In Mideast, a Grow­ing Lin­guis­tic Di­vide

Shrink­ing Num­bers of Is­raelis, Pales­tini­ans Study­ing Each Other’s Lan­guage

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Scott Wil­son

ROSH HAAYIN, Is­rael — Re­cruiters from Is­rael’s mil­i­tary intelligence first iden­ti­fied Ran Vit­tel­son, a stel­lar Ara­bic stu­dent, as a blue-chip prospect when he was a sopho­more at the large pub­lic high school here.

Quiet and stu­dious, Vit­tel­son has a rare tal­ent for Ara­bic, a lan­guage of dwin­dling in­ter­est to Is­raeli Jews, many of whom iden­tify it with their en­emy.

“I’ll be trans­lat­ing Ara­bic texts and lis­ten­ing also to avoid ter­ror at­tacks,” said Vit­tel­son, 18, who will be­gin his com­pul­sory army ser­vice af­ter grad­u­a­tion in a few months.

Malek Iram, a Pales­tinian mer­chant, is also a tal­ented lan­guage stu­dent. The aluminum sid­ing sales­man is study­ing He­brew, a lan­guage of de­clin­ing in­ter­est to Pales­tini­ans who iden­tify it with their en­emy, at a small in­sti­tute in the West Bank city of He­bron.

“I have to un­der­stand what the Is­raeli busi­ness­men are say­ing,” Iram, 26, said af­ter class on a re­cent af­ter­noon. “Oth­er­wise, I’ll be at a dis­ad­van­tage.”

As their phys­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion grows, a shrink­ing num­ber of Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans are study­ing each other’s lan­guage, a ca­su­alty of the en­dur­ing hos­til­ity be­tween two peo­ples still shar­ing one land. Those Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans study­ing Ara­bic and He­brew, both of­fi­cial lan­guages of the Jewish state, are do­ing so for rea­sons that re­veal vastly dif­fer­ent out­looks on the fu­ture.

“The at­ti­tude on both sides to­ward the other lan­guage, and by ex­ten­sion those who speak it, is very dis­ap­point­ing,” said Sas­son Somekh, who helped found the Ara­bic de­part­ment at Tel Aviv Univer­sity nearly 40 years ago. Now re­tired, he is lob­by­ing against its clo­sure. “Both sides are just very afraid of the other,” he said.

Judg­ing by en­roll­ment in univer­si­ties and private in­sti­tutes, the num­ber of Is­raeli Jews and Pales­tini­ans choos­ing to study the lan­guages has fallen by a third in some places and nearly dis­ap­peared in oth­ers since 1993, when the Oslo peace ac­cords es­tab­lished the semi­au­tonomous Pales­tinian Author­ity and be­gan sep­a­rat­ing the two peo­ples.

Many Is­raelis look to Europe as their prime eco­nomic and cul­tural ref­er­ence point. In busi­ness, the lan­guage they need is more likely to be English or French than Ara­bic. To­day, among those Is­raeli Jews study­ing Ara­bic, many more than a decade ago are do­ing so for one rea­son: pre­par­ing for ser- vice in the Is­raeli se­cu­rity agen­cies.

By con­trast, many Pales­tini­ans view Is­rael’s thriv­ing econ­omy as the near­est path to pros­per­ity, even though fewer and fewer of them have per­mis­sion to work in Is­rael. For am­bi­tious Pales­tini­ans, He­brew re­mains the lin­gua franca of busi­ness and a use­ful tool for nav­i­gat­ing the Is­raeli mil­i­tary check­points.

“At the end of this there will be two states,” said Mazen Abu Sham­siya, who runs the He­brew lan­guage in­sti­tute in He­bron that Iram at­tends. “But I am con­vinced Is­rael will never live with­out the Arabs, so long as there is an eco­nomic con­nec­tion.”

In Is­rael’s Jewish pub­lic school sys­tem, Ara­bic is tech­ni­cally com­pul­sory through the 10th grade, al­though about 35 per­cent of stu­dents choose in­stead to study French or Rus­sian or to en­roll in re­li­gious schools where Ara­bic is not re­quired.

Is­raeli Arab stu­dents, who at­tend sep­a­rate schools, are re­quired to study Ara­bic and He­brew. All Is­raeli stu­dents must pass an English exam to grad­u­ate. In the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the Pales­tinian Author­ity does not teach He­brew in pub­lic schools.

In a sur­vey com­mis­sioned last year by Is­rael’s Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry, Is­raeli high school teach­ers said the main chal­lenge in teach­ing Ara­bic was the “low im­age” of the lan­guage among Jewish stu­dents, a ma­jor­ity of whom said it should no longer be com­pul­sory.

“If you study French, you are part of a so­phis­ti­cated lit­er­ary cul­ture,” said Shlomo Alon, the min­istry’s head of Ara­bic in­struc­tion in the Jewish school sys­tem for nearly two decades. “That’s the true ex­pla­na­tion, but no one wants to say it.”

