East Jerusalem, Asma and Hala, say they found studying in their own language “empowering.”

Still, this is Hala’s only class in Arabic and she says that, as the only Palestinian student, she doesn’t feel comfortable interjecting in Hebrew and slowing down the pace of the other classes.

Nasser isn’t the only one at the Jerusalem university teaching in his mother tongue. Tawfiq Da’adli, a lecturer in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, opted to teach a recent class in spoken Arabic since only two of the students were Jewish.

One of those students, Maayan, recounts how it was “challenging,” but that she quickly adapted – acknowledging that Da’adli was always eager to give extra explanations for herself and the other student. She added that her Arab classmates were “overwhelmed: for a second, they feel equal.”

Arabic is becoming more commonplace as a language of instruction at other Israeli universities too.

Arin Salamah-Qudsi, head of the University of Haifa’s Department of Arabic Language and Literature, says they were able to adopt Modern Standard Arabic as the “main teaching language” of the department because they “accept students who already know Arabic well” and offer a preparatory program for those who don’t.

According to Salamah-Qudsi, around half of the faculty is Arab. And although she concedes that “both Arab and Jewish students have difficulty” with the hard-line approach, it has “brought real results.”

Iyas Nasser. The first self-defining Palestinian lecturer to receive tenure in the Hebrew University's Arabic Language and Literature Department.Credit: Courtesy of Iyas Nasser.

‘Strangers in their own department’

Ninety kilometers (55 miles) down the coast from Haifa, however, there appears to be more resistance to adopting this model. The head of Tel Aviv University’s Arabic and Islamic Studies department, Prof. Jeries Khoury, says that amid declining numbers studying the humanities in general, he wants “to keep the Jewish students in our department because they contribute to their community with their love for our culture and our history. On the other side, we have to accommodate Arab students who want to hear Arabic in our lessons.”

Manar Makhoul, a professor of Arabic literature at the university, says that “90 percent of discussions” in his advanced seminars are in Arabic. “We are in an Arabic department – it’s natural. Imagine studying French and not using the language,” he laughs.

According to him, “the Arab students love it and Jewish-Israeli students love it too. If anything, they complain they didn’t have enough Arabic.”

While Nasser adheres to a textual approach to studying literature, Makhoul says he is “not just a scholar of Arabic literature but cultural studies. We need to have a comprehensive look at all aspects of cultural production.

“We need to make Arabic contemporary and relevant. There is a political context to where we live, like everywhere, but we also need to present other aspects of Arabic culture, art – and, more importantly, the usability of the language,” he stresses.

Khoury, meanwhile, expresses frustration at the modus operandi at Israeli universities, especially at undergraduate level. “If there are 15 Arabic speakers and one person can’t speak Arabic, then the class ends up in Hebrew,” he sighs.

When Arab students come to study and classes end up being taken in Hebrew or even English, “they feel like strangers in their own department,” he adds.

The two Arab lecturers, who make up a third of their otherwise Jewish department, have been searching for creative ways to encourage Arabic in the classroom – from developing a course for non-native speakers in the Palestinian dialect, to paying Arab master’s and doctoral students to help Jewish students who are struggling to keep up. Khoury, however, ends on a pessimistic note. “It takes time to see results, but nothing will change unless Jewish students improve their Arabic,” he notes.

Besides this issue’s impact on Arab students, it also leaves Jewish Israelis unable to communicate properly in Arabic and to connect directly with Palestinians. “If Jewish Israelis could read or communicate in Arabic, and understand things independently from the Israeli media, the political situation would look different,” Makhoul believes.

A Nakba Day event at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev last month, reflecting the greater number of Palestinian students at Israeli universities in recent years. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

An old problem

In Nasser’s class, the Jewish-Israeli students come from a range of backgrounds: some learned Arabic in the military while others learned independently – but the group is a clear anomaly on a national level.

According to a recent report by the Knesset Research and Information Center, just 11 percent of Israeli Jews say they have knowledge in spoken Arabic, though the level for anything resembling fluency is significantly lower than that.

The problem is not a new one either. While first- and even second-generation Jewish immigrants from Arab countries gave Israel a brief twilight in Arabic proficiency, the language-learning process has always been a weak link. Amit Levy, a historian at Hebrew University, points to archival documents depicting the same problems from nearly a century ago, with Jewish students complaining that “they study Arabic for four years, but can barely use the language at the market.”

Mendel, who is one of the main architects of transforming Arabic language instruction for non-native speakers, was inspired by his own hardships. After accumulating over a decade of Arabic language study across school, the army and then university, he accepted a job at a bilingual school in Jerusalem. When he could barely understand a simple question from one of the Arab mothers, he knew something had to change.

His 2014 book “The Creation of Israeli Arabic: Security and Politics in Arabic Studies in Israel” details how the relationship between the education and military establishment deepened the receptive rather than the productive skills of the language, and that the militarized pedagogy actually did more to alienate Jewish-Israeli students from Arabs than serve as a potential bridge.

To rectify this, both Mendel at Ben-Gurion University and Chaya Fischer at Hebrew University have revamped the courses at their respective institutions.

Mendel’s university adopts the so-called “integrated approach” to Arabic-language learning pioneered by U.S. institutions, which involves pivoting from grammar and syntax toward communication, and shifting all the teaching to Arabic.

To fulfill his vision, Ben-Gurion University had to kick-start a retraining and recruitment process to overhaul the faculty’s skill set for the Arabic in Arabic course. The program at Hebrew University has also shifted to using native-language teachers, which wasn’t the case for a long time.

Fischer, the director of Hebrew University’s language center, says dealing with reforming the Arabic course takes “70 percent of her time,” even though the center teaches seven other languages. While there is a general shift across all language studies, “Arabic especially focuses too much on passive skills,” she argues.

