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Ben-Gurion University Professor Plans Arabic Language Revolution in Israel

Dr. Yonatan Mendel wants the Jewish state to become a Middle Eastern hub for learning Arabic, drawing students from Europe and the United States

A revolution is taking place among the dusty sand dunes and dry riverbeds of Israel’s Negev Desert.

Dr. Yonatan Mendel wants Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba to become a global destination for learning the Arabic language. But first, he tells The Media Line, the school needs to become a destination for Jewish Israelis to study Arabic in Arabic.

Dr. Yonatan Mendel, senior lecturer in the Department of Middle East Studies and head of the Arabic Language and Culture Division at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. (Dani Machlis)

From his perspective, the Jewish state historically has taken the wrong approach to teaching Arabic and the senior lecturer in BGU’s Department of Middle East Studies and head of the Arabic Language and Culture Division aims to change that starting with his school’s program in Arabic studies.

“What we are trying to achieve in this program at BGU is to influence the field of Arabic language studies in Israel,” Mendel explains. “Saying we need to wake up. We need to change the way we teach Arabic, and we need to enable our students to have skills in Arabic, not only knowledge about Arabic.”

The Process of Discovering How Arabic is Taught in Israel

Originally from Jerusalem, Mendel’s journey with learning the Arabic language began in 5th grade and continued through his schooling and into the army.

An experience at the age of 22 changed Mendel’s perspective on how Arabic is taught in Israel.

He had started working at Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, a bilingual school in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, when he was approached by a mother asking a question. Mendel didn’t understand her and could not even reply, asking: “can you please repeat the question?” The reason? She was speaking colloquial Arabic, the everyday language of the region.

“From that moment I started to grasp that there is something very wrong in the way that we teach Arabic,” Mendel said.

What is missing with the way Arabic is taught in Israel, according to Mendel, is communication with the Arab community – learning from Arabic speakers, being exposed to both colloquial and literary Arabic, going beyond the technical aspects such as conjugating a verb to actually using the language.

The long process led Mendel to different experiences interacting with Arabs, including working at an Arab school in Jaffa and with Palestinians in the West Bank and meeting Arab classmates while studying to get his master’s degree at University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Mendel then got his doctorate from the University of Cambridge with a focus on how Arabic has been taught at Jewish schools in Israel and pre-state Israel over the past 100 years.

Mendel said that Arabic is taught as an archaic language like Latin or Ancient Greek rather than Hebrew or German or Spanish. Another problem that Mendel sees is that Arabic is framed within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from a security or military perspective.

“Today, for example, when you ask most students why they want to study Arabic, they answer that they want to join military intelligence,” Mendel said. “That means that at the end of the day we allowed military motivation or security motivation to prevail.”

The Arabic Language Revolution Begins at BGU

When Mendel arrived at Ben-Gurion University two years ago, he was asked by the head of the Middle East Studies Department what needed to change in the Arabic studies program. Mendel’s answer was almost everything.

Mendel said that teachers were needed who spoke and wrote Arabic, who interacted in Arabic, who knew Arabic culture, who had Arab friends. So, they retrained the current teachers and brought in new faculty.

“Eventually we ended up with a team of teachers who are Arab and Jewish alike who all have very high skills in Arabic, which means that for them Arabic is not only a language that can be decoded, but a daily language,” Mendel recounted.

Mendel explained that the other part of the revolution was changing the method. How Arabic was being taught. BGU adopted a similar curriculum to what was being taught at universities in Europe and the United States – teaching Arabic as a living language, what Mendel calls a “communicative approach.”

The third component of the revolution is for Jewish Israeli students to connect the Arabic language with Arab culture so they can think about current issues in a critical way, including in conversations. The program exposes students to different viewpoints within Arab society.

What we are trying to achieve in this program at BGU is to influence the field of Arabic language studies in Israel. Saying we need to wake up. We need to change the way we teach Arabic, and we need to enable our students to have skills in Arabic, not only knowledge about Arabic

Arabic in Israel’s Education System

Mendel co-authored a 2015 report from the Van Leer Institute and Tel Aviv University titled “Command of Arabic among Israeli Jews,” which found low levels of Arabic literacy levels in the Jewish Israeli population. According to the report, 90% of Jewish Israelis can’t speak Arabic and 83% can’t understand the language. The report also found that only 2.6% of Jewish Israelis can read a newspaper in Arabic and just 1% can read literature.

The Education Ministry, in an emailed reply to The Media Line, said that Arabic learning begins in elementary school, with a new curriculum approved for teaching spoken Arabic in primary schools. The program is compulsory in Haifa and the North Districts and is taught in other districts as an authority.

According to the Education Ministry, Arabic is part of compulsory education in middle school and is part of elective studies in high school.

“Since last year, spoken Arabic is being taught alongside literary Arabic as part of a new curriculum developed as part of an alternative assessment for high school students. In addition, we will hold advanced training for teachers who will join the teaching of the program this year,” the ministry said.

Arabic Language Success Story in Jerusalem

The Center for Arabic Instruction at the Jerusalem Intercultural Center is one place in Israel where interest in learning Arabic has increased, according to the center’s director, Dr. Hagai Agmon-Snir.

When the center started teaching Arabic about 15 years ago, it was difficult to open two courses every year. Now, there are 15 to 20 courses at capacity, Agmon-Snir told The Media Line, adding that Israelis understanding that they need to learn Arabic has grown “by a thousand percent.”

He added that there are six or seven other places in Jerusalem teaching Arabic and that they are full, a point of pride.

While most of the students are Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jews, teaching classes on Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic has even allowed for a few people abroad to enroll in the courses, Agmon-Snir said.

Agmon-Snir said that learning Arabic could be especially beneficial for Israelis doing business in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the two Gulf countries that officially established diplomatic relations with Israel at a White House signing ceremony on Tuesday.

“Arabic is not only a language, it’s a culture,” Agmon-Snir said. “If you get into it, you can make business that you couldn’t do before and this is going to be very important to businesspeople who are going to work over there.”

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