Reformers want schools to stop churning out Arabic students who can’t speak Arabic

With a focus on formal rather than conversational Arabic, Israel’s high schools are ‘teaching a living language as if it were dead,’ says one critic pushing for changes

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

The Tel Aviv municipality building lit up with the word "peace" in Arabic, which alternated with Hebrew and English, September 15, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The Tel Aviv municipality building lit up with the word "peace" in Arabic, which alternated with Hebrew and English, September 15, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Early this year, an Arab lawmaker caused a stir by delivering a speech on the Knesset floor in Arabic.

As Ra’am MK Walid Taha held forth on a controversial bill being considered, a right-wing parliamentarian assailed him, demanding that he speak Hebrew. Days later, another right-wing MK called for legislation mandating Hebrew in the plenum.

In June, the issue reared its head again, nearly blowing a non-issue into a coalition crisis. Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi told an interviewer in Arabic that she and now-Prime Minister Yair Lapid had discussed issues she wanted resolved, but in a Hebrew tweet summarizing the interview, was misquoted as saying Lapid made her several controversial “promises.” Some reporters who relied on the Hebrew rather than the Arabic initially misquoted her, while others embarked on a wild goose chase as they tried to verify the comments or gather responses.

The lack of Arabic comprehension in Israeli society is not limited to the Knesset or media, with few Jewish Israelis having more than rudimentary knowledge of the language. While some reformers have sought to make Arabic instruction mandatory in schools, students and others say even the classes that are being offered are not preparing students to be able to use the language outside of an academic setting.

“We need to stop the oriental treatment of Arabic: Arabic is not a frozen language, it’s not the language of the enemy, it should be taught like French and English,” said Yoni Mendel, an Arabic scholar at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who co-authored a 2020 report on the state of Arabic knowledge among Jewish Israelis for the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem.

Across the country, rates of Arabic instruction are falling even as some urge policymakers to make it a mandatory second language, much like English. Experts blame not only changing cultural attitudes, but also a teaching framework that is encumbered by politics and security and has grown effete and antiquated.

According to former students and experts, Israel’s education system emphasizes grammar over communication and relies on teachers who are not Arabic speakers. Mendel and others have set out to narrow the gaps by changing the way Arabic is taught at some universities, but critics say deeper reforms are needed if schools are to seriously tackle the instruction of a language spoken by one in five Israelis.

“Arabic needs to be revived in the Jewish educational system,” Mendel, who is Jewish, said. “It’s being treated as a dead language and it’s not dead.”

‘We should be embarrassed’

When Ido Edri was finishing high school some eight years ago, he elected to take the Arabic bagrut. The bagrut is a type of standardized test used for university matriculation to test students’ knowledge of certain subjects upon completing high school, and Arabic seemed a natural choice for Edri, who had taken the full complement of classes on the foreign language offered by his prestigious Kfar Saba high school.

Edri aced the test with a perfect 100 percent, but despite his high marks, left school feeling as if his Arabic was rudimentary at best. He might be able to read an Arabic textbook, but could not confidently hold down an actual conversation with a native Arabic speaker.

“I was very excited that I could study Arabic, but when I left high school, I didn’t know Arabic at all,” he told The Times of Israel.

Edri blamed his school and the way he was taught Arabic, a complaint echoed by other students and critics who say the educational system is failing to equip students with the knowledge needed to use their Arabic in non-academic settings.

“We should be embarrassed at some level about how we teach Arabic,” said Efrat Avidan, who graduated high school in 2013 and wants to teach the language herself.

Illustrative: High school students take a matriculation examination in Yehud, July 8, 2020 (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

In an effort to deal with the problem, Mendel and others have pioneered a new program at Ben-Gurion University aimed at filling holes left by standard Arabic instruction in Israel.

The program is focused mainly on conversational Arabic, rather than methods of deciphering literary Arabic, and teaches in the language of instruction to simulate immersion, unlike high school programs that rely on Hebrew.

“We need to have a reform in the way that we teach Arabic,” said Mendel. “Arabic in Israel is still being taught in a conservative, traditional way,” he added, making it little surprise that “most Israelis who learn Arabic don’t have practical skills.”

“Arabic is really connected to Israel, 20% of our population is Arab. I want to communicate with them,” said Yotam, who is a student in the program along with Edri, Avidan and others. He asked to withhold his last name.

Native Arabic speakers, most of whom need fluent Hebrew in order to navigate Israeli society, say increasing Arabic facility among the Hebrew community would foster greater communication and integration while also leveling the societal playing field.

“It puts us in an equal place,” said Kholod Idres, 46, who co-leads the Shared Society Department at pro-coexistence organization Sikkuy-Aufoq.

