Jerusalem schools begin teaching spoken Arabic to reduce east-west divide

Ahlan program aims to enhance ability of Jewish students to communicate in Arabic, in effort to create ‘positive light’ between city’s Arab and Jewish residents

Illustrative: A pair of glasses rests on a worksheet used to teach Arabic to Israeli students. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: A pair of glasses rests on a worksheet used to teach Arabic to Israeli students. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Jerusalem Municipality has launched a new Arabic-language education program, which will see 30 schools across the city begin to teach Arabic to Jewish students this schoolyear.

The program — named Ahlan, an Arabic greeting also used by many Hebrew speakers — will be taught by 50 Arabic-speaking university students currently studying education. It will be overseen by Madrasa, an organization that promotes spoken Arabic among Jewish Israelis.

According to Madrasa’s website, 95 percent of Jewish Israelis have no ability to communicate in Arabic, though 22% of Israel’s total population are native Arabic speakers.

The university students will spend four hours a week teaching the language and in exchange will receive education scholarships.

The new school program seeks to reduce language and social barriers between predominantly Arabic-speaking East Jerusalem and the city’s majority-Jewish Hebrew-speaking western half.

Currently, Arabic is not a compulsory subject in Israeli schools. While it can be taken as an elective, in practice very few schools offer the course.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion speaks in Jerusalem, July 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Launching the program, the municipality said, “The aim of the program is to create positive light and a connection to the Arabic language, a connection between east and west and the ability to communicate through language.”

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion welcomed the new initiative, saying, “The Arabic language is one of the most widely spoken in the world, in Israel and in the Jerusalem municipality.

“By teaching Arabic, students will be able to recognize the language’s history and rich culture, and most importantly to speak and engage in fruitful dialogue.”

Ittay Flescher, education director at Kids4Peace Jerusalem, an interfaith organization that brings together Israeli and Palestinian youth from both sides of the city, also offered praise.

“A common theme that often arises in our dialogue between teenagers is the issue of language. Many Palestinian youths often comment about how meaningful it is to be spoken to in their own language, in acknowledgment that another person is making an effort to make them feel more included and at home in this city,” Flescher told The Times of Israel.

“Any initiative that increases the number of Jews who speak Arabic will be positive to furthering understanding and respect in this city.”

With the aim of increasing dialogue and communication between the city’s two halves, the program will teach the Palestinian dialect of spoken Arabic, rather than less practical formal Arabic.

The standing of the Arabic language within Israeli society came under public scrutiny following the controversial 2018 Jewish Nation-State law, pushed by then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Critics claimed the legislation relegated both Arab citizens and the Arabic language to second-class status in the Jewish state.

The legislation downgraded the Arabic language from official to “special” standing, but also cryptically stipulated that “this clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect” in Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.

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