Arabic Teachers: Security Situation Is Damaging the Subject's Image

Language taught in 80 percent of schools; percent of students taking matriculation exam down 6 percent.

Carmit Bar-On, an Arabic teacher in Rosh Ha'ayin's Begin high school, is frustrated. The Internet site she set up for Arabic studies won a prize from the European Union, after competing with 800 educational sites from some 30 countries, but has received no recognition from the Education Ministry.

"Almost every student of Arabic in Israel uses this site. I built it and maintain and update it myself, on my own time. It's terribly frustrating, but since I didn't build it to win a prize, the education system's attitude is less important to me," she says.

Many Arabic teachers share Bar-On's frustration. More than 50 percent of the Arabic teachers in secondary schools cited the language's low status as the main obstacle in teaching it, a new study of the Henrietta Szold Institute, the National Institute for Research in the Behavioral Sciences, finds.

The survey questioned some 360 teachers in the Jewish school system and examined the feelings of principals and students as well.

Arabic is a compulsory subject in junior high, but only is taught in 80 percent of the schools, the study finds. However, senior Education Ministry sources say that only about two thirds of junior high schools teach Arabic.

"The regulations are not always followed," says the ministry's supervisor for Arabic studies, Shlomo Alon. "The ministry allows for French to be taught in place of Arabic, or Russian in communities with a concentration of new immigrants. A few places teach Amharic as well, and some junior high schools teach no foreign language at all."

Bar-On says that many dedicated teachers encounter not only a reluctance among pupils to study subjects considered impractical, like mathematics or English, but also prejudice and ignorance. "The Arabic language and culture are seen as inferior and primitive," she says.

Only 2009 pupils took the five-unit matriculation exam in Arabic last year, 6 percent fewer than two years earlier. This is a negligible percentage of the Jewish students who took matriculation exams.

"Some of my friends asked what I needed it for," says Yaniv Ninio, a 12th grader from Rosh Ha'ayin studying Arabic. "We are actually studying about another culture. It's important to know the other - both in war and in peace. You can't run away from it and pretend it doesn't exist."

According to the study, 63 percent of the Arabic students in high school said they were studying it because they wanted to "serve in intelligence." Zuf Aragman, also of Rosh Ha'ayin, chose it because she wanted to study another language. "Pupils think that those who study Arabic do it only to get into intelligence, but that's not necessarily true. Languages are among the only things school gives you, because history, for example, I can learn from books," she says.

Some 80 percent of the teachers who participated in the study support adding Arabic to the compulsory matriculation exams. Only about half the principals support this, while the pupils predictedly object. Making the exam in Arabic compulsory would prove that the Education Ministry regards it as an important subject, says Alon. "Arabic must be exactly like literature, civic studies or history."

"If the pupils knew that at the end of the road they had to pass an exam in Arabic, they would doubtless study it much more seriously," says Bar-On. "Every subject that is required for matriculation is taken seriously. It's the only way. Something is wrong here if for so many years the Education Ministry has not succeeded in making it compulsory for pupils to take even a small-scale Arabic exam for matriculation."

The Education Ministry commented: "We are aware of the problem that exists in certain schools, which do not teach Arabic, and we enforce the requirement by means of district instructors and reports to the district directors, who are supposed to oversee study rosters."