A new Israeli government program is making Arabic language classes compulsory in public schools, starting from the fifth grade. Beginning this year as a pilot initiative in more than 200 schools – 42 of them religious – in northern Israel, the scheme will eventually be adopted across the country. Until now, Israeli students had the option of learning Arabic to fulfill their second language requirement in grades seven to ten.
The program, titled ‘Ya Salam,’ stipulates two weekly hours of Arabic language studies and a range of classes designed to acquaint students with Arabic culture. “The aim is to turn the language into a cultural bridge – a means of communication,” Orna Simchon of the Israeli ministry’s northern district said. “It is extremely important that every child come to know the language and the culture and thus communicate, hold conversations, and be tolerant in this country.”
Surprisingly, a similar initiative is taking root independent from the Israeli government in the West Bank settlement of Efrat. The town’s mayor, Oded Revivi, ordered each of Efrat’s six schools to run three hours of Arabic lessons every week for children from age eight to their mid-teens, starting at the beginning of the new school year next month.
“I attach great value to Efrat having good relations with our neighbours, and if we want to maintain any type of relationship, a major element needed is a shared language,” Revivi said. The majority of Efrat’s parents agree. Unfortunately, however, although Mr. Revivi contacted nearby Palestinian villages to recruit teachers and “expand co-operation,” he has yet to receive a single application. Revivi believes this is the result of social and political pressure against teaching settlers.
While Efrat’s efforts have not yet broken the physical barrier between itself and Palestinian villages in the West Bank, the town – like the Israeli government – is making an effort at breaking the language and cultural barriers that separate the two sides. And that is a step in the right direction. Indeed, as the latest round of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority draw near, Israel’s new Arabic program is a reminder that the conflict will only come to an end if and when the two sides take both a bottom-up and top-down approach to bridging their differences.