But learning the native tongue of the Arabian Peninsula has gained a small boost lately among one group of Israelis as a needed weapon in the latest battleground between their nation and its enemies: the Web.
Arab and Jewish computer hackers have been raiding websites around the Middle East in recent weeks, disrupting service at businesses such as the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and stealing identities. Seeking to upgrade their skills, a group of Israeli hackers has turned to the Berlitz language school for customized classes in Arabic, as well as Turkish, Persian and English.
One student told the Hebrew daily Maariv that better language skills will provide "additional tools that will help us fight attempts to attack Israeli sites."
The Berlitz class, a sort of Arabic-for-hackers 101, includes the alphabet and recognition of key words such as “Ministry of Interior Affairs,” “national bank” and “government,” one teacher told Maariv. "This will save us time locating government companies, banks and enemy country government bodies," the student said.
Mira Mines, a top Berlitz executive, was quoted in the report as saying that the school was glad to take part in the national effort and "help hackers deter anti-Israeli elements from attacking Israel in the future."
The teaching of Arabic -- the first language of Israel's Arab minority, who make up 20% of the country's population, and of the 16% of Israeli Jews from Arab countries -– has had a checkered history in Israel. The Education Ministry's policy on teaching Arabic in Jewish schools has flip-flopped over the years.
A new decision in place since 1995 obliges junior high school students to study a second foreign language in addition to English, mandatory from third grade to high school. About 75% of them take Arabic but later drop it because it's not a compulsory subject in later grades.
Rather than offering a bridge between cultures, Arabic is often a matter of dispute. A bill seeking to define Israel as a Jewish state (again) and declare Hebrew its only language was removed amid controversy. It took a Supreme Court order a decade ago to force municipalities to use Arabic on signs and a newspaper expose to get a Tel Aviv museum to add Arabic texts to its exhibits.
On occasion, Jews and Arabs have taken the battle over language and national identity to the streets -- or street signs, erasing or adding Arabic place names or lettering.
Recently, Israel's railway officials attributed the absence of announcements in Arabic to a desire to keep rides as quiet as possible and minimize the nuisance to passengers, inconvenienced enough by Hebrew and English announcements. Shutafut-Sharakah, a Jewish-Arab coalition, intends to challenge the discrimination in court.
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: A trader looks at a screen at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on Jan. 16. The exchange's website was taken offline that day after it was threatened by a hacker who identified himself as a Saudi. Credit: Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images