The Language of the Underworld

Every year around 2,000 high school students take the Arabic language matriculation exam. This is no more than three percent of all the students who take the exams. Why is the Israeli public against learning to speak Arabic?

Every year around 2,000 high school students take the Arabic language matriculation exam. This is no more than three percent of all the students who take the exams - apparently much more than the number of spies the state needs, and certainly several times more than the number of translators the courts need when they sit in judgment on Arabs who do not speak Hebrew.

Who else isn't interested in learning Arabic? Soldiers at checkpoints use their hands to communicate with their "clients." Gas company technicians and shoppers who used to frequent Arab towns no longer go to places where Arabic is spoken. Politicians who want to respond to something written about them in an Israeli-Arab newspaper will certainly find someone to translate for them, or simply not respond at all.

Israeli Arabs are not a target audience for persuasion, and when elections come around again, the politicians will find some other way to manage. Arabic may be an official state language - but it's better not to speak it. Anyone who tries to speak Arabic at a mall or in a line for a movie will immediately find himself face to face with a policeman or security officer.

Arabic is an official language, but it belongs to the other culture, to the culture of those perceived as the enemy, to the stone throwers, to terrorists. Therefore it is also the natural language of the underworld - the intelligence services, the Shin Bet, the minorities.

It is not the language of students who want "to connect with the world." They will study French, of course. Why? To read Flaubert or Levi-Strauss in the original? Or perhaps to be able to catch all the nuances in speeches made by Jacques Chirac on visits to Arab countries? We are not talking about a more wide-ranging connection to the Internet, for example, where there are several times the number of Web pages in Arabic than in French, Spanish, Italian or Russian.

"Arabic is a difficult language to learn and the teaching methods are outdated and discouraging," says a superintendent in the Education Ministry gloomily. "I get the feeling the Education Ministry does all it can to ensure Arabic is taught in such as way as to ensure it remains a dead language - a dry language of documents of little cultural interest. Maybe it's politics?"

But the same was true for teaching mathematics and English, until the pressing need for these subjects overthrew the status quo and new teaching methods were integrated into the system. No other compulsory subject can boast similar statistics - about 150,000 students begin learning Arabic in seventh grade, but only about 2,000 sit for the matriculation exam. This is one of those lonely professions where only those who are truly passionate about it have any chance of surmounting all the obstacles.

One such person is Yitzhak Abadi, 67, who wrote, edited and is distributing his own curriculum, which includes Arabic history and culture as well as Arabic language. But this project hasn't significantly added to the number of students studying Arabic at university. Last year, the number of students in the departments of Arabic language and literature declined by approximately 20 percent.

"Since the Jews are distancing themselves from contact with Arabs, the language and culture themselves are transformed into the enemy," says an Arab student at Ben-Gurion University. "Look how many Jews will tell you that they `understand the Arabs' and compare how many actually know any Arabs or Arabic. I'm not going to tell you I studied Hebrew in high school to build a cultural bridge, but it also wasn't so as to `know the enemy.' I expanded my Hebrew studies because this is the language of a culture I admire and want to get to know. You [Jews] replace the idea of Arabic culture with the idea of an Arab mentality, and then it all works out. And since you create this separation by virtue of this `mentality,' you don't have any need to learn the language. Maybe if the Education Ministry one day decides to forbid Arabic study in Jewish schools, the language will have more of a chance. Because young people like to do the opposite of what they're told."

The Education Ministry apparently isn't about to give the language that kind of chance. In Jewish schools, Arabic will continue to be a dying, but not forbidden, language. This is the surest way to preserve two national Jewish entities in Israel - a geographic entity that stretches to the borders of the state or even beyond, and a narrow, cultural entity whose borders curve and twist to circumvent Tira and Taibe, Ar'ara and Umm al Fahm, Nazareth and Shefar'am, Mahmoud Darwish and Emil Habibi.