Arabic teacher Essam Shihada's casual dress – sneakers and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt – contrasts with the seriousness of what he is trying to do: endear Israeli Jewish pupils to the study of the ''enemy's language.''
A few minutes after fielding questions from Mr. Shihada and each other about how many siblings they have and where their parents work, the class of Israeli youngsters is enthusiastically singing the words of an ancient Arabic folk song about harvesting olives. ''God, bless the olive trees. The olives of my land are especially delicious. They give fine oil. All the world wants to eat them,'' the two dozen children intone.
The singing is a major achievement in a land where Arabic and its speakers are often viewed with suspicion and where instruction of the language is widely seen as being in decline, with a shortage of qualified teachers and few students choosing to take it for their high school matriculation exam.
Despite Arabic being an official Israeli language alongside Hebrew, most Israelis can neither read nor speak it competently, if at all – a situation that critics of government education policy say hinders coexistence prospects with Israel's sizable Arab minority and could hinder the military's intelligence-gathering efforts.
Israel is only beginning to come to terms with the problem.
'Many Arabic teachers don't know how to speak or write Arabic'
The Israel Academy of Sciences recently issued a report detailing Arabic teaching deficiencies, concluding among other things that making the language a matriculation requirement is necessary to redress the situation. The academy's report said only a few Arabic teachers were native speakers.
''Teaching of Arabic is done mostly in Hebrew, including in teacher training programs, and the result is that many of the Arabic teachers do not know how to speak or write Arabic,'' the report said.
He warns that Israel is raising a young generation that is ''detached from the Middle East'' both linguistically and culturally.
The Ministry of Education declined to respond directly to the criticisms but says the subject of Arabic instruction ''is one undergoing constant development.'' It added that the ministry is ''striving'' to make the language a requirement for matriculation in the future but did not give a date.
The military, meanwhile, is also worried about the troubled state of Arabic instruction, fearing it will not have a large enough pool for future intelligence officers. ''The army has identified in recent years a severe problem in the level of exposure of pupils to Arabic and we have seen that among those who learned, the knowledge level is not high to put it mildly,'' an intelligence officer who deals with Arabic instruction told Ynet news.
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.
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.''