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
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
''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
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. …