Under her leadership, Hebrew University’s language center has started teaching Arabic in Arabic, seeking to transform language study from “preparation for the military to a civilian language.”

There is also a problem with the actual content being taught. “Fluency is about a culture and not just a language,” Fischer explains. From the correct greeting for different festivals (challenging the misplaced “Happy holidays!” at Ramadan) to Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, the Hebrew University syllabus challenges the tendency to treat Arabic dialects and Modern Standard Arabic as separate languages. “Every language has differences between registers. Why should the language be reduced to ordering hummus? Students should be able to access higher culture too,” Fischer says.

A lesson being conducted in Arabic at Ben-Gurion University.Credit: Courtesy of Yonatan Mendel.

Changes on the ground

Hebrew University Rector Prof. Barak Medina says his university has taken active steps to boost Palestinian representation – from faculty members down to the student body. But as much as any pedagogical or ideological upheaval, there are changing realities on the ground that are equally responsible for forcing the universities’ hand.

According to the university, the number of Palestinians enrolling in its undergraduate programs has increased more than threefold from 2016/2017 to 2019/2020, while Palestinian postgraduate students have more than doubled at the university in the same period. As a result, the percentage of Arab students at Hebrew University has jumped from 12 to 16 percent over the last four years.

In part, this reflects successful outreach efforts. Sadarah – the university’s free preparatory program aimed at East Jerusalem high schoolers – helps Palestinians improve their Hebrew and English to a sufficient level to study at the university. When the program began some five years ago, around 100 students registered. Now the number is around 500 per year and Medina boasts that “if we had the capacity, we could’ve admitted 1,000 students.”

The students are also paired with participants in the Arabic in Arabic program for course credit, says Fischer, resulting in “a disruption – friendship and mutual understanding.”

While it has become more difficult for Jerusalemites to study in Jordan, and Arabs in Israel are increasingly choosing universities further afield from their hometowns, Medina believes the main driver of change is that more Palestinians from East Jerusalem “are realizing it is essential to be fluent in Hebrew in order to gain better salaries and better positions.”

Pointing to the shift in more Palestinians doing Israel’s high school graduation exam rather than its Palestinian equivalent, the rector admits “it’s a slow and controversial process, but’s it’s a growing trend. We don’t take a political position, but we want to contribute to equality and bridge huge socioeconomic gaps in Israeli society.”

Medina says Hebrew University is trying to create a space for “meaningful interactions,” but given that “sometimes university is the first and last time Jews and Arabs interact in society,” he concedes that his vision for a shared future still has a long way to go.

Students in a cafe at Hebrew University.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Acting alone

And despite the revolution spearheaded by Mendel and Fischer, they admit that their broader vision for change would require this approach to start at a much younger age. “We want it to trickle into society at large, and not just be maintained in the ‘ivory tower,’” Fischer says.

“Sadly, we’re doing all of this without the school system,” she adds, “and our approaches [to the Education Ministry] have faced resistance.”

In late January, Mendel panned the “embarrassing” findings of the Knesset Research and Information Center’s report before a Knesset committee hearing on Arabic studies.

The research found that just 3.7 percent of Israeli Jews take the high school graduation exam in Arabic. Meanwhile, the number of elementary schools teaching Arabic fell 13 percent over the last five years (down to 191 from 220), “even though it’s the language of the Middle East and a Semitic language like Hebrew,” Mendel told the Knesset panel.

When it comes to giving Arabs and Arabic space in academia, there is also still a long way to go. Nasser is the only Palestinian professor in a Hebrew University department where the other eight academics are all Jewish – a search that took almost a century to yield a result.

According to the historian Levy, who wrote a paper about the early history of the department, the university searched for an Arab professor when it opened in 1922, before funds were redirected elsewhere and the 1929 riots derailed the attempt altogether. The eventual incorporation of Jews hailing from Arabic-speaking countries into the department stamped out the desire decisively, he explains.

Medina says the university has managed to double the number of Arab faculty members since 2016, though this was only from 10 to 20, and remains “far from where we want to be.” For now, he says, the university is working on developing “the pipeline” by encouraging more graduate students to stay on, which takes several years to bear fruit.

One of Nasser’s colleagues, Daniel Behar, calls the lack of Arab representation in the department and the absence of courses on modern Arabic literature an “embarrassment,” but argues that the university is finally adapting to the times.

An Arab student and Israeli soldier pass each other at Hebrew University.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“We’re a binational department, and the feeling that the Palestinian students have a lecturer who talks and looks like them is a validating thing,” he says.

In Behar’s class on the modern Arabic novel, the convivial atmosphere lends itself to frank discussions on events of the day. The Jewish students inquire about the meaning of the nationalist song that led to the Palestinian students’ arrest by off-duty police officers also studying at the university.

One Jewish student, Maayan, questions how one group of students can arrest another, and expresses discomfort over any police presence on campus. ־Another Jewish student, Vered, argues that people serving in the police force are ultimately part of society and there’s “no way around it.”

The joint presentation between Palestinian Amal and Israeli-Jewish Vered on literary theorist Frank Kermode’s thinking on groups of “readers” who are included and excluded from understanding, flits between Arabic and Hebrew.

In the middle of the presentation, a Palestinian cleaner pops his head into the classroom and asks in Arabic: “When does this class end?”

The all-female classroom is suddenly filled with knowing glances and comfortable laughter. The Palestinian students reply, but the Jewish students could just as easily have done the same. The differences between the two groups collapse, even if only for a moment.

An Orthodox Jewish man and Arab student on campus at Hebrew University.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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