In Israel, a Bid to Make Arabic More of a Language in Common

By Miller, Elhanan | The Christian Science Monitor, July 17, 2016 | Go to article overview

In Israel, a Bid to Make Arabic More of a Language in Common


Miller, Elhanan, The Christian Science Monitor


Two years ago, Gilad Sevitt was strolling the alleyways of Jerusalem's Old City, chatting away with vendors in Arabic as his frustrated friend tagged along, hardly understanding a word.

"We could really notice the gap between us," recalls Mr. Sevitt, one of the rare Israeli Jews who specialized in Arabic in high school, and then perfected it as a military intelligence soldier. "It was a eureka moment."

His friend is not alone. Though Arabic is an official language of Israel and roughly half of Israeli Jews trace their heritage to Arabic-speaking countries, today only about 1 in 10 can speak or understand it well, according to a 2015 study by Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute. But 58 percent said Arabic was important to learn.

So as a university student, Sevitt set out to rectify the language gap. His program has evolved from teaching friends at home to launching YouTube videos designed to equip Hebrew speakers for daily interactions with Arabs: niceties, requesting directions, even a date gone sour.

"The free videos are a way of compensating for the six years I spent studying Arabic in school and not being able to speak a word," Sevitt says, referring to Israeli schools' system of teaching modern standard Arabic, a formal version of the language, rather than the very different dialect spoken on the street.

Though the videos' featured scenarios may seem artificial at first - Jews and Arabs rarely interact socially - they're an important step toward cultural bridge-building in a deeply segregated society. For many Israeli Jews, Arabic is not only incomprehensible but also conjures up fear, hatred, or associations with terrorism.

Enabling Jewish Israelis to hear the language in a different context can open the way for them to see their Palestinian neighbors in a new way, Sevitt opined.

The language barrier negatively impacts Israel's minorities as well. Palestinians living in mixed cities are often anxious about speaking Arabic in public, for fear of negative reactions from Jews, especially at times of heightened political tension. In February 2015, a Druze soldier was badly beaten at an Israeli night club after speaking Arabic with his friend.

Sevitt uploaded his first three videos in December 2014 under the title Madrasa, Arabic for "school." The enthusiastic public feedback to the videos, from 13-year-olds to octogenarians, has surpassed Sevitt's expectations. Google analytics reveals more than 360,000 visits to the website since its launch, mostly by 18- to 34-year- olds. …

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