It is a rare thing to find heartwarming news articles, especially ones that cover the Middle East. However, I just found out that Israel is now requiring all students to study Arabic, starting in 5th grade. While Arabic is already an official language in Israel (along with Hebrew) my personal experience has been that very few Jewish Israelis know Arabic. By encouraging all Israelis to study the language of its neighbors (and the native language of one fifth of its own citizens), the government is taking a positive step toward promoting cultural tolerance and securing Israel’s future as a permanent feature of the modern Middle East. As I have personally discovered, it is quite difficult to learn Arabic without learning (and falling in love with) Arab culture. While some Israelis may have to battle their own negative stereotypes of Arabs, it is inevitable that learning Arabic will produce a greater understanding of Palestinians and their Arab neighbors. Instead of viewing them as “the other” (which leads to the horrible behavior exhibited in my previous post) Arabic study may help Israelis to see Palestinians and their Arab neighbors as ordinary people.
But this isn’t just about feeling all warm and snuggy. In this case, language study will also lead to greater security for Israel. By requiring all students to learn Arabic, this is effectively communicating to the Arab world that Israel is here to stay. This gets the point across much more effectively than military operations or explosive rhetoric. Rather than viewing itself as an island in the Arab sea, perhaps this indicates that Israel is interested in becoming a member of the Middle East community. I am sure the Arab states aren’t going to fall over themselves to welcome Israel into the club, but perhaps it will lead to a greater realization that Israel is a permanent and legitimate part of the Middle East, and not a misplaced oddity.