Why I Study Arabic

Recently, I unexpectedly received a “certificate of participation” from the Rutgers University senior citizen audit program. For the last several months I’ve been studying introductory Arabic in a classroom of students who are all more than 40 years younger than I. It hasn’t been easy; Arabic definitely is a challenging language. I do believe that knowing Hebrew fluently has kept me in the ballgame. While the alphabet is different, there are vocabulary and grammar similarities. Learning Arabic is something I have wanted to do for a long time, and I am as proud of this certificate as any diploma I have ever received.

Why Arabic? At least 20% of Israel’s citizens speak it as their native language. Israel is located in the heart of the Middle East, and Arabic is the most widely spoken language of the region. A true process of peace and reconciliation between Israel and her neighbors will require not just agreements between political leaders, but also, at a deeper level, respect for each others’ cultures, language, and historical narratives. Because I care so deeply for Israel and its future, I want to be a more empowered contributor to that process.

I often make reference to a conversation with a little Arab girl I had back in 2008 at the dual language/curriculum Hand-in-Hand school in Jerusalem just after Obama was elected president the first time. [Sadly, this special school has experienced an apparent hate-motivated arson.] She asked me in Hebrew, because her English wasn’t good enough and I didn’t speak Arabic, whether I thought an Arab could ever become Israeli Prime Minister the way an African-American became president in the United States. I hesitated, but then responded,” maybe one day,” knowing full well that such a scenario is far-fetched to say the least. I could have responded that, yes, it is possible if an Israeli Arab leader would be dedicated to fulfilling the state’s dual mission of developing the country as the nation state of the Jewish people and, at the same time, protecting full equality for all of its citizens. She was too young for that kind of complexity. But when I return for another visit to the school, regardless of the content of the conversation I have with the Arab children, I want at least part of it to be in their native language.

By the way, the recent controversy surrounding the proposed misguided Jewish nationality legislation, one version of which would have diminished the status of Arabic in Israel, has only served to reinforce my commitment to pursue a higher level of Arabic next semester! I want Israel to show greater respect for its minority’s culture and language, not less. And lest there be any misunderstanding, I am an ardent Zionist who firmly believes in the importance of Israel remaining the nation state of the Jewish people, while, as a liberal democracy, also providing equal rights to citizens. These roles are not mutually exclusive. They can and should be complementary.

Taking Arabic classes has sharpened my sensitivity to this issue. I have been watching taped sessions of the prestigious Forum convened in Washington, DC the first weekend in December by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.  There were a lot of American and Israeli stars both on stage and in the audience. The Center’s name is pasted all over the backdrop — in English and Hebrew. It struck me; wouldn’t it have been a nice touch also to include the name of the Forum in Arabic?  And how about including Arabic announcements on El Al flights, the absence of which has bothered me for decades? There are many other examples of how respect can be shown without jeopardizing Israel’s Jewish identity.

About the Author
Martin J. Raffel, until his retirement in 2014, served for 27 years as senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), an umbrella body with 16 national member organizations and over 120 locally based organizations (JCRCs). He was JCPA’s lead professional on matters related to Israel, world Jewry and international human rights. In 2009, Raffel took the lead in organizing the Israel Action Network, a joint strategic initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America and JCPA that seeks to combat the assault on Israel’s legitimacy. He currently serves on the Board Of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA.