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Trying to Change Attitudes, Haifa Schools Mandate Teaching of Arabic

March 8, 2005
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“Suppose we meet an Arab and he wants to kill us. We can say that we, too, are Arabs,” said 11-year-old Shakked Petter, explaining why she wanted to learn Arabic. Well, “wanted” may not be exactly the right word.

The study of Arabic actually was imposed on Shakked and her fifth-grade classmates at the Herzl elementary school in Haifa.

Against all odds, some grownups decided to launch an experimental project that eventually could create a cultural revolution. They want to expose the next generation of Israelis to the language of their next-door neighbors.

Some 16 schools in Haifa and Carmiel adopted the project about a month ago. It marks the first time in the State of Israel’s educational history that the study of Arabic will be compulsory for fifth- and sixth-graders.

Now only seventh- through ninth-graders are required to study Arabic, though that requirement is not widely enforced.

At first students at the Herzl school were suspicious, but now many seem to like their new class.

“It is important that we can talk to Arab children in their own language,” said student Daniel Sharmet. “We need to be able to communicate to each other. They know Hebrew better than we know Arabic.”

His friend Nir Adi agreed. “We live together and we share the same country.”

Haifa was chosen for the experiment because of its relatively high Arab population — 22,000 of its 272,000 residents are Arab. Carmiel was chosen because it is close to many Arab villages in the Galilee.

“I believe it is highly important to study Arabic and I have put it high on the priority list,” said Herzl’s principal, Nava Landman. “There is no doubt in my mind the study of Arabic is a precondition for peace.”

If it is successful, the project will expand to other schools throughout Israel.

The project is a joint venture of the Ministry of Education, the municipalities of Haifa and Carmiel, and the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an organization that promotes coexistence programs and chipped in a third of the cost, with an additional investment of some $100,000.

“It is in the interest of both the Jewish majority and the Arab minority that Jewish children will speak the language,” said Dan Pattir, the executive vice president of the fund, which is based in Jerusalem and New York.

“We think that in a country with a majority and a minority, the majority should learn the language of the minority.”

Although Arabic is Israel’s second official language, the mother tongue of Israel’s 1 million Arab citizens and millions of its neighbors, very few young Israeli Jews actually learn the language.

“Many children prefer to learn Spanish because it helps them understand the telenovelas on television,” said Landman.

Seemingly in reaction to Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Arabs, Israeli Jews in general, and the educational system in particular, never opened up to Arab culture.

Until 1967, when overnight Israel controlled vast Arab territories, only a small number of Israelis studied Arabic and the history of the Middle East.

Interest grew stronger after the 1967 Six-Day War, but the study of Arabic is still sporadic.

Some 2,000 students up to the sixth grade learn the language.

The greatest number of Israeli children who study Arabic — 40,000 — are in the seventh to ninth grades. At the age, Arabic is ostensibly compulsory, but school principals have the right to substitute French, Spanish, Russian or Amharic for Arabic. As a result, 40,000 represents only half the eligible students in those grades.

“In some schools, if you don’t feel like studying the language, they do not insist,” said Landman.

From 10th to 12th grade the study of Arabic once again is elective.

In her class at the Herzl school, teacher Miri Ohaion was energetic and forceful, prodding the fifth-graders into speaking a language that could have been Sanskrit to them only two weeks earlier.

“Marhaba,” Ohaion greeted her students, using the traditional Arabic greeting. She made them memorize “my name is” and “your name is” in both feminine and masculine forms, every now and then folded in unfamiliar words, such as “mumtaz” — excellent — and “kalb” — dog — and then distributed labels with words in Hebrew and Arabic. The students were surprised to realize how similar the two languages are.

“It is easy to learn the language,” said student Barak Solomon. “So many words in Hebrew and Arabic sound alike.”

“It is unacceptable that when a Jewish child meets an Arab child in the market or at a soccer field, he cannot speak to him in Arabic,” said Ohaion. Shlomo Alon, who supervises Arabic language and Middle Eastern studies for Israel’s education ministry, believes that the only way to ensure that students learn Arabic is to make its teaching mandatory, just as English and Bible studies are.

Such a mandate would require many changes, including an increase in Arabic teachers.

Alon said that if Arabic becomes mandatory, teachers will develop. “No one prepares himself for a project that has no demand.”

Some believe that the educational and military establishments should have been the first to promote Arabic studies. Even if they had not been motivated by the ideal of coexistence, at least the goal of “knowing thy enemy” would have been sufficient. Ever since the state was established, senior intelligence officers have complained of the shortage of Arabic speakers among army recruits.

“It beats me why the army doesn’t have the power to introduce the change, but this should not be the main argument for studying Arabic,” said Alon. “There are enough positive arguments.”

Observers believe it will take some time before Arabic becomes commonplace in Israeli classrooms.

Not only will Israelis’ attitude toward Arabic itself have to change, they say, but so will the relationship with and the attitudes toward the people who speak it.

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