As she speaks in Hebrew to a group of Jewish-Israeli journalists about Arab society and culture, May Arow gets personal. Discussing experiences as an Arab woman from an Arab town and a traditional family in Israel, May, Director of Language Programs at The Abraham Initiatives, sagaciously intersperses Arabic vocabulary and cultural terms concerning social, familial, and gendered norms in Arab society, and uses Hebrew to define, transliterate, and provide usages, etymologies, and parallels. As an intern with The Abraham Initiatives, I had the privilege to sit in on one of May’s weekly classes for journalists, where I observed that the program’s goal is not merely linguistic enrichment for Jewish media professionals in a multi-linguistic society; May uses Arabic as a vehicle to prompt questions and insight into the lives of Arab citizens of Israel—deeply rooted in her own story—shedding light on the stories of the one-fifth of Israel’s citizenry that is systemically ignored in the media.
Journalists play a serious role in shaping public image. Given that only 2% of news items in Israel reference Arab citizens, who constitute 20% of the population, reshaping the media space by actively amplifying Arab stories is a desideratum. This is where May Arow and The Abraham Initiatives’ “Media as a Shared Space” Initiative, supported by the New Israel Fund, enter the picture. In addition to numerous other initiatives that use language study as a cultural bridge, May teaches a weekly Arabic class to top journalists from major media outlets in Israeli society in an effort to fill the gap in media coverage by way of cultural competency and exposure. Media outlets represented in her course include Galatz (Israeli army radio), Yedioth Ahronoth, Ynet, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation’s channel Kan-11, and Haaretz, to name but a few.
In recent years, Israeli society has merited tangible advances in the endeavor to mainstream Arab stories in the media and to build a future of equitable coverage and representation, one of countless key steps towards building an equitable and shared society for Arab and Jewish citizenry. Nahum Barnea, a senior political commentator for Yedioth, published an article about the internal politics of the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, following a personal tour led by The Abraham Initiatives’ Co-Executive Director Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, also as part of the “Media as a Shared Space” Initiative. (These tours are typically an integral part of the Arabic classes for journalists, allowing them to encounter and gain direct access to residents and local leaders; the possibility of tours this year has been fickle due to the covid-19 crisis.) What’s more, we have seen actual policy change at Ynet, one of Israel’s leading online publications, which added a regular Arabic component to their news section, including summaries in Arabic. These and other gains are in large part thanks to May’s hard work in engaging the media sector through this project of The Abraham Initiatives.
But the challenges abide. We not only face staggering inequity in representation: even when Arab society is given coverage, much of it spotlights difficult and negative aspects of the Arab experience in Israel, such as poverty and crime rates, domestic and gender violence, and violence in the context of organized crime. All of these stories reflect real social challenges, challenges often experienced most painfully by the most vulnerable subgroups within Arab society (women, small-business owners, those living in poverty, to name a few), as highlighted by The Abraham Initiative’s recent campaign surrounding domestic violence and inequitable policing. Indeed, the more troubling or heinous the story, the more such coverage might serve to catalyze change, promote equity, and protect the most vulnerable, via resource distribution surrounding education, policing, and public services. At the same time, the almost-exclusively negative nature of Arab society’s media representation simultaneously serves to boost prejudices and common stereotypes, fueling the ongoing distancing of the Jewish-Israeli public from Arab citizens. This exacerbates a reality in which Jewish-Arab cooperation surrounding a future shared society is continually held back from its potential.
The goal of teaching Arabic to top journalists is that even a little linguistic and cultural exposure can go a long way, breaking down internal psychological and institutional barriers that have hitherto separated journalism from the inner life of Arab cities, towns, and civil society. At the same time, when sitting in on the class I noticed that it is certainly a beginners’ Arabic class. This is to be expected given the busy life of a journalist, and the impossibility of making significant leaps in Arabic proficiency in a once-weekly class as someone beginning a new language at a later stage in life. In the Israeli context, only 8.6 percent of Jewish Israelis say they know Arabic, according to the Jewish-Arab NGO Sikkuy; only 2-4 percent of high schoolers choose to take Arabic matriculation exams, according to an Abraham Initiatives and Van Leer Institute report on Israel’s Arabic language curricula (co-authored by May, Dr. Abu Rass and their Van Leer colleagues); and, to boot, the 2018 “Nation-State Law” appended the descriptor “special status” to the Arabic language’s official standing in state institutions, substantially undermining its status as an official state language. These and other alarming findings help us further comprehend why, in the Israeli context, such a course aimed at the average Jewish-Israeli journalist would be at a beginners’ level.
As someone who has studied Arabic for many years, knowing how hard it is to even maintain basic proficiency without a few hours a day of practice, I immediately asked myself: so what is the point? How can media coverage increase if many of these journalists are not necessarily getting much closer to a professional level of Arabic communication? Even their worksheets are not written in Arabic letters, but instead transliterated into Hebrew!
The point, however, is not linguistic proficiency, but the The Abraham Initiative’s deeply held belief that language is a cultural bridge, and can be a window into Arab culture and society. In Israel, the mere willingness to expand one’s Arabic vocabulary beyond that which appears in Hebrew slang, or beyond formalities of “hello,” “goodbye,” and “thank you,” bespeaks a willingness to encounter the unique experiences of Arab citizens, a key step towards real cultural competency. Both the cause and the effect of the deep underrepresentation of Arab society in Israeli mainstream media is that individuals and institutions, including Jewish journalists and Hebrew news outlets, might not be immediately concerned by the vicissitudes of Arab culture and politics. It is not that newfound language skills give such journalists unprecedented access (although that may sometimes be the case), but rather that their interest in the language—coupled with methods of language learning that center cultural and social literacy—can help develop a more profound interest in the lives of Arab citizens. The stories that, as a result, may be given media coverage are not new, but they are newly revealed. They were not necessarily inaccessible to the Hebrew-speaker, but were perennially distant from the conventional norms of Israeli media.
Language learning is an acknowledgment of that historical distance. And to acknowledge the distance is to begin to get closer.