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Why Arabic is flowering in Israel even as it’s officially demoted

Why We Wrote This

Finding a common language, perhaps especially in a multilingual environment, is key to social cohesion. And speaking another’s language signals respect and fosters understanding.

Victor Mazuz
Israeli singers Achinoam Nini, Mira Awad, and Gil Dor perform at a July 31 rally in Tel Aviv that featured a mass Arabic lesson. Nini, who is Jewish, and Awad, who is Arab-Israeli, are known for performing together in Hebrew and Arabic.

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Arabic was an official language of Israel when the Jewish country was born in 1948. Not only was it the mother tongue of Israel’s Arab minority – today 20 percent of the population – but it also was spoken by Jews from Arab countries. Today, however, a mere 8.6 percent of Jewish Israelis claim knowledge of Arabic. But their interest in learning is growing, in part to better understand their fellow citizens and in part as a reaction to a controversial law that demoted Arabic’s status. They’re learning online, at language schools, at work, and in Israeli-Arab villages. “We are seeing an incredible flowering of interest in Arabic,” says Gili Re’i, whose organization advocates for civic equality in Israel. At one language school in Tel Aviv, demand for Arabic classes has soared. Ariel Olmert, a school director, credits a backlash against nationalist politics. “That most Jews don’t speak Arabic is one of the absurdities of our life here. But the more the political conflict becomes desperate or violent, [the] more people on the peace-seeking side of the political map ... want to understand and speak the Arabic language.... And it’s simply a beautiful language.”

It was advertised as the largest Arabic lesson in the world.

On a summer night in a square in central Tel Aviv, several thousand Israelis heeded the call to attend and found themselves repeating a series of Arabic words and phrases.

It was, essentially, a political act.

The lesson was convened as a protest against the controversial new Nation-State law, which, among other measures, removed Arabic from the list of official languages in Israel. Critics of the law argued that the snub was not just a technicality, but an expression of hostility by Israel’s right-wing government toward the country’s Arab minority.

But the Arabic protest-lesson also tapped into what appears to be a genuine hunger among a growing number of Jewish Israelis to speak Arabic.

Not only is it the language that Palestinian citizens of Israel, one-fifth of the population, speak as their mother tongue, it’s also the language of many Jewish Israelis’ parents and grandparents, who immigrated from Arabic speaking countries. And, at least in its spoken form, as a Semitic language with lots of shared vocabulary, it’s a language that Hebrew speakers can pick up relatively easily.

Nevertheless, according to Israeli government data, a mere 8.6 percent of Jewish Israelis describe themselves as having knowledge of Arabic.

Today, however, a growing number of Jewish Israelis are taking the initiative to learn Arabic on their own: at language schools, through online courses, in small group settings at workplaces, in school communities, and, most recently, through a new business that arranges intensive study involving homestays in Israeli-Arab villages.

“We are seeing an incredible flowering of interest in Arabic,” says Gili Re’i, co-director of the Department for a Shared Society at Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab organization that advocates for civic equality in Israel.

In August, Sikkuy published a report on the study of Arabic in Jewish schools. In it they recommend to the Israeli Ministry of Education to improve and incentivize the study of Arabic, as the number of students studying the language has dropped significantly in recent years because of policy changes.

Ms. Re’i also notes that usually only classical, or literary Arabic is taught in the school system, not the spoken form of the language. Students emerge able to read a newspaper or a book in Arabic, but unable to hold even a basic conversation.

According to Re’i, interest in Arabic study is coming from both the left and right of the political spectrum. But she speculates that it has to do with some Jewish Israelis viewing Arabic less as the language of the enemy – many of the Jewish Israelis who do know Arabic learned it in army intelligence units ­– and more as a way to connect with their neighbors.

Ambassador to Syria?

Last year, Noa Eliasif-Shoham’s oldest child, in sixth grade at the time, announced she would like to be Israel’s ambassador to Syria when she grows up. That may seem like a distant dream considering the nations are long-time enemies. But Ms. Eliasif-Shoham decided it was time to learn spoken Arabic, not just for herself, but for her children. She found a teacher to instruct a weekly class for parents and children who go to the same Tel Aviv elementary school her children attend.

“I sent a notice out to parents, and everyone was so excited. Within two hours we had enough people for a class. Adults have no advantage over kids when studying a new language, and it’s worked out so well we are continuing this year,” Eliasif-Shoham says.

At Ha’Ambatia, a language school in Tel Aviv, demand for its Arabic classes has soared, surpassing the demand for French.

Ariel Olmert, pedagogical director of the school, sees a backlash against Israel’s nationalist politics fueling the interest.

“That most Jews don’t speak Arabic is one of the absurdities of our life here. But the more the political conflict becomes desperate or violent, what you have is more people on the peace-seeking side of the political map who want to understand and speak the Arabic language,” says Mr. Olmert, son of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

“And it’s simply a beautiful language, and people want to speak it,” Olmert says. “The ones that stay on and become fluent in Arabic do so because it’s fun, not just because it’s the moral thing to do.”

A teacher’s perspective

Hanin Majdali, an Arab citizen who has a growing business teaching spoken Arabic, currently teaches 60 students a week.

Like Olmert, she also sees the fingerprints of a reaction against efforts to reduce the standing of the Arabic language, which started even before the Nation-State bill was passed.

“There has been an opposite response, which is to embrace it,” Ms. Majdali says. But she also sees a mainstream interest in multiculturalism.

“These are people who love the Arab language or Arab music. They may have had a grandmother who spoke Arabic, or they may work with Arabs and feel like they are missing out,” she says.

“When someone is talking next to you and you don’t understand what they are saying, they can seem suspicious,” she says. “But when you hear what the person is saying, it’s like going from being blind to being able to see.”

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