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Position paper submitted to the Ministry of Education’s committee on shared society

Teaching Arabic in Jewish school. Photo by Neta Cones courtesy of www.spokenarabic.co.il

The following is a translation of a position paper submitted by The Association for the Promotion of Spoken Arabic (AMAL-Spoken Arabic for All) to the Ministry of Education’s committee on shared society, at the beginning of February 2022.

AMAL-Spoken Arabic for All

The Association for the Promotion of Spoken Arabic works to promote Spoken Arabic as a useful, relevant and desirable language of communication, in a shared Israeli society. Since 2010, the organization (NGO) has been running the AMAL (Spoken Arabic for All) project, in which Arab students teach spoken Arabic and Arab culture in Jewish elementary schools.

Guiding principles of the AMAL project

  • The Arabic language in general and the Palestinian dialect in particular have historical significance and carry substantial social weight within the delicate fabric of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.
  • Arabic should be taught within the wider social and cultural context.
  • Exposing Jewish children to the Arabic language and culture at an early age enables the formation of a more positive and less stereotypical perception regarding the Arabic language and its speakers.
  • The bonds formed between Jewish children and Arab students have the potential on the one hand to serve as a counterweight to racist perceptions and prejudices and on the other hand to encourage tolerance and mutual empathy.
  • The status of the Arab/Palestinian student in the Jewish classroom as a role model for the children challenges conventional power dynamics and encourages the formation of pluralistic and respectful attitudes towards the outgroup.

What have we learned after twelve years of teaching Arabic in Jewish schools?

One of the most surprising things we’ve learned was that in many schools where there is no Arab presence at all, neither in the faculty nor among the students (unfortunately most Jewish schools in Israel), there is a real desire, indeed a great thirst for contact with Arabs, but also befuddlement or confusion, as to the best way to initiate such relationships. While we initially feared opposition to the project, in most cases we were met with support, curiosity and great interest. In fact, in quite a few schools, we were very warmly embraced by the whole school community (teachers, parents and children).

We also learned that the students we recruit are eager to gain work experience in Jewish organizations, make professional and personal connections with Jews and serve as ambassadors of goodwill for their language, their culture and their society. Time and time again we have heard from the students who took part in the project that their year of teaching Arabic was an empowering and unique experience, with a significant impact on their life as contributing adults.

Recommendations to the Committee

  • The Ministry of Education’s committee on shared society must clearly define the overall approach of the ministry itself, and perhaps that of the State of Israel, regarding how shared society should be taught and indeed what shared society means. Is the goal to preserve the status quo between Jews and Arabs in the country, or to create the educational and moral infrastructure for building a more egalitarian, tolerant and empathetic society, in which Arab society is recognized as a desirable and integral part of our shared society?
  • Recognizing the great impact that personal and direct relationships with the objects of stereotypes and prejudices can have on overcoming and transcending such views, the Committee should encourage the integration of Jewish teachers in Arab schools and Arab teachers in Jewish schools. We recommend creating incentive mechanisms for schools that adopt an inclusion friendly approach, in relation to staff members and students alike.
  • The committee must act to normalize an open, respectful and empathetic discourse of identities within the education system. We must understand that when individuals feel free to express who they really are, on all levels and in tune with all stories, narratives and complexities that their identity includes, when they feel more whole “inside their skin” thanks to growing external legitimacy (legitimacy that we as a system have in our power to provide), then and perhaps only then, can such individuals serve as intriguing and sought after partners for dialog and collaboration. Moreover, under such circumstances, those individuals would likely be better equipped to deal with conflicts they carry within their identity and the layers in the identity of others who are ostensibly in conflict with their own.
  • The committee must encourage the study of Arabic as a language of peace and Arab culture as an inalienable asset that all Israeli society has something to be proud of and enjoy. In such studies, the cultural, literary and social contributions of Israeli Arabs/Palestinians to the whole of Israeli society should be emphasized and celebrated.
  • The committee must not ignore or obscure the impact of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict on our pursuit of shared society with equality and solidarity as its foundation. On the contrary, the conflict exists in the background, whether it is discussed openly or not. The more we expand the circle of discourse, that is, give legitimacy to a greater variety of perspectives and narratives, the more we expand the circle of our shared society.
About the Author
Ishmael Ben-Israel is the Co-founder and Co-director of A.M.A.L. and the CEO of LingoLearn Online Language Courses. Ishmael was born when the historic peace treaty with Egypt was signed and was given an Arab name with the hope that he would grow up in a world where Arabs and Jews would “beat their swords into plowshares and learn war no more". Ishmael lives in Hod-Hasharon, with his wife and daughter. In his free time, he plays the guitar, Slack-Lines, writes, reads, cooks and swims (not at the same time). Ishmael has dedicated his life to building bridges of trust, respect, love and a sense of a common humanity, between Jews and Arabs.
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