Israel is in the Middle East. The Middle East is largely an Arabophone region. These two facts are undisputed. However, Israel insists on behaving like a western outpost in the Orient. While it does so with regards to its foreign policy, it is equally true, and just as foolhardy, with regards to domestic issues.
While many Israelis would like to be European or American, they are not. Modern Israeli culture and behavior is derived from numerous sources, and has morphed into something new.
The current level of language instruction in Israel has a lot of room for improvement. Though not as bad as English, Hebrew language instruction in Israel is poor, to say the least. Instead of improving, Israel’s Ministry of Education has decided that regional language skills are unimportant. As of last year, Arabic has been completely dropped from the mandatory core curriculum.
This was not in order to invest more in to Hebrew or English instruction. There was no pedagogical reason for this decision. This step down in Israeli education was “motivated by an effort to create a curriculum acceptable to ultra-Orthodox schools.” This capitulation to narrow political interests is corruption, pure and simple.
Things are different on the other side of the ocean. Instead of imparting the language of the Jewish people to the next generation, some Jewish day schools are expanding their language departments to include Arabic.
This is the right move in the wrong place. I am not saying Jewish students should not learn Arabic. They should – in Israel. The problem is prioritization. Adding another language to the mix will only serve to dilute the already lacking Hebrew instruction offered by the Jewish educational system in America. In other words, first Hebrew, and only then Arabic.
Israeli education needs to strive for nothing less than excellence. Excellence in today’s Middle East requires the knowledge of Arabic. Instead of eliminating three years of Arabic study from the curriculum, language instruction in Israel needs to be placed front and center. Along with Hebrew and English, students should begin Arabic studies in first grade, if not beforehand.
I am in no way advocating forgoing Hebrew in favor of Arabic. Nor do I think Arabic is more important than English. The three languages are not mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, understanding, and playing by “house rules” in the Middle East requires knowing the language. That language is Arabic.