“Once Jews can speak Arabic, just like I’m speaking to you in Hebrew, this is a reality in which we’ll be in an equal place,” the Tamra native told The Times of Israel. “That I don’t need to make the effort, and you don’t need to make the effort either, because you can speak in Hebrew and I can speak in Arabic,” said Idres.

A local language made foreign

According to the most recent figures available, in 2011, only 11.5% of Jewish Israelis over 20 had “any knowledge” of Arabic. Of those, one in four consider Arabic their native language, according to a Knesset research report released earlier this year.

The Van Leer report, meanwhile, found that only 1% of Jewish Israelis were fluent in Arabic, defined as being able to read a book.

The lack of Arabic classes is one cause, and effect, of Israel’s segregated education system, which divides across linguistic and religious lines.

Hebrew-language schools, which come in a variety of secular and religious forms, are generally aimed at Jewish students. That system has significant departure points from the Arabic-language schools, which use a curriculum with a largely but not exclusively Islamic flavor.

While individual schools can choose to start language classes earlier, English is the only mandatory foreign language for Hebrew-language schools, with classes starting in second grade. Arabic is offered starting in fifth grade, but only as an elective. Between seventh and ninth grades, students must begin three years of a mandatory second language – either Arabic or French. Students who want to take the bagrut in the subject can choose to continue learning Arabic through senior year.

Arabic-language schools, by contrast, must start Hebrew by second or third grade — in Druze and Arab systems, respectively — and continue through graduation, although in practice, most start in first grade, according to the Education Ministry. They also learn English on a similar schedule.

High school students take a bagrut exam in Yehud, July 8, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

In the 2021-2022 school year, only 11,000 Hebrew-language high school students studied Arabic, out of a 253,000-strong student body.

But according to the Knesset research report, 64% of Jewish Israelis think it’s important for Arabic to be mandatory in schools.

It’s not just the students who don’t speak Arabic. Despite the fact that a fifth of Israel’s population calls Arabic its native language, few high school Arabic teachers in non-Arabic schools are among them.

“Some Arabic teachers don’t speak Arabic,” said Chaya Fischer, director of Hebrew University’s language learning programs. While instructors have some knowledge of the language, many lack full reading, writing, and speaking fluency, including the ability to freely self-express.

In 2021, the Education Ministry employed 1,306 Arabic-language teachers in Hebrew-language schools, 406 of whom were Arab, according to the Knesset report. A decade ago, only 173 Arabic teachers in Hebrew-language schools were Arab.

The problem remains most acute in high schools, where fewer than one in 10 Arabic-language teachers are Arab. The rates are better for younger grades. In middle school, 25.7% of teachers are Arab and the number jumps to 70.4% in elementary schools.

Outside the classroom, many key education ministries, universities, and high school faculties for Arabic-language education are led by Jewish Israelis.

“The field is very much a Jewish field. Arabic has become an Arab-free field,” Mendel said.

Philosophically, Mendel also stressed the need to rethink teaching Arabic as a living language and to bring Arabs into crafting revived curricula.

For example, “students should be aware of what Arabs say today, even if it’s not very pleasant, like if they write about the occupation.”

“There’s a role for Arab citizens of Israel in developing this,” he continued, mentioning textbook writing and formulation of goals as two areas where they are needed.  “We need to have a reform in the way that we teach Arabic.”

It’s all Greek to Israeli schools

Experts and students say the current predominant approach to Arabic-language instruction is also hampered by outdated methodology, an emphasis on linguistics, the influence of the military, and a preponderance of teachers who are not native speakers of the language.

“The problem of Arabic studies in Jewish Israeli society is multilayered,” said Mendel, who is also developing a new form of language instruction at BGU. Issues range from the political, educational and practical to “power-relations in the field of Arabic education,” he said.

Yoni Mendel. (Courtesy: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)

An education ministry spokesperson said its Arabic instruction cultivates “comprehension” and “production” skills,” including speaking, and that “the emphasis is not on grammar and syntax.”

But critics say Israeli high schools predominately rely on the grammar-translation method, which was the method popular with 19th-century German scholars, when Israel’s Jewish intelligentsia first established the Hebrew University’s School of Oriental Studies in 1926.

“This means that the class is being held in Hebrew, and class usually focuses on grammatic and syntactic phenomena in Arabic, translation of text from Arabic to Hebrew. Study is philological, as if we’re learning ancient Greek, not a language of the Middle East, the closest language to Hebrew,” said Mendel.

In teaching Arabic, an actively spoken language, “like we teach Latin or Greek,” Mendel said the Israeli education system “teaches a living language as if it were dead.”

