Although Arabic is an official language in Israel, the native tongue of 20 percent of the population, and a compulsory school subject, very few Israeli Jews can speak it.

A new program called "Ya Salam" — a play on the Arabic word for peace — intends to change that trend with a new approach to Arabic instruction for Jewish school children.

The program focuses on early instruction; teaching Arabic in the 5th grade, two years earlier than usual. It also focuses on teaching conversational Arabic, instead of the formal literary Arabic traditionally taught. Most critically, Arab teachers will be instructors in Jewish classrooms, reported Josef Federman for the Associated Press.

Maram Faour, a teacher from the Arab town of Kabul, is on the front lines of this effort. The 29-year-old is now in her second year as an Arabic teacher at a school in Yokneam Israel. Her teaching strategy includes playing games with the students, encouraging conversations with them, and teaching about Muslim holidays. She also has brought Arabic storytellers, musicians and her own children into the classroom. "I want them to learn as much as possible about Arabs in a positive light," she said in an interview with Federman.

Educators hope teaching conversational Arabic will be a tool for promoting peace in the region. "Teaching conversational Arabic and Arab culture in Jewish schools reduces fear and stereotypes, strengthens commitment to tolerance and diversity and generates inter-group understanding. It will encourage the next generation of leaders to build a shared future," says the Abrahamic Fund Initiatives, a group promoting peace between Jews and Arabs in Israel. "Language is a symbol of cultural values, traditions and identity...Learning Arabic language and culture will create an honest and informed dialogue between the two communities, in an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect."

The program's lofty goals are inspired by academic studies on the connections between language and peace. "Language has historically been a tool of political, social and economic oppression," said Leland Miles, president emeritus of the International Association of University Presidents, in a forward for Language and Peace, a compilation of essays on using language acquisition to promote peace between disparate groups.

"Using language to promote inclusion rather than exclusion, conciliation rather than conflict, peace rather than war" is the challenge for the next century, he says.

EMAIL: mwhite@desnews.com