The Importance of Learning Arabic

Israelis must make the effort to learn the language of their neighbors.

Israeli high school students taking matriculation exams, April 4, 2009
Israeli high school students taking matriculation exams. Archive

The status of the Arabic language in the Israeli education system has been degraded to such an extent that it has all but disappeared. This is peculiar when you consider that Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel’s population, that many of the people here immigrated from Arabic-speaking countries and that Israel itself is located in an almost entirely Arabic-speaking region.

Since 1948 Arabic has been taught in Israel inconsistently and subject to various strange regulations. Currently, for example, as Yarden Skop reported in Haaretz yesterday, Arabic is defined in the northern district as a compulsory subject already in elementary school. But this regulation does not apply to religious state schools. In other districts Arabic-language studies are classified as compulsory only in junior-high school, but in many schools students may choose between Arabic and French.

Education Minister Shay Piron recently canceled the obligation to study Arabic in the 10th grade. But this obligation had not been enforced properly anyway, and only a small number of Jewish students took matriculation exams in Arabic.

In addition to these inconsistent regulations, curricula have been changed abruptly and the education system mostly refrains from employing Arab teachers, who speak the language perfectly. As a result, the teaching standard of Arabic is low and the students do not acquire eloquence in the language.

Arabic-language studies mostly evoke a negative connotation of “the enemy’s language” and in most cases these studies are aimed at training the next intelligence generation. It would not be far-fetched to assume that studies of this kind are not conducive to a positive approach to either the language or its speakers. On the contrary, they contribute to the already existing alienation and suspicion between Jews and Arabs.

Israel should see Arabic as an official language not only on paper, and back this declaration with practical steps. The Education Ministry must set a homogenous study program for all schools, consisting of uniform criteria for compulsory studies, which will apply to the religious state schools as well.

But first and foremost the ministry must employ Arab teachers, who are familiar with the spoken and literary tongue, and train more teachers, both Arab and Jewish, to teach Arabic.

Arabic studies in schools should be no less important than English studies, whose necessity nobody doubts. After all, Israel is part of the Middle East, which is mostly Arab, and it is appropriate for its people to invest more in learning their closest neighbors’ language.