The language of the people that built Auschwitz has always been regarded with deep suspicion in Israel. You could only study German at university or at Tel Aviv's Goethe-Institute, and hearing the language on the streets can sometimes still turn the heads of locals.

But this is all about to change as Israel introduces German as a school subject.

German is taught at state-run schools or university in 144 countries around the world, even in North Korea. It was always possible to study German in Israel but the standing of German as a language in the country — for comprehensible historic reasons — was not very high. Indeed, it was not offered as a normal public school subject.

German courses were available at Israeli universities, but students rarely took advantage of these courses as they were missing the basics that they should have learned in high school.

But all of this is about to change. German will be introduced as a compulsory subject choice during the coming school year that starts in late August. Students at participating schools will then be able to learn German as a foreign language.

Aug. 8, 2015 marked a bit of history when Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Secretary General of the German Conference for Ministers for the Arts and Culture, Udo Michallik and the German Embassy envoy Monika Iwersen signed the necessary documents to usher in the new course offering.

Michallik declared it "a remarkable development" that Israeli students are now able to learn German at school and receive a German certificate. "How far we have come during the last 50 years of diplomatic relationships," he added.

Five schools will initially offer regular German lessons as part of the curriculum from ninth grade onwards. Introducing German at other schools, even primary schools, is also considered. The exam for the German language certificate, which can be taken after four years of German, is to be recognized as the equivalent exam for the Israeli A-Levels, the Bagrut, even though they have been going on for more than two decades via the Goethe-Institute in Tel Aviv.

In Tel Aviv — Photo: Bezalel Ben-Chaim

Finding teachers

These bold plans will, however, have to prove their worth after years in which studying the German language was declining steadily. But this pessimistic view of things may be outdated by now: The director of the language department of the Goethe-Institute in Tel Aviv, Jörg Klinner, confirmed that the number of enrolled course participants indicate that learning German has become more popular over the last five years. The number of German language students at the Goethe-Institute Israel (which comprises the Institutes in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem since 2012) exceeded 2,000 in 2014, up from 1,752 two years earlier.

The lack of suitable teachers constitutes another problem. The Israeli German Teacher Association, established in 1986, once had 80 members. But there were only 36 members left in 2012. Their training is often inadequate. Native German speakers often lack the necessary knowledge of the Hebrew language, whereas Israeli German teachers who did not have the chance to study in Germany were educated solely in Israel.

The Goethe-Institute is attempting to improve the current situation. Jörg Klinner explains that the Institute continually offers advanced training courses, often supported by staff from the Israeli German Teacher Association, for the entirety of German teachers around the country. Currently, there are no German language teaching methodology courses available in Israel to aspiring German teachers — but Klinner is in contact with an Israeli university to change the status quo.

Although the German language is profiting from the increasingly improving image of Germany around the world, no one should discount how ambivalent the feeling towards the language is in Israel. This is particularly evident in the comment made by an employee of the German Embassy, who thinks that it can be seen as huge progress that "German can now be spoken freely while walking down the street."