Hebrew University’s Fischer said the grammar-translation method was designed to teach translation.

“Which is fine if you want to work in translation. But what value does this have to communicate,” she asked.

Chaya Fischer. (Courtesy: Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Another issue is the style of Arabic taught in most schools. Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA, is the Arabic-speaking world’s lingua franca, used in media, literature and formal communication, but not casual conversation.

“Arabic is one language, it has different registers,” explained Fischer, a native Hebrew speaker. “You need to be able to read a newspaper, [and] you need to be able to speak to someone.”

High schools and many Israeli universities focus almost exclusively on MSA, known in Arabic as Fusha. Only in 2019 did the education ministry introduce a limited pilot to include one elective spoken Arabic course within the 5-unit high school structure.

Yotam, who completed his high school’s full Arabic program before the 2019 pilot, said that he “didn’t learn how to speak or understand spoken Arabic.”

“I learned Fusha,” he said.

“I think that there was a quiz or something stupid where the teacher and I had to have a conversation, but it was in Fusha,” he recalled. “Maybe in one class we talked about [spoken Arabic]. We never had a test in it.”

High school or boot camp?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Israeli military has an interest in high schools churning out fluent Arabic speakers and works with schools to flag students who may be good candidates for intelligence or other specialized units.

“There’s an ongoing connection between studying Arabic and going to the military intelligence,” said Mendel.

Yotam, who is again studying Arabic as part of a program whereby he will attain his bachelor’s degree before his military service, said his high school curriculum was influenced by the military’s needs.

“Vocabulary is connected to diplomacy, to the army, to politics. It’s not a daily-usage vocabulary, where you talk about shopping, sports, studies,” he said.

He said soldiers from the army’s famed 8200 signals intelligence unit would regularly visit his school’s Arabic courses to teach special classes, which usually included less information about Arabic and more about how the military was structured and possible paths to serve in intelligence.

Illustrative: A class at the Branco Weiss School taught by an IDF soldier. The private-run Beit Shemesh school had classes specialized in intelligence studies, in cooperation with IDF intelligence unit, April 4 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“The goal in my opinion was to make us want to go into intelligence,” he said.

Avidan, who said she was barely able to order off a menu in Sinai just a few years after acing her bagrut, also blamed the emphasis on army Arabic.

“High school shouldn’t teach me how to pass induction tests to the army. It needs to prepare me to live in a country where a lot of citizens speak Arabic,” she said.

A spokesperson for the education ministry said that the state-developed curriculum is not geared toward the military.

“We do not prepare students for the army or university,” in response to a question about teaching towards their entry requirements, “but provide skills — tools for acquiring the Arabic language,” the spokesperson said.

Furthermore, she added, “The Education Ministry has no contact with the army.” She did not comment on relationships between individual schools and military recruiters.

‘Can-do’ attitude

Mendel, Fischer and students who spoke to The Times of Israel, all said reforms could improve the system, starting with instruction in Arabic, not Hebrew.

Classrooms should “rely on teachers who can write, read, teach, and express themselves in Arabic,” Mendel said. “[Many of them] are Arab, Palestinian, some are Jewish Israelis. This needs to be a professional decision, that they need to have full skills in Arabic.”

Mendel and Fischer also advocate a shift from the grammar-translation method to a focus on communication skills. Both run innovative language acquisition programs that implement this principle.

“It’s a move from ‘know how’ knowledge to ‘can do’ knowledge,” Mendel said.

“Arabic should stop being treated as the world’s hardest language. Instead, we need to discuss Arabic as one language with registers, and these registers have a connection,” Mendel said.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks during a press conference on the bagrut reform in Tel Aviv, April 26, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Education Ministry’s limited pilot in conversational Arabic is continuing, but both Ben-Gurion University and Hebrew University have begun making changes on their own.

At Ben-Gurion University, the 2-year program is aimed at taking students from no base to speaking conversationally, over three classes a week that focus on both grammar and speaking. The classes are taught predominately by native Arabic speakers and shift into immersion-style instruction once a knowledge base is formed.

However, students say classes for continuing spoken Arabic beyond the two-year program are still needed.

Five years ago, Hebrew University shifted instruction for several foreign language programs to focus on practical acquisition rather than academic inquiry, hiring native speakers as instructors. It folded Arabic into the program two years later. Today, the school’s three-year course is modeled on the Common European Framework of Reference, which places students based on their ability to use a language and not just study it.

While she says the Education Ministry has yet to catch on, Fischer hopes her school’s reforms will help seed changes in the rest of the education system.

“For 95 years, the Hebrew University taught Arabic in a very not updated way,” Fischer said. “We’re not angry at anyone, rather we said it’s possible to change from within.”

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