Arabic in Israel

Language as a Bridge between Peoples

People as a Bridge between Languages

Written by: Ishmael Ben-Israel

Initiator and co-director of


Israeli Arabs make up a large minority group (20%) within the general population of the country. This group suffers from discrimination at different levels of Israeli society, in the public as well as private sectors. Contemporary state initiated policies of affirmative action, have yet to be proven efficient tools in the struggle against ongoing Arab under-representation in Israel's workforce and institutions of higher education.

It would seem that the Arabic language is in the same predicament as the Arab population in Israel. It too suffers from discrimination and underrepresentation. Arabic gained the status of official language of the country in 1922, by way of legislation of the British Mandate. Israel has never changed this law. I personally am of the opinion that the term "official language" refers not only to a language belonging to its native speakers, but in a deeper sense, a language that belongs to the society as a whole. If that is the case, then Arabic should be regarded as a real social asset, to be studied, used and celebrated.

In theory, the state of Israel has acknowledged the special status of the Arabic language, throughout the years. In practice though, the state has not done enough to instill this recognition within the greater society. At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Arabic in Israel is at a real low point and hopefully at a crossroads of sorts. The following are some stats that may help shed light on the current situation:

· While more than 85% of Israel's adult Arab population speaks fluent Hebrew, most adult Jewish Israelis (80%) don't speak Arabic at all

· Out of the 20% that do speak Arabic, 15% are of Middle Eastern or North African origin and speak Arabic as a mother tongue

· There are very few elementary schools in Israel in which Arabic is taught as a standard part of the curriculum

· 75% of all middle-school pupils learn Arabic (most commonly in its classical or literary form)

· Only 20% of the above mentioned junior high school pupils continue their Arabic studies in high school

· High school graduates that stop learning Arabic after middle school, have no functional use of the language whatsoever, later on in their lives

· Many (Jewish) Arabic teachers are not proficient in the "spoken language" and can't converse freely in the 'literary language"

· The absolute majority of Arabic teachers in Israel are Jews

The Arabic language in Israel is trapped in a very complicated reality. On the one hand we're talking about a language spoken by more than 200 million people in the world, the residents of our neighboring states in the Middle East and one out of every five Israelis. On the other hand, we're dealing with the language of a nation that is in a deep and prolonged conflict with the state of Israel. While all appreciate the fact that high Arabic proficiency is an advantage, if not a necessity, in many aspects of life, especially in times of war; this rational understanding isn't always translated into an active effort to encourage the advancement of Arabic, as a language of peace for social-humanistic purposes.

The reluctance to learn Arabic exists mostly on a social-emotional level and surprisingly enough, not on a political-institutional one. In fact, the government's official policy is quite clear: clause 2.11 of the law dealing with Israel's public education states that one of the central goals of the education system is to teach "the language, culture, history, heritage and traditions of the Arab population…". However, the Israeli people are an ethnocentric society that literally fears for its life, its national existence and the survival of its language. It seems that the Arabic language threatens the collective confidence and self esteem of Israeli society.

What are the "excuses" given for the lack of enthusiasm towards learning Arabic?

· Arabic is a difficult language to learn and speak

· Extra hours for learning Arabic will come at the cost of less hours for traditional Jewish content

· In our modern-global and English dominated economy, Arabic has no comparative advantage over other languages

· Arabic is an "unpleasant language to the ear"

· Arabic is the language of our enemies

· Jews and Arabs already have a common language in Israel-Hebrew

· Learning English is difficult enough without having to learn another foreign language

What are the "core reasons" behind Israelis' reluctance to learn Arabic?

· Arabic is associated with Arabic speakers-Israeli Arabs and the Arabs of our neighboring states

· Arabic speakers are perceived in a very stereotypical manner

· Most Israelis' knowledge about Arabs is mediated by the media

· The media brings to the public's collective awareness only extreme Arab figures-sometimes heroic, but usually very negative and violent figures

· The average citizen and especially youngsters have no day to day direct contact with Arabs

So we see that a large number of Israelis have a negative attitude towards Arabic, which corresponds with a negative attitude towards Arabic speakers. All the excuses in the world can't hide the fact that the two are inherently interconnected. Two central factors intensify these attitudes: the Arab Israeli conflict and the lack of real one-on-one human relationships between individuals from the two distinct communities.

So what can bridge the gaps and get the two communities to communicate with one another?

In the upcoming school year (2010-2011) a local grassroots initiative will challenge the traditional way we Israelis think of Arabs in general and our conception of the Arabic language in particular.

A.M.A.L. is the Hebrew acronym for "Spoken Arabic for all". The A.M.A.L. program was conceived in the framework of the British Council's "Intercultural Navigators" program and is co-sponsored by "Perach" (Israel's national mentoring program) and The British Council of Israel. Arab students taking part in the project will teach spoken Arabic and Arab culture in Jewish elementary schools.

Our vision is a more tolerant and open minded Israeli society in which the popularly accepted equation, Arabic=Arabs=terrorists, is replaced by a new equation, Arabic=Arabs=human beings. In this case, the human beings are regular everyday Arab students, future doctors, lawyers and engineers, reaching out to young Israeli Jews, with the hope of changing perceptions and stereotypes.

We see ourselves as citizens of a modern liberal society, in which Arabic and Hebrew can live side by side in peace and common respect. Jews that don't speak Arabic in Israel should be the exception, not the rule. Our program makes the linguistic leap a bit easier, by having it done at a young age, with the help of young native speakers that the pupils can relate to. The linguistic bridge in turn will make the formation of intercultural relationships easier and by so doing will create a better future for all of us.

The A.M.A.L. project is currently operated by volunteers, while the students receive scholarships. In order to ensure long term growth and sustainability we are in great need of external funding to pay for overheads and salaries for the management team. We are therefore seeking an ANGEL that can take us under his/her wings and help us fly towards a truly national project in scope that has the potential of having a long lasting and significant effect on our society and region.

For more information contact me in Israel – 050-7772002


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Comment by Irit Hakim-Keller on October 8, 2010 at 10:28pm
Dear Ishmael,
Thank you so much for this article, which I find very very important.
I myself - do not speak Arabic, want very much to learn it, have been in contact with a teacher( you had given me the name...:)), but still - I am not learning yet.
I am telling this with no excuses, and with a kind of shame- feelings. I know that I do want to learn the language I guess there are others who are at the same point as mine.
All I can say is (to myself most of all) - it is VERY important that we - Israelis -learn the language of the people we want to be talking to. Language is a bridge to understanding .
I take this stage to ask - if there is someone in my city -Rishon le Zion (I couldn't make it going to Tel Aviv) who may want to teach me Arabic - pls leave a message here or in my inbox. thanks.


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