Israel's Success in Teaching Hebrew Linked to Ideology

Schools: Educators say Jewish state and immigrants themselves make language immersion work for students.

ASHDOD, Israel–When Lesia Mazon arrived at the Amirim Elementary School last September, the 9-year-old Russian immigrant was put directly into a Hebrew-speaking class even though she could not understand what her Israeli teacher was saying, ask a question in the language of her new country or read a book in the unfamiliar alphabet.

She was given Hebrew lessons for part of the day but was left in the third-grade classroom the rest of the time to follow along as best she could with the help of other Russian students who could translate for her.

“When I got here, I didn’t know anything,” Mazon said in accented Hebrew. “Now, I usually understand everything. If I don’t understand, the teacher explains after class.”

Mazon’s experience is typical in Israel, where for 50 years Jewish immigrants have been quickly immersed in Hebrew and told that they must learn the language if they are to become good Israelis and prosper in their new land.

By many measures, this approach has worked well. Whether they came from Russia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa or the Americas, Jewish immigrants by and large speak Hebrew. Israel has only a few communities of immigrants who continue to conduct everyday life in their native tongues, and even in those neighborhoods, most children adopt Hebrew as their primary language.

This is what Gov. Pete Wilson apparently had in mind when he pointed to the success of the Israeli immersion system as a model for California in place of the current bilingual education programs.

But teachers and professors of language education note that Israel’s success in teaching Hebrew has as much to do with the ideology of the Jewish state and the immigrants themselves as it does with immersion and the national education system, factors that do not apply to California.

And, educators say, the costs and possible shortcomings of immersing immigrants in Hebrew are suddenly becoming apparent. In its pursuit of Hebrew, they say, Israel has forfeited multilingualism. Many immigrants have erased their past and forgotten their mother tongue in order to become Israelis.

“We know that a person without a past is a half-person,” said Ilana Shohamy, who chairs the Language Education Department at Tel Aviv University.

Immigrants Feel They Are ‘Coming Home’

>From the beginning, Zionists have seen the rebirth of ancient Hebrew and massive Jewish immigration as crucial to the building of a strong, modern Israel. Religious Jews view immigration to Israel as a mitzvah, or fulfillment of a blessing, and often feel they are “coming home” instead of moving to a foreign country. Many Jewish immigrants regard Hebrew as the language of their ancestors rather than an alien tongue.

Israelis call immigration aliya–ascent. The Israeli government actively seeks new immigrants and offers them a package of incentives to enhance their lives in Israel, including intensive language training for children and their parents. Even the army is mobilized to help teach Hebrew to immigrants.

“We are trying to court our students. We want them to love this place, to feel this is their home as quickly as possible,” said Hilla Kobliner, who teaches Hebrew as a second language at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “For a long time, we are the channel to bring students into the ways of Israeli society.”

But educators say it is not clear just how well immigrants have learned the Hebrew language. Yes, they can speak conversational Hebrew and it becomes their children’s mother tongue, but Education Ministry officials and professors of education say there are no in-depth studies to show whether immigrants learn academic Hebrew as well as natives do. Academic Hebrew is the key to success in university and professional work.

Experience has taught educators that the immigrants’ success is uneven at best. Russians who come from a highly competitive culture and have university-educated parents do far better than Ethiopians, whose parents may be illiterate and unaccustomed to a modern, Western society.

As a group, the children of Middle Eastern or North African Jewish immigrants, known as Sephardim, do not advance in society at the same rate as the children of European, or Ashkenazi, immigrants, but educators say they do not know if this is because of economic and cultural barriers or whether there also may be some language problems.

Schools Criticized for Cultural Insensitivity

The school dropout rate for Ethiopian Jews, who arrived in airlifts during the 1980s and ’90s, is higher than that of the Jewish population at large, according to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-Brookdale Research Institute. Eighteen percent of Ethiopians age 14 to 17 either drop out or attend school irregularly.

Adisu Masala, an Ethiopian member of parliament from the opposition Labor Party, blames the dropout rate on an educational system that places a large number of the Ethiopian students into religious schools, whether or not they are religious, and into poor-quality boarding schools. Additionally, he described a problem with the language instruction.

“Reading comprehension is a problem. . . . Common sense indicates that the great difference in culture and codes has implications for language learning,” Masala said. “But the teaching method is uniform and identical for all groups of immigrants. The program doesn’t take into account the culture and traditions of one community or another.”

The government does take an immigrant’s status into account when it comes to exams. New immigrants are allowed to take simplified school tests–including high school matriculation exams–for the first four years they are in the country, and Ethiopians may take them for 12 years, all the way through school. But Masala considers this “running away” from the language comprehension problem rather than rectifying it.

