My daughter Eden, a cadet in the Officer Training Course, came home on Friday afternoon for the weekend.
“Dad, I’ve doubled my vocabulary in Arabic!” declared my daughter with a mischievous grin. I listened with curiosity. Even after spending several years taking Arabic at the elementary school here in Hoshaya, my daughter’s Arabic vocabulary, like that of most of her classmates, began and ended with, “Ismi Eden, wa-ana talmiza fi-madressat Nativ fi Hoshaya… “ (“My name is Eden and I’m a pupil at the Nativ Elementary School in Hoshaya.”)
“So Eden, speak and enlighten us with your words. What did you learn this week in the army?”
“Waakef! Waakef! — wala, ana batuchak!” she said laughing embarrassingly at her own accent.
Quite frankly, I wasn’t particularly surprised. “Stop, or I’ll shoot you!” is a phrase familiar to every Israeli who has served in the IDF, being the first of the three stages of the army protocol for apprehending a suspect. Often that is the only Arabic sentence a Jewish Israeli veteran soldier knows, other than a few juicy swear words, as well as Arabic words such as kef and dugri that have become embedded in spoken Hebrew.
I smiled at my daughter who had come home from the army to rest over Shabbat, but at the same time my heart ached. Arabic language proficiency has not managed to become an integral part of the skillset of the average Jewish Israeli. Despite many attempts by the Ministry of Education, sometimes supported by philanthropic initiatives, and despite the fact that the ability to speak Arabic is indisputably vital for Israeli Jews, both for war (“know the enemy”) and for peace (breaking down stereotypes, and promoting inter-cultural understanding and communication between equals), Jewish resistance to the Arabic language has defeated every establishment effort to teach it in schools.
A Jewish Israeli hearing the call to prayer from the minaret at noon on Friday, might think that the muezzin is inciting jihad against the Jewish population. When a Jew hears an Arab speak Arabic, a spark of suspicion might flicker inside — not necessarily consciously, but as a historical remnant, a memory of riots and terror. It is no coincidence that the places in Israel where Arabic is studied much more seriously and where far better results are achieved, are the various security services. What schools cannot accomplish over the course of 12 years of study, is achieved in a 3-month intensive course given by the General Security Service or the Military Intelligence.
And I, who dedicated days and nights during my five years at university to becoming proficient in Arabic, can glean some comfort from the fact that my two sons have both met the challenge of learning Arabic by themselves. The oldest, after a father-son trip to Jordan before his military service during which he heard his father converse with the locals in Arabic, became “turned on” to the language and taught himself basic conversational Arabic. My second son, during a year at yeshiva before his own draft, taught himself Arabic, both spoken and even some basic reading, in between studying Torah and Gemara.
There is no disputing that knowledge of the Arabic language is critical for Jews in Israel. An Arabic proverb says, “Kul lisan — insan” (“every additional language is like giving yourself an additional personality”).
Both to influence the way we conduct ourselves as we struggle for our existence and normal life in the region, and certainly so that we all, Jews and Arabs, will one day be able to live in the Middle East with a modicum of harmony, every Jewish Israeli, in addition to speaking the mother tongue of Hebrew and the international language of English, should also master basic Arabic – inshallah!
Sagi Melamed is Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and President of the Harvard Club of Israel. He is the author of “Son of My Land” and “Fundraising” and can be contacted at: email@example.com.
This essay first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.