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Could mandatory Arabic lessons for Israeli kids foster tolerance?

Arabic is an official language in Israel, along with Hebrew. However, in many cases, when it is taught in the schools it is taught in a military context. A new bill would introduce a Arabic with the goal of understanding neighbors rather than enemies.

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Israeli Arab Maram Faour, a teacher from the Arab town of Kabul gives an Arabic class to Israeli schoolchildren in a school at the northern Israeli village of Yokneam, Dec 20, 2011. Israel's Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill on Sunday that would make the instruction of Arabic mandatory in Israeli schools.

Oded Balilty/AP

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Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday approved a bill to make Arabic education mandatory for Israeli schoolchildren beginning in first grade.

"When the Jewish population will understand Arabic, the way the Arab public understands Hebrew, we will see better days," Likud party member Oren Hazan, who introduced the legislation, told the Jerusalem Post.

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The Knesset, Israeli parliament, will hold a preliminary vote on Wednesday on Mr. Hazan’s legislation, which counts among its supporters the country’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

“In these days, when terror is on the rise and coexistence is undermined, it’s important to lower the flames among the nation’s citizens, and there is no better way to do that than by understanding each other’s language...” Hazan told the Post.

Arabic an official language in Israel, as well as Hebrew. It appears on road signs, public institutions, and government offices, reports the Times of Israel. And though Jewish schools are required to teach three hours of Arabic a week to students in seventh through tenth grades, many don’t, the Times says.

And in cases when they do, it is often through a military context. The Haaretz newspaper points to an example, quoting a lesson plan that begins “Students studying Arabic ... We need your help in foiling a terror attack about which we have received numerous alerts.”

The lesson plan is part of a joint program of the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Corps and Israel's Education Ministry to motivate students to learn Arabic, according to Haaretz.

But some people criticize the military agenda in Arabic education, saying that it doesn’t help foster cultural understanding, but only more distrust.

“For years the educational system has focused on training ‘intelligence fodder’ for the IDF,” Reuven Snir, dean of humanities at the University of Haifa and a professor of Arabic language and literature told Haaretz.

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"I spent years in both systems of Arabic,” says Mr. Snir, “in ‘know your enemy’ and in ‘know your neighbor’ ... and the difference between them is huge.”