Jewish immigrants who take high school graduation exams, simplified or not, pass at about the same rate as sabras, or native-born Israelis. But it is not known if immigrants go on to university and to become professionals at the same rate as native-born Israelis.

“We don’t have any measure,” said Tel Aviv University’s Shohamy, who has been hired by the Education Ministry with two colleagues to do the first large-scale study on the language proficiency and academic achievements of immigrants. They will test 3,000 sixth-graders and 10th-graders in Hebrew and math during a year-long study that began May 1.

“Until now, we have never looked at whether we have succeeded or not. We don’t know whether what we are doing works,” Shohamy said.

What Israel does for the 140,000 immigrants currently in the elementary and high school system can be seen at its best in the Amirim school in the heavily Russian town of Ashdod. The public school has a low student-teacher ratio of about 16.5 to 1 and state-of-the-art computer labs with nearly one PC for every five children.

About 80% of the 500 students at Amirim are immigrants. Although the vast majority speak Russian, only Hebrew is heard in the play yard. There are no Russian words on classroom walls or hallway bulletin boards, where Israel’s Zionist heroes, native flora and 50th anniversary are celebrated. The teachers speak Hebrew only.

“One of my goals was to stop kids from speaking Russian to each other,” headmistress Shosh Anchikovsky said. “Not to force them, but to create a climate of Hebrew-speaking at school.”

Anchikovsky says the best way to integrate newcomers is to treat them as “100% Israelis.” She does not even use the term immigrants.

“This is a Hebrew school, not a school of immigrants,” Anchikovsky said. “When you treat kids as Israelis, it works. . . . My goal is to prepare them for the new millennium. And because this population did not have contact with Judaism and Zionism, another goal is to bring them closer to this. We want to bring them closer to this country.”

Many Want to Stop Wiping Out the Past

Clearly, the pressure on children to assimilate is intense. Natan Makarenko, 10, refused to utter a word of Hebrew during his first six months at Amirim and says he did not really understand what was said to him for 1 1/2 years.

“I was shy and I was afraid I would make mistakes. I was scared. I thought I would never understand what was going on,” Natan said.

Today, after three years at Amirim, the fourth-grader added, “there are still words I don’t understand. It’s better–but still hard.”

He spoke fluidly and appeared to be well adjusted. But when asked where he came from in Russia, the boy suddenly looked confused and answered, “I don’t remember the name of the city.”

This is the process of wiping out one’s past that many educators now want to change.

“In the past, everyone who stepped off the boat was told, ‘OK, now you have to speak Hebrew,”‘ said Elite Olshtain, a professor of language education at Hebrew University.

“The price many of these people paid was rejecting the language they brought with them. It was not the right thing to do, especially for people from Arab countries. We live in an area of the world that is Arab-speaking, but the younger generations did not acquire the language, and that is a pity. In the early years, even English-speakers did not maintain their English, although it is an asset for anyone in the world looking for a job,” Olshtain said.

Only Israel’s native Arab population has been allowed to study in its own language. Arab citizens of Israel have their own schools in Arabic, but they are required to take Hebrew-language courses and must pass a proficiency exam in order to graduate from high school. While most learn to speak conversational Hebrew, many never master the language or graduate from high school. And like all Israelis, Arab citizens must pass college entrance exams that are in Hebrew if they want to enter university.

Educators Weigh Bilingual Factors

Olshtain said that Israel’s ethos of monolingualism is slowly changing and that high schools in particular now encourage immigrant students to maintain their first language. All Israeli students must take English as a second language and are urged to study a third language. The options available now include Russian–an acknowledgment of the approximately 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

In a very limited way, the educational system is beginning to experiment with the kind of bilingual programs that California seems poised to reject. There is a pilot program to teach Ethiopians first in their native Amharic and then in Hebrew.

Educators say they do not reject bilingual education out of hand but fear there are social disadvantages to it because it tends to separate a group of children who are eager to integrate into the mainstream and be like everyone else.

“We are far from being fully successful at teaching Hebrew, and we have different problems with different groups,” Olshtain said. “Certainly, what we have done is not only because of methodology, we are not happy with our methodology. But there isn’t a simple answer. Whatever decision you make, you will pay some price.”

In the effort to bring new arrivals into the mainstream, Israeli-born students also are made to feel responsible for the education and integration of their new classmates. At the East Talpiot public, religious elementary school, principal Shimon Peri said he tells his pupils that the successful “absorption” of the 30 immigrants into the 400-member student body is part of Zionism.

“We tell them it is in their power to decide the fate of these immigrant families, whether they stay here or move away,” Peri said. “We explain that . . . if the children are well received and happy, their parents will be happy too, and then they will stay. If the kids are unhappy, the parents will look for another country. The students feel a certain responsibility and a duty to help teach them Hebrew.”

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