Thousands of Jewish children will begin mandatory studies in the Arabic language this school year. The new program is being led by schools in Haifa and the north, where the Arab population is most prominent.
Arabic classes will begin in the fifth grade, whereas currently students are offered classes in the language from seventh grade. More than 200 schools have joined the program, 42 of them religious.
"Arabic is an official language in this state and this is how it should be," says Dr. Shlomo Alon, the Education Ministry's Arabic studies inspector.
Orna Simchon, of the ministry's northern district, says she believes the program will soon be adopted by schools nationwide. "Every Arab student studies Hebrew, so there's no reason it shouldn't be the opposite way around," she said.
The district created the program, entitled 'Ya Salam', together with the Abraham Fund. It stipulates two weekly hours of Arabic studies – including spoken and written language – and a range of classes designed to acquaint students with Arabic culture and Arab students from the region.
"The aim is to turn the language into a cultural bridge – a means of communication. It is extremely important that every child come to know the language and the culture and thus communicate, hold conversations, and be tolerant in this country."
There are currently 1,000 Arabic teachers, most of them Jewish. But this school year 50 Arab teachers will begin teaching oral and written Arabic, as well as literature.
The new policy was sparked by a growing number of students who choose to study Arabic as their elective in junior high and high school. In the year 2000 those students numbered 1,506; last year there were 2,187. Hundreds of others chose to study a subject entitled 'The Arab World and Islam'.
Students currently have a considerable number of languages to choose from. Aside from English, which is mandatory, they must study Arabic, French, Russian, or Amharic as a third language from seventh to tenth grade. Around 60% of students in these grades choose Arabic.