Sunday, October 10, 2010

(EDU) Arabic Comes To Israeli Jewish Schools

"'As a democracy Israel aspires to complete equality of all its citizens,' said Dr. Shlomo Alon, head of the education ministry's Arabic and Islam education division as he launched a programme at the beginning of the new school year to make classes in Arabic compulsory in all Jewish public schools. But just a month later, the commitment to 'complete equality' looks like it's taking a back seat.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will present a proposal to his cabinet which will obligate any non-Jew applying for Israeli citizenship to declare loyalty to 'the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.'

It will be a sea change. Under Israel's current Citizenship Law any prospective citizen must declare his or her loyalty simply to 'the State of Israel'.

In effect, the requirement applies mostly to Palestinians who marry Arab Israelis. Any Jew from around the world wishing to become Israeli automatically qualifies for citizenship without being required to take any sort of loyalty oath.

Netanyahu stresses that his proposal dovetails into his insistence that the Palestinians, as part of a future peace agreement, accept Israel as a 'Jewish state'.

While he is guaranteed backing from his nationalist-minded coalition, some ministers balk at the new proposed legislation. Says Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor: 'This will only embitter relations between Israel's Arab minority and the state.'

At a time of increasing tension between the Jewish majority and the 20 percent Arab minority, the new Arabic proposal for schools is designed to assuage mutual suspicions.

Though compulsory, the scheme at first covers only schools in northern Israel, about a fifth of the public schools in the Jewish sector. Until the new official directive, only from age 12 could Jewish pupils study Arabic, and only after learning English in the early grades. Even then, Arabic wasn't compulsory.

To fulfill the requirement of learning a second language, Jewish pupils have quite a choice -- Arabic or another of the languages widely spoken here such as Russian, Amharic or French. Few teenagers opt for Arabic.

Now in 170 public schools in northern Israel, the new programme of the written and spoken language is taking root. It's called 'Ya Salaam' ('how wonderful' in Arabic).

For the fifth graders in Mahmoud's class, Arabic remains foreign. Slowly, laboriously though, it's becoming more familiar to the ear, and to the hand.

'It's much harder than Hebrew,' says Yossi, 10. 'But I've started to like the way it sounds.'

Miriam, a Jewish teacher at the school, says, 'As kids, when we heard Arabic in the street, we were scared. Instilling the Arabic language at a young age may help overcome those fears.'

Eventually, the aim is to apply the pilot scheme to Jewish schools throughout the country. 'We hope,' says Dr. Alon, 'that this studying of Arabic promotes tolerance among our children, conveys a message of acceptance, and builds cultural bridges between Jews and Arabs.'

But for many Jewish parents and their children, Arabic is not always seen as a means of getting to know their Arab neighbours better, or to understanding them better.

Most Arab Israelis speak fluent Hebrew. Hebrew words are often interlaced in their Arabic. Said one Jewish parent who declined to give his name, 'What's important about knowing Arabic is that our children can understand what the Arabs are saying about us in their own language.'

Up until now, for those Jewish students, generation after generation, who did study Arabic, it was often perceived as 'a national necessity', as 'a security- minded duty', based on the conventional wisdom of 'know thy enemy'.

Many Jewish students who chose to study Arabic right through school go on to do their national military service in intelligence units or in security services.

Most Jewish Israelis feel they share far more values with Europeans or Americans than with their immediate Arab neighbours, albeit many of their families immigrated from Arab countries and Arabic was spoken at home (often as a way for the parents to make sure their children would not understand them).

What drives young Jewish Israelis away from Arabic is their sense of being caught up in a never-ending struggle for Israel's acceptance in the Middle East.

By their own admission, Israel's place in 'a tough neighbourhood' is usually seen only through the narrow prism of the long-drawn-out Israeli-Arab conflict, and their own overwhelming feeling that they belong to 'a tiny Jewish state surrounded by' --not close to -- the neighbouring Arab countries.

So, why this initiative now?

'An increasing demand from students and parents -- as simple as that,' says Alon. 'But our hope is that as the only democracy in the Middle East, making the study of Arabic compulsory will encourage a respect for civil rights and bring about greater acceptance of the Arab minority as full citizens. Besides, we want to provide more work opportunities for Arab teachers.'

Of the thousand or so Arabic teachers in the Jewish public school system, the overwhelming majority are Jewish. Now, 50 additional Arab teachers have begun teaching in Jewish schools.

Even Alon concedes that for all the good intentions, two hours a week of Arabic is just a start, no more than a taste of what's needed to bridge the gap between Jewish and Arab Israelis. Not merely a cultural gap, but deep inequality in terms of the application of civil rights.

Still, in spite of its limited scope, if expanded and implemented properly, the 'Ya Salaam' project might do yet something to eliminate the current hostility towards Arabic as a language, and even perhaps bring Jews and Arabs slightly closer together." (source)

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