Why Are Israeli Politicians Backing Mandatory First Grade Arabic?
After an election where Israelis were reminded of their Arab fellow-citizens, some politicians suggest Israeli schools require Arabic instruction from early age.
Lawmaker Oren Hazan introduced a bill this week to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that would obligate schools to teach the Arabic language beginning in first grade. In the bill’s explanatory portion, Hazan wrote that since “it cannot be that Arab citizens complete 12 years of school without knowing Hebrew,” the inverse, “in which Jewish citizens complete 12 years of school without knowing Arabic, cannot continue.”
20 percent of citizens within Israel’s borders (that is, not in the Palestinian territories) are Palestinian Arabs. Their higher birthrate has led some to call Arab citizens a “demographic threat” to Israel’s Jewish identity. An union of Arab political parties also enjoyed a brief spotlight in Israel’s March election, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won reelection. (RELATED: How Arabs Might Pick Israel’s Next Prime Minister)
Hazan, the Knesset member who introduced the bill, is a freshman member of Likud. Arabic-language Israeli news site Al-Masdar notes his parents were born to Jewish migrants from Arab countries — Morocco on one side, and Libya on the other.
Likud has struggled to win Arabs’ trust in recent years, especially given Netanyahu’s firm stance on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and general pessimism on the peace process between Jewish Israelis and Arabs. Shortly before his election, Netanyahu vowed he would block the establishment of a separate Palestinian state — a key component in the two-state solution that the U.S. and Israel have both championed for decades. (RELATED: Palestinians’ International Court Membership Opens Door To Suing Israel)
Arabic is an official language of Israel, together with Hebrew. It is included on street signs alongside Hebrew and English, and members of the Knesset may give speeches in Arabic. But outside Israel’s Arab population, the secondary languages that predominate are English and Russian.
Currently, Israeli law recommends three hours a week of Arabic instruction for Jewish students, for the four years between seventh and tenth grades. But according to The Times of Israel, “the directive is not strictly enforced and many institutions do not offer classes.”
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin gave a speech Thursday that seemed to affirm Hazan’s proposal. He encouraged Israelis to recognize that “the Arab public is part and parcel of this land — a public shaped by a collective cultural identity.” And he included a reference to language education, calling it a valuable bridge between cultures that “leads from the ear to the heart.”
Rivlin is a retired Likud politician whose role as president is politically neutral, mostly performing ceremonial functions. Since becoming president, he has repeatedly urged cooperation on common goals between Israel’s divided political camps. Thursday was no exception, as he said that building confidence between Arabs and Jews is “the mission of all for whom this land is dear.”
But more practically, Israelis (and Likud in particular) may be anticipating a future of unexpected social and political change. Besides the burgeoning Arab birthrate, recent protests over Israel’s treatment of Ethiopian Jews have sparked new conversations about what it means to be Israeli. (RELATED: Video Of Cops Beating Black IDF Soldier Leads To Chaos In Israel’s Tel Aviv)
And as nearby Arab countries are torn by terrorism, authoritarianism and instability, Israel might soon be drawn closer to strange allies that share its interests. It makes sense for Israelis to equip the next generation for the challenges ahead.
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