Every street sign in Israel is in Hebrew and Arabic, but many Israelis can’t understand a standard conversation in Arabic. In a moving letter to Haaretz written this week by Lital Lam, a student at Tel Aviv University, headlined “Israelis, Speak Arabic,” Lam expresses the alienation she feels because she does not speak Arabic fluently. She notes that 40% of the university’s students speak Arabic as a mother tongue — and she can’t understand her classmates.
The specific issue she raised is the role of Arabic in Israel’s education system. Today in Israel, Arabic is taught in grades 7 through 9, and in a few schools, in grades 5 and 6.
“Why is the instruction done at such a late age?” Lan, the letter-writer asks. She also questions why Arabic is offered along with French and Spanish, instead of giving it its proper importance as one of Israel’s languages. She is not the first to suggest that Arabic should be an integral part of Israeli education, from an early age.
In October 2015 the Knesset approved “the preliminary reading of a proposed bill that would compel schools to teach Arabic, starting from the first grade,” Haaretz reported. And in 2016, the Knesset held its first Arabic Language Day, “which saw Arab and even a few Jewish lawmakers speak in the plenum in Arabic with simultaneous translation into Hebrew, and committee meetings dedicated to the use of Arabic in the public sphere,” according to the Times of Israel. Arabic Language Day was started by Joint List MK Youssef Jabareen, a former law professor who specialized in minority rights at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
In recent years the debate over Arabic illiteracy has come up among younger Israeli writers, who have expressed dismay over their personal lack of familiarity with the language, and pledged to do something about it as adults.
There are also grass-roots efforts to teach Israeli adults Arabic, such as Yaffa, an Arabic-and-Hebrew bookstore café in Jaffa that offers language classes. Arabesque, located in in Acre’s Old City, soon plans to offer “an Arabic immersion program (one week to one month) that combines classroom learning with “street” learning by pairing participants with local families,” according to its website.
In addition, there is a growing amount of translation of contemporary Arabic literature into Hebrew — especially by writers identifying as Palestinian or Israeli Arabs. “Nakba Lite and Other Stories,” an anthology of Palestinian short stories, translated into Hebrew from the Arabic and edited by Yossi Gronovsky and Alteeb A’naim, was published in 2014. The Arab Israeli writer Odeh Bisharat, recently profiled in The Forward, had his first novel translated from Arabic into Hebrew, and represented Israel this past fall at The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.
Lam, the letter-writer and student at Tel Aviv University, focuses on the power of words and language to create understanding.
“When Jewish children will know how to speak Arabic and will be used to hearing it,” she writes, the intimidation factor will decline. “There won’t be fear from the conversation taking place on the side and instead perhaps inclusion and connection.”
Maybe if people understand each other on a word level, they will find common interests,” Lam writes. “Maybe it will even be possible to solve some divisions with the help of words.”
- Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau). Follow her on Twitter at @AviyaKushner*