In Israel, a Push to Learn the Language of 'The Enemy'

Article excerpt

The current decline in the study of Arabic in Israeli schools could compromise coexistence efforts and the military's ability to gather intelligence. But one program is countering that trend.

Arabic teacher Essam Shihada's casual dress - sneakers and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt - contrasts with the seriousness of what he is trying to do: endear Israeli Jewish pupils to the study of the ''enemy's language.''

A few minutes after fielding questions from Mr. Shihada and each other about how many siblings they have and where their parents work, the class of Israeli youngsters is enthusiastically singing the words of an ancient Arabic folk song about harvesting olives. ''God, bless the olive trees. The olives of my land are especially delicious. They give fine oil. All the world wants to eat them,'' the two dozen children intone.

The singing is a major achievement in a land where Arabic and its speakers are often viewed with suspicion and where instruction of the language is widely seen as being in decline, with a shortage of qualified teachers and few students choosing to take it for their high school matriculation exam.

Despite Arabic being an official Israeli language alongside Hebrew, most Israelis can neither read nor speak it competently, if at all - a situation that critics of government education policy say hinders coexistence prospects with Israel's sizable Arab minority and could hinder the military's intelligence-gathering efforts.

Israel is only beginning to come to terms with the problem.

'Many Arabic teachers don't know how to speak or write Arabic'

The Israel Academy of Sciences recently issued a report detailing Arabic teaching deficiencies, concluding among other things that making the language a matriculation requirement is necessary to redress the situation. The academy's report said only a few Arabic teachers were native speakers.

''Teaching of Arabic is done mostly in Hebrew, including in teacher training programs, and the result is that many of the Arabic teachers do not know how to speak or write Arabic,'' the report said.

''This situation is improper and abnormal,'' says Yaron Friedman, who teaches Arabic at the Technion Institute in Haifa. ''What is being done is not enough,'' he says.

He warns that Israel is raising a young generation that is ''detached from the Middle East'' both linguistically and culturally.

The Ministry of Education declined to respond directly to the criticisms but says the subject of Arabic instruction ''is one undergoing constant development.'' It added that the ministry is ''striving'' to make the language a requirement for matriculation in the future but did not give a date.

The military, meanwhile, is also worried about the troubled state of Arabic instruction, fearing it will not have a large enough pool for future intelligence officers. ''The army has identified in recent years a severe problem in the level of exposure of pupils to Arabic and we have seen that among those who learned, the knowledge level is not high to put it mildly,'' an intelligence officer who deals with Arabic instruction told Ynet news.

From 15 schools to 200, the program expands

Despite the overall woes, Shihada's class is part of a growing bright spot on the Israeli linguistic horizon. …