Using Language to Cross an Israeli Divide

More than 9,000 Jewish schoolchildren across Israel will have a unique opportunity to learn spoken Arabic this year as part of the ‘Language as a Cultural Bridge’ project initiated by The Abraham Fund.

“One of our goals is to strengthen Israeli society as a multi-cultural society and the issue of language is a critical one,” says Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu, the executive director of the Abraham Fund, a non-profit organization committed to advancing coexistence and equality in Israel. “Teaching the Arabic language and culture in Jewish schools reduces fear and stereotypes, and creates an honest and informed dialogue between the Jewish and Arab communities.”

The program, which began in the fall of 2004, has expanded dramatically every year. In the first year 890 fifth graders in 15 schools were involved in the project, the following year it rose to 3,570 students in 41 schools, and in the current 2006-7 school year, 6,704 fifth, sixth and seventh graders in 65 schools from across the country are now taking part in the project. The coming school year, 2007-8 will be the biggest year yet, after news that the Jewish Agency plans to support an additional 80 schools in the north of Israel, on top of the 68 that will be involved in the project via the Abraham Fund.

In Israel, 20 percent of the population is Arab or Druze (over 1.25 million people) with Arabic as their mother tongue, but only a tiny percentage of the Jewish population can communicate in Arabic. With a few notable exceptions, Jewish and Arab children are educated separately. And while in the Arab school system, Arabic, Hebrew and English are required subjects and an integral part of the curriculum, in the Jewish school system, Arabic is not a high priority.

“Arabic is an official language of the state and the teaching of the subject is supposed to be mandatory in schools, but it is only poorly implemented and not really enforced,” Beeri-Sulitzeanu told ISRAEL21c. He estimates that only about 60-65 percent of schoolchildren study Arabic some time between 1st and 12th grade.

In addition, Jewish students are only taught literary Arabic, rather than spoken Arabic – a form of the language used in daily conversation.

“It’s like two different languages,” says Beeri-Sulitzeanu. “You can be excellent in classical Arabic and not be able to speak a word of the real language.”

Over the last years, Beeri-Sulitzeanu says there were many attempts to teach Arabic in schools, but most failed, often because the teachers themselves were Jewish.

“The incentive for teaching Arabic in the past was to know your enemy,” explains Beeri-Sulitzeanu. “The army wanted people to master Arabic and join the services. Our story is different, we aren’t interested in learning about the enemy, we want to learn about our friends and neighbors.”

The result is that the program is primarily taught by Arabic teachers and is not only about spoken language, but also about Arabic culture and life.

“We introduce kids to the rich, fascinating, compelling Arabic culture. They learn about films, books, crafts, foods, they learn the beautiful stories of the Arabic people. It’s a completely different framework from that used in the past,” says Beeri-Sulitzeanu.

The curriculum involves a whole range of cultural activities which revolve around spoken Arabic. Children take part in cooking lessons, read books, see plays, learn songs and music, and even engage in physical activities – any thing that allows them to experience for themselves the different aspects of Arabic culture.

“It’s a very compelling curriculum,” admits Beeri-Sulitzeanu, who added that the organization studied models in Belgium, Canada (where French is the mother tongue of 23% of the population), and Spain. There were also meetings in the US and UK. In London, Beeri-Sulitzeanu met with the Council for Racial Equality.

“They are dealing with the same dilemmas and problems that we face in Israel,” says Beeri-Sulitzeanu. “One of the challenges of our organization is how to exchange and adapt different models.”

At present, the Fund is focusing primarily on 5th-7th graders, but it is now working on a new curriculum for 3rd and 4th graders, which it hopes to introduce soon. The ultimate goal is to continue the program from the 3rd to the 12th grade and to introduce a matriculation exam.

“We want to make Arabic a pre-condition of entry to higher education,” says Beeri-Sulitzeanu.

The Abraham Fund kicked off the language project in Haifa and Carmiel because both city mayors were enthusiastic. Haifa was a natural choice because it is a mixed city, while Carmiel is in located in the mixed region of the Galilee. Funding has come from a number of sources including the European Union, the Israeli Government, specifically the Ministry of Education, the Jewish Agency, various municipalities and private funds.

To date, the project has been greeted warmly by students, teachers, parents and principals alike. Third party evaluators brought in to measure the success of the program found that it had a substantial impact on changing children’s attitudes. Questionnaires were carried out before, during and after the first year of study.

“We discovered there were some pupils who said they were not interested in learning Arabic, and expressed negative attitudes towards the Arab citizens of Israel. When we tested them half a year later, and then a year later, we found out that most of those negative attitudes had changed. The children were more positive and open, they even expressed interest and curiosity and a willingness to know and learn more,” said Beeri-Sulitzeanu.

An unexpected knock-on effect of this work, was that children of ‘mizrahi’ families (Jews that come from Arabic countries like Morocco, Iraq, and Iran who have often experienced prejudice from European Jews) came to understand and appreciate their own cultures, sometimes for the first time.

“Parents and grandparents who emigrated from Arabic countries are suddenly seen as a source of information by their grandchildren. It made them feel proud of their heritage. This was something we just didn’t expect,” says Beeri-Sulitzeanu.

The Abraham Fund was founded in 1989 by Alan B. Slifka, an American businessman and philanthropist, and Dr. Eugene Weiner, a writer, educator and rabbi. It works to advance coexistence, equality and cooperation among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens by creating and operating large-scale initiatives, grassroots projects and public education.

“We try to change the reality in Israel in the area of Jewish-Arab relations,” says Beeri-Sulitzeanu. “We try to identify the hot-spots of co-existence – those areas of social life and society that are critical for Jews and Arabs. In each of these areas we try to develop a model that can prove to the Israeli public and decision makers that we can live differently, that we can actually coexist.”

With the Language as a Cultural Bridge project growing fast – a large number of schools are expected to join next year, the organization’s aim now is to convert this success into resource allocation from the government. “We are advocating that the government endorse and implement this program with the necessary legislation,” says Beeri-Sulitzeanu.

“Within a generation or so, it makes sense that all Israelis can speak in Hebrew, Arabic and hopefully English,” he adds. “We need to make sure the status of the Arabic language is strong enough and recognized. It’s not just about teaching Arabic, but also ensuring that it is fully represented in the public sphere.”