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In Israel, a push to learn Arabic

The current decline in the study of Arabic in Israeli schools could compromise coexistence efforts and the military's ability to gather intelligence. But one program is countering that trend.

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From 15 schools to 200, the program expands

Despite the overall woes, Shihada's class is part of a growing bright spot on the Israeli linguistic horizon. Known as the Ya Salam (literally Hey Peace) program, it is a significant effort to upgrade Arabic and introduce Jewish students to Arab culture spearheaded by the US and Israel-based Abraham Fund, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education.

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The program was launched at 15 schools in northern Israel seven years ago and is now taught in 200 schools all over the country for two hours a week in the fifth and sixth grades.

The fund's officers say that by enhancing the standing of Arabic, the situation of Arab citizens – who were promised equality in Israel's declaration of independence but face discrimination in land use, jobs, and other realms – will also be improved.

"Recognizing and accepting the other is part of the program,'' says Dadi Komem, director of education for the fund. ''Beyond being just a regular second language, Arabic has had a connotation of being an enemy language. We are going from a 'Know your enemy' approach to Arabic study to one of, 'Get to know your neighbor who has shared citizenship'.''

Innovation: Training Arab teachers for Jewish schools

Foremost among its innovations is introducing Arab teachers into Jewish schools, but it also exposes pupils to the language at a younger age than previously, and draws simultaneously on both spoken and written Arabic, which have traditionally been taught separately.

Menachem Milson, former dean of humanities at the Hebrew University who served on the Israel Academy of Sciences panel, praises Ya Salam: ''Training Arab teachers to teach their mother tongue to [Israeli Jews] has not before been tried in Israel and is a very important thing. I'm optimistic about it,'' he says.

But in Jerusalem, all state-run religious schools refuse to participate in the Ya Salam program because they do not want an Arab joining the faculty, Komem says. Jerusalem deputy mayor David Hadari, from the National Religious Party, explains: ''It is proper to teach Arabic, but you need teachers who are appropriate to the school.''

In the Yefe Nof school and other Jerusalem schools in which he taught, Shihada had to overcome the initial suspicions of pupils. At one of the schools, some students refused to sing a song he taught them urging the diverse groups in Lebanon to coexist. ''They asked me, 'Why did you choose this song? If they unite then it will make them stronger against the Jews,' '' he says.

Fifth-grader: Less fearful of Arabs now

Yefe Nof principal Ronit Shema says Ya Salam has been ''a big success'' despite some initial wariness.

''In the beginning, psychologically, it was not easy for a portion of the students to learn. But Essam is a good teacher and gradually the students connected and the barriers fell and they started to love what he expressed.''

In the class, one fifth-grader says learning Arabic was making him less fearful of Arabs. ''If you understand what they are saying then you know they are not talking about you,'' he says.

In Shihada's view, the program can make a difference in promoting coexistence: ''The problem is bigger than an Arabic class in a school. But maybe if the program expands, is given more hours, and starts at a younger age it could help raise a new generation with new points of thought. Maybe.''

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