'Arabic is not that difficult if you speak Hebrew'

Online Arabic schools show ‘huge leap’ in students during Israel-Hamas war

Uptick attributed to a desire to know the enemy and communicate with neighbors; in-person adult classes reportedly less popular

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative photo of writing on a blackboard in a language class with the text "Arabic" written on it. (Juan Ci/Shutterstock)
Illustrative photo of writing on a blackboard in a language class with the text "Arabic" written on it. (Juan Ci/Shutterstock)

Immediately after the October 7 Hamas onslaught in southern Israel, Gilad Sevitt, founder and professional director of Madrasa, a free online platform for Israelis to learn Arabic, saw registration numbers for the website plummet.

The Madrasa staff briefly feared that given the circumstances, Jewish Israelis would not want to continue to learn Arabic. However, “after the initial shock of a few days, we saw double and triple the number of new students,” Sevitt told The Times of Israel.

“Before October 7, we had 50 Israelis every day registering to learn on the website, which is a lot. But there was a huge leap after, it was amazing to see,” he said.

This growing interest in speaking and understanding Arabic shows that “the diverse motivations in learning Arabic became intensified” because of the war, Sevitt said.

These motivations run the gamut, he said, noting that he has access to real-time data on users’ reasons for deciding to learn Arabic because they fill out a questionnaire when signing up to the website.

“Fear became very central,” he admitted, but added that many want to learn “because we have to start communicating better with the Arabic world, with Arab Israelis and Palestinians, or the 24 Arabic-speaking countries around us.”

A “return to their roots” for Jewish Israelis whose family origins lie in Arabic-speaking countries is also a central motivation for many, he said. “The Arabic language and culture, for the Jews, was set aside. We had to differentiate ourselves to create the ‘New Israeli.’”

Many people who had thought about learning Arabic before October 7 suddenly said “now’s the time,” he added.

Chart showing the daily growth in registered users at madrasafree.com learning spoken Arabic after October 7, 2023. (courtesy)

Madrasa, a nonprofit organization that provides online lessons at no charge, is one of several internet platforms offering spoken Arabic in Israel. Madrasa now has some 150,000 registered users. The field has grown considerably in the last several years, something that Sevitt takes partial credit for.

Sevitt had learned Arabic in high school and in the army, taking traditional classes that focused on classical, literary Arabic. That’s distinct from spoken colloquial Arabic, which can vary considerably from region to region.

“To my surprise, even after nine years in the system, I wasn’t able to communicate” easily with people in the street, he recalled.

After working to improve his spoken Arabic, “I saw how it changed my life, as a Jewish Israeli in Jerusalem,” he said.

One day, after a childhood friend was amazed at Sevitt’s ease in communicating with Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Old City and wanted to be able to do the same, they checked online to find web-based options for Israelis to learn spoken Arabic. There weren’t any, and so the idea for Madrasa was born.

Gilad Sevitt, founder and CEO of Madrasa. (courtesy)

“My friends and I published the first videos in 2014 and we received hundreds of comments. It started as a basic website, and then it became a nonprofit organization and website to teach Israelis Arabic. The rest is history,” he said.

Looking at the Arabic language “from a military or scholarly perspective only,” as the Israeli education system has traditionally done, “is a mistake,” he said.

“Learning a language also changes how you think and how you see the people who speak it. It’s not only a tool for knowing your enemy,” Sevitt asserted.

From IDF intelligence to tech activists

Coming from a military background can actually increase awareness of the place the Arabic language can play in Israeli society, as is the case with the founders of Fanan Ledaber Aravit (“Fun to Speak Arabic), another popular online platform for learning the language.

Fanan, which is slang for “enjoyment” or “chilling,” was started in 2020 by a group who had served together in IDF intelligence and, as a result of their experiences, collectively felt it was important for more Israelis to be able to understand Arabic, explained Liad, one of the founders, who did not want to give his last name due to security concerns.

Excerpt from a Fanan Ledaber Aravit YouTube video comparing “Salaam Alaichem” in Arabic and “Shalom Aleichem” in Hebrew. (used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“From the beginning, we wanted to teach people to speak at an advanced level,” he said, speaking to The Times of Israel by phone while on reserve duty. “Today, around 20-25 percent of the population are Arabs, but only around 4-5% of the non-Arab population can speak Arabic. It can’t continue like that.”

Fanan has also seen a dramatic uptick in users. “With this war, interest has grown quite a bit,” Liad said, noting that after a drop off post-October 7, “by December there was a huge increase” and registration had increased fourfold.

A lot of their users are career-oriented people “who think like us, who want to speak to others to build a better society, or want to become an officer and so need to learn Arabic, or want to learn the language of the enemy,” he said.

The website charges for lessons “but it’s pretty low for the field. From the beginning, we wanted to enable as many as possible to learn Arabic,” Liad said, and noted that the website is a self-supporting side project for the founders.

In-person groups shrink

While online lessons received a boost in popularity during the war, in-person Arabic classes for adults, which are available throughout Israel from a myriad of organizations, companies and private individuals, seem to have experienced a decline in students.

“We now have 30% fewer students,” confirmed Amos Avidov, head of Diwaan, a private Arabic language school in Tel Aviv founded 25 years ago that focuses on in-person group classes.

The drop-off is in new students and not as much for returning students, he noted, attributing the change to a combination of fatigue, media overload and general stress. “Because of the situation, they aren’t in the mood. How much time can people invest?”

Right now, many people are “connected to the TV too much” and can’t “learn a language, focus, or make an effort,” he said.

Diwaan does have an internet track that offers pre-recorded video lessons, which has seen “about 25% more students,” Avidov noted. However, he said, video-based lessons “aren’t like learning with a real teacher.”

The company also sells an interactive Hebrew-Arabic dictionary app for smartphones, which he said has become popular with soldiers serving in Gaza.

In the capital, the Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Center (JICC), a nonprofit community organization, began teaching spoken Arabic classes in 2006. Their in-person classes run from September to June in small groups, “so people who started the course began in September and we don’t accept new students after,” explained director Daniel Hasson, meaning that potential students after October 7 wouldn’t have been able to register.

However, “after the war began we had quite a lot of people in reserve duty who had to leave, and a few [others] disappeared… later we got emails saying they couldn’t carry on, and so we just gave them refunds,” he said.

In recent years there “absolutely has been a growth in learning Arabic,” Hasson added. “There is a revival. I think people are realizing there is a value in communicating, and a lot of the students told us that they had extra motivation once the war began.”

The stereotypes about Jewish Israelis who want to learn Arabic — that they are either hard-core leftists or want to work for the various security services — are not totally accurate, Hasson noted, as did the other educators interviewed for this article.

The students at the JICC “run the full gamut,” he insisted, including “psychiatric professionals, doctors, nurses, municipal employees and academics,” as well as Israelis who live in ideological communities in East Jerusalem neighborhoods “who want to speak with their neighbors.”

Learning Arabic “is not that difficult if you speak Hebrew, and the way our courses are taught is built on a lot of material that people already have,” Hasson said.

Despite this, “in general there is little incentive for mainstream Jewish residents to learn Arabic. They might either need it for their profession or they want to communicate, but there has to be an awakening inside.”

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