In Israel, a bid to make Arabic more of a language in common

Most Jewish Israelis say it's important to learn Arabic, but only 1 in 10 can speak it. Now a series of YouTube language instruction videos is gaining steam, and praise.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Arab store owner Nidal Nasser Elddin speaks with an Israeli customer in his shop near the Old City in Jerusalem in May 2015. The store serves many Jewish customers in addition to the Arab community, but only 1 in 10 Jewish Israelis speak Arabic.

Two years ago, Gilad Sevitt was strolling the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City, chatting away with vendors in Arabic as his frustrated friend tagged along, hardly understanding a word.

“We could really notice the gap between us,” recalls Mr. Sevitt, one of the rare Israeli Jews who specialized in Arabic in high school, and then perfected it as a soldier. “It was a eureka moment.”

His friend is not alone. Though Arabic is an official language of Israel and roughly half of Israeli Jews trace their heritage to Arabic-speaking countries, today only about 1 in 10 can speak or understand it well, according to a 2015 study by Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute. But 58 percent said Arabic was important to learn.

So as a university student, Sevitt set out to rectify the language gap. His program has evolved from teaching friends at home to launching YouTube videos designed to equip Hebrew speakers for daily interactions with Arabs: niceties, requesting directions, even a date gone sour.

“The free videos are a way of compensating for the six years I spent studying Arabic in school and not being able to speak a word,” Sevitt says, referring to Israeli schools’ system of teaching modern standard Arabic, a formal version of the language, rather than the very different dialect spoken on the street.

Though the videos’ featured scenarios may seem artificial at first – Jews and Arabs rarely interact socially – they’re an important step toward cultural bridge-building in a deeply segregated society. For many Israeli Jews, Arabic is not only incomprehensible but also conjures up fear, hatred, or associations with terrorism.

Enabling Jewish Israelis to hear the language in a different context can open the way for them to see their Palestinian neighbors in a new way, Sevitt opined.

The language barrier negatively impacts Israel's minorities as well. Palestinians living in mixed cities are often anxious about speaking Arabic in public, for fear of negative reactions from Jews, especially at times of heightened political tension. In February 2015, a Druze soldier was badly beaten at an Israeli night club after speaking Arabic with his friend.

Sevitt uploaded his first three videos in December 2014 under the title Madrasa, Arabic for “school.” The enthusiastic public feedback to the videos, from 13-year-olds to octogenarians, has surpassed Sevitt’s expectations. Google analytics reveals more than 360,000 visits to the website since its launch, mostly by 18- to 34-year-olds. Even Jordanians, Saudis, and Palestinians have praised the site, using it in the reverse to study Hebrew.

Social imperative

Daniel Dotan, a lawyer who volunteers with Madrasa in marketing and legal advice, believes that studying Arabic is more than just a useful tool for Jews: it’s a social obligation.

“When two cultures live side by side, it automatically creates an imperative – not moral, but social – to try and know each other better,” says Mr. Dotan. “Knowledge of the other’s language helps us understand why they do certain things, and makes for a more cohesive and integrated society.”

With the help of an online crowd-funding campaign, Sevitt hopes to upload more videos, eventually enabling his students to become fluent not only in Palestinian Arabic, but in other dialects as well.

Since Jewish Israelis rarely find the opportunity to immerse themselves in Arab surroundings, Sevitt and his colleagues at Madrasa launched a practice group on Facebook, which has so far garnered 1,500 followers. Spontaneously, independent students have formed study groups that now meet weekly in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to practice the vocabulary taught online.

“I was shocked to see people using our materials, speaking Arabic to each other in the heart of [West] Jerusalem with all of its complexity,” says Sevitt, born and raised in the city. “That was really fun and exciting.”

Progress without politics

As Sevitt’s grassroots Arabic study initiative gains steam, positive developments may be under way on the government level as well. Last month, Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced a pilot program introducing colloquial Arabic to Jewish classrooms nationwide as early as the fifth grade.

The program is an expansion of a curriculum devised years ago by the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an Israeli nonprofit promoting Jewish-Arab coexistence, and implemented across northern Israeli public schools.

Like the Israeli school curriculum, Madrasa is emphatically nonpolitical. Sevitt says that avoiding the thorny conflict was a conscious decision.

“We aren’t teaching Arabic as part of a grand political solution,” he says. “We’re simply doing something to make society better.”          

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