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Likud Lawmaker Sponsors Bill Mandating Arabic Education in Israeli Schools

Support pours in from left and right, as well as Israeli President Rivlin

Yair Rosenberg
May 29, 2015

It’s safe to say that Likud MK Oren Hazan never expected to be in the Knesset at all. Ranked 30th on his party’s list, in a slot reserved for a youth candidate, Hazan was never projected by any pre-election polls to make it into Israel’s parliament. But after Likud’s surprisingly decisive victory garnered it 30 seats, Hazan found himself the beneficiary of the party’s electoral fortune. And this week, he began to flex his legislative muscles with a surprising proposal that has garnered support across the political spectrum: a bill that mandates early Arabic language education in Israeli schools.

Hazan, 33, is something of a loose cannon, and certainly no bleeding heart. He lives in the controversial settlement city of Ariel, and is the son of conservative former Knesset member Yehiel Hazan. Earlier this year, the younger Hazan submitted a false Gaza war testimony to the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, with the aim of exposing their purportedly poor collection methods. (The ruse failed.) This background makes Hazan an unlikely champion for coexistence education reform, but that is the subject of his first major bill.

Hazan’s legislation would require Arabic to be taught in Jewish schools beginning in the first grade. “Just as you won’t find an Arab citizen who doesn’t know Hebrew after completing 12 years of formal education,” he said, “so too, it’s inconceivable that we maintain a status quo in which a Jew who has completed 12 years schooling doesn’t know how to speak Arabic.” Hazan’s proposal also includes a parallel Hebrew program for Arab schools, though as he noted, most Arab citizens of Israel learn Hebrew as a manner of course.

Learning Arabic, Hazan wrote in the bill’s text, “will allow students and citizens to understand one another.” Moreover, he added, “knowing the language of the other is the basis for understanding and mutual respect, which are necessary in the current situation in Israel.”

Hazan explicitly linked the impetus for his bill to a recently aborted program to separate Jews and Palestinians on buses in the West Bank, chalking the push for the widely-panned plan down to fear. “In our daily reality, with Jews riding the buses in Judea and Samaria and hearing the Palestinians, they are usually afraid,” Hazan said. “With global terrorism and radical Islam on the rise, the lack of knowledge and understanding leads to fear.” Hazan’s hope is that Arabic education would enable Israelis to talk to Palestinians and dispel debilitating misconceptions. “Knowing the language and being able to communicate with different people can increase our sense of security and serve as a bridge between people,” he said. (At the same time, it remains unclear if Hazan has abandoned his prior support for the West Bank busing scheme.)

If adopted, Hazan’s proposal would dramatically bolster Arabic study among Israeli Jews from an early age. As the Times of Israel noted, “under the Israeli educational guidelines, Jewish schools are supposed to teach three hours of Arabic a week to 7th-10th graders. However, the directive is not strictly enforced and many institutions do not offer classes.”

The Likud lawmaker’s bill has been endorsed by a wide array of figures across Israel’s ideological map, and has been signed by Knesset members from the far-left Meretz to the far-right Jewish Home. Yesterday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who is a former Likud Speaker of the Knesset, came out in favor of the legislation’s essence in a speech before the leadership of Israel’s Center for a Shared Society.

“When we seek confidence-building measures between Jews and Arabs, we must work to nurture the positive identities of each side, and from within these identities, reach out to the other’s culture and story,” he said. “Such outreach is first and foremost found in language. The Hebrew language must be learned to perfection by the Arabic population, but the time has come, that also the Arabic language will be learned by the Jewish population. Language leads from the ear to the heart.” (Rivlin, who speaks Arabic, made multiple references in his speech to Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, in a clear effort to model the discourse he hoped to see.)

Given its diverse backing, Hazan’s bill appears likely to pass, though its details are still being negotiated. Its enactment would mark a rare bright spot in what has been a trying year for Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.