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Israelis to Study Arabic Starting at Age 6?

Walter Russell Mead

A proposed bill in the Israeli Knesset will require that all Israeli school children study Arabic starting at age 6, The Times reports:

Jewish pupils in Israel will be required to learn Arabic from the age of six, under a proposed bill aimed at improving relations between the two communities.

Hebrew and Arabic are both official languages in Israel. The vast majority of Israeli Arabs, who make up a fifth of the country’s 8.3 million people, speak Hebrew but only a small fraction of Israeli Jews can speak Arabic.

The idea has pretty broad support. Doves in Israel support the bill as a way to build peace and understanding between the communities. Hawks want to prepare young people for military duty and to enable more Israeli Jews to understand the threats they face more explicitly.

Whatever the rationale, it’s a smart and good piece of legislation. Israel’s Jewish citizens need to be able to understand and communicate with their Arab fellow citizens and with their neighbors. Israel is a Middle Eastern country, and it needs to speak the language of the region (and one of its own official languages), even if much that is said is unpleasant. Further, raising a generation of educated professionals who speak Arabic is good for business. Many Israelis already study English. Well-educated Arabic- and English-speaking people living in the heart of the Middle East would be attractive hires for many American companies.

Understanding each other better won’t necessarily lead to harmonious relations; no language divide separates Sunnis and Shias in much of the Middle East. But understanding is always a good place to start, and Israel should be congratulated for a step in the right direction if this bill passes.

Meanwhile, we aren’t holding our breath for any Arab governments to mandate the study of Hebrew.

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