BGU's “Arabic-in-Arabic" Studies Program seeks to open academic and professional doors to students, and to advance civil, cultural, and social relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
Dr. Yonatan Mendel, a scholar of Arabic language and culture and the director of BGU's new Arabic Studies Program, says that as an Arabic-speaking Jewish Israeli, he's frequently asked if his Arabic skills come from service in military intelligence.
It's a question, he says, that gets to the heart of what's wrong with the study of Arabic in Israel today.
“To both Israelis and Palestinians, security is the most obvious explanation for an Israeli-born Jew who can speak, read, or write in Arabic," he says. “Despite the social, political, religious, and even historical importance of Arabic to Jewish Israelis"—aside from being the language of some of Judaism's most important classical texts, Mendel points out, Arabic even played a critical part in the revival of modern Hebrew—“the interest in and knowledge of Arabic is very minimal in Jewish-Israeli society."
It's perhaps no surprise, then, that despite Arabic's status as an official language in Israel until 2018, nearly 98 percent of Jewish Israelis cannot read a short paragraph in Arabic, and nearly 90 percent can't understand the language at all.
For this reason, Mendel describes one of the new BGU program's goals as “civilianizing" Arabic, or moving it out from the strictly security and into the civil realm. He insists that for this change to occur, it cannot be strictly “top down"—for example, through a legal change in Arabic's status—but must also be “bottom-up," through deliberate efforts at Israeli schools and universities.
The first challenge, says Mendel, is changing attitudes: Namely, presenting Arabic as a key to belonging in the region, and becoming “citizens of the Middle East." Most students of Arabic in Israel hold the language at a distance, says Mandel, treating its study as more of an instrumental or philologic exercise than an integrative experience. This approach was the first thing he and his team sought to address when they were tapped to reimagine the MES Department's Arabic Studies Program three years ago.
“BGU has never been an ivory tower. A key part of the university's mission is to work in the Negev, [al-Naqab in Arabic] and for the Negev," Mendel says. “It's only natural, then, that the MES Department take an active part in promoting connections between different groups and sectors in Israel. For instance, our students learn together with a group of native-Arabic-speaking teachers—both Arab and Jewish alike—in a vibrant, open, and supportive atmosphere, and we welcome students from everywhere and any background who not only want to study Arabic in Arabic, but who also see Arabic as a means to engage with living, breathing peoples and cultures in the Middle East."
Of course, such engagement requires excellent spoken skills, which brings Mendel to the second challenge.
“Many academic language programs impart knowledge about Arabic, as opposed to actual Arabic skills," explains Mendel, who also serves as an Arabic-to-Hebrew literary translator and the associate editor of Maktoob, a joint Jewish-Arab book series dedicated to the translation of Arabic literature to Hebrew. “Instead of imparting useful skills, such as the ability to read a novel, watch a movie, even write an email in Arabic, the language is treated in many educational spheres as if it were ancient Greek or Latin: Essentially, as a dead language. And yet it's as alive and as vital as Hebrew, English, or any spoken language today. In BGU's MES Department," Mendel concludes, “we wanted to go beyond verb conjugation and enable meaningful communication with the Arab community."
This goal led to the department's decision to teach Arabic in two different registers—literary and colloquial—simultaneously. This way, explains Mendel, students who graduate from the department will be equipped for careers in academia as well as for a range of positions in the professional world. Most of all, he says, “They can use the skills they gain in class outside, in the real world."
To achieve this goal, Mendel looked to successful educational models around the world, including the renowned Arabic program at Cornell University, which inspired the pedagogy of the program. The BGU program was also inspired by examples much closer to home, including Israel's famous Hebrew “ulpan" programs: “Consultants from the country's leading schools and institutes for the intensive study of Hebrew helped us to develop our unique curriculum," he says.
Mendel also highlights the importance of the program's Arabic-speaking teachers, who serve as role models for their students. “For all of our teachers, whether an Iraqi-Jewish female who lives in the Negev or an Arab-Palestinian teacher from the Galilee, Arabic isn't just a language to be taught. It's a part of their identity and of their daily lives. We want to expose the students to these different 'Arabics' and their multi-layered meanings."
Finally, there's the curriculum itself, which aims to build skills that “students can use from day one," says Mendel. In the first year, “Arabic and the Self," the teaching content is directed toward the acquisition of basic verbal and written skills and focuses on students' backgrounds, interests, and day-to-day environment, in particular the Negev. In the second year, “Arabic in Academia," students enhance their skills by engaging in academic activities such as reading Arabic texts, searching for articles in Arabic on the Internet, conducting an interview in Arabic, or analysing Arabic television programs.
And in the third year, “Arabic in the Real World," the curriculum empowers students to use their acquired knowledge to learn about and work with Arabic-speaking communities. Students can choose an elective taught fully in Arabic or participate in a unique Arabic-speaking practicum in a range of professional and social contexts. Examples include Arab schools, cultural centers and health clinics, in Bedouin villages and townships in the Negev, and even in Beer-Sheva's Soroka University Medical Center—all of which offer opportunities for meaningful civil and social encounters as well as exposure to diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.
As for whether all this adds up to an Arabic revolution, Mendel is optimistic. After all, he says, this is a cause all Israelis can – or at least should – rally around.
“When a bill was proposed in the Knesset in 2015 to make the study of Arabic mandatory for all Jewish students from the first grade, it had the support of lawmakers on both the left and the right," he says. “It's true that their ideologies may be different, but they all agreed that Jewish Israelis' widespread ignorance of Arabic is unacceptable and needs to change.
“BGU may be in the desert," he concludes, “but we recognize that we can't stick our heads in the sand when it comes to such a critical part of the region we call home."