On Alon’s of­fice door hangs a poster fea­tur­ing the Ara­bic al­pha­bet, the in­signia of Is­rael’s mil­i­tary intelligence ap­pear­ing promi­nently in one cor­ner. The branch gives teach­ers class­room ma­te­ri­als and tests the bright­est stu­dents in their sopho­more year. Only 2.5 per­cent of Jewish 11th- and 12thgraders choose to study Ara­bic at the high­est level, a num­ber un­changed since the start of the most re­cent Pales­tinian up­ris­ing six years ago.

Mil­i­tary intelligence re­cruits serve in safer posts than their class­mates in the in­fantry. The classical Ara­bic taught in high school does not help with con­ver­sa­tion in a lan­guage com­pli­cated by var­i­ous di­alects. But it is the form used in TV and ra­dio news broad­casts in the Arab world, which the re­cruits mon­i­tor.

“My friends think it’s a bit odd that I study Ara­bic,” Vit­tel­son said amid the din of his high school’s hall­ways clear­ing out for Passover break. “But they are wrong.”

Rosh Haayin, a town of 30,000 on Is­rael’s coastal plain, high­lights the de­mo­graphic chal­lenge fac­ing mil­i­tary re­cruiters as the flow of Jews from Ara­bic-speak­ing coun­tries dries up and the first new im­mi­grant gen­er­a­tion dies off.

Jews from Ye­men, raised speak­ing Ara­bic, once dom­i­nated Rosh Haayin. But they now ac­count for roughly 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, com­posed mostly of mid­dle-class Jews with Euro­pean and Rus­sian back­grounds who have lit­tle in­ter­est in Ara­bic. “There are very few na­tive Ara­bic speak­ers left in the Jewish pop­u­la­tion,” said Car­mit Bar-On, who teaches the lan­guage at the high school here. “There is a prob­lem teach­ing Ara­bic be­cause there is a prob­lem be­tween Arabs and Jews.”

Af­ter mil­i­tary ser­vice, fewer and fewer Is­raelis are study­ing the lan­guage in univer­sity, threat­en­ing the fu­ture of some Ara­bic de­part­ments.

At 73, Somekh, the re­tired pro­fes­sor, is the dean of Ara­bic stud­ies in Is­rael. He ar­rived a na­tive Ara­bic speaker from Bagh­dad in 1951 af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school there. His Ara­bic classes swelled fol­low­ing the 1973 Mid­dle East war, then dipped when the first Pales­tinian up­ris­ing be­gan in 1987, he said. Since the Oslo ac­cords, en­roll­ment has fallen more than 30 per­cent, even though, he said, “the threat to Is­rael is higher than ever.”

Re­flect­ing the mood in Is­rael, he lamented, “A friend of mine tells me we are now a high-tech econ­omy that the Arabs have noth­ing to do with, so now we can turn our eyes to the West.”

Three years ago, af­ter Somekh had stopped teach­ing full time, the univer­sity pres­i­dent told him that he was con­sid­er­ing clos­ing the de­part­ment. “I told him the whole world will say the largest univer­sity in Is­rael just closed its Ara­bic de­part­ment,” Somekh said. “That scared him. But there is still this feel­ing of need­ing to get away from them as far as pos­si­ble. This is the at­ti­tude shown to­ward Arabs and to­ward Ara­bic.”

Last month, Is­rael’s par­lia­ment voted to es­tab­lish the state’s first Ara­bic academy to pro­mote the lan­guage.

Ul­pan Akiva, a lan­guage school that oc­cu­pies a sea­side com­pound in Ne­tanya, is the first stop for many new Jewish im­mi­grants seek­ing to learn He­brew.

Be­fore the up­ris­ing and Is­rael’s con­struc­tion of a sep­a­ra­tion bar­rier, scores of Pales­tini­ans also stud­ied He­brew there each year, in­clud­ing a Ha­mas spokesman who uses the lan­guage in Is­raeli television in­ter­views. To­day, two West Bank doc­tors are the only Pales­tini­ans in the course.

The school also of­fers Ara­bic, which once at­tracted Is­raelis from a variety of po­lit­i­cal and pro­fes­sional back­grounds, in­clud­ing Jewish set­tlers from the West Bank. Most Jewish adults now en­rolled in its Ara­bic cour­ses work for the gov­ern­ment as teach­ers, po­lice and mil­i­tary of­fi­cers.

“It’s the wall, it’s anger, it’s fear,” said Es­ther Per­ron, the in­sti­tute’s ebul­lient di­rec­tor. “But what­ever hap­pens, they will be here and we will be here. So let’s talk.”

Yasser Khatib, di­rec­tor of the Pales­tinian Yasser Cul­tural Cen­ter in He­bron, learned He­brew at Ul­pan Akiva in bet­ter days. Now he runs his own lan­guage in­sti­tute.

The school’s He­brew teacher learned the lan­guage in an Is­raeli prison, where many Pales­tinian po­lit­i­cal lead­ers jailed dur­ing the up­ris­ings learned it from fel­low in­mates.

Be­fore the most re­cent up­ris­ing, Khatib said, hun­dreds of Pales­tini­ans were en­rolled in his three-month He­brew cour­ses. “Now,” he said, “you can count them on one hand.”

On the eve of that up­ris­ing, which be­gan in Septem­ber 2000, the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment al­lowed 100,000 Pales­tini­ans from the West Bank to work and trade in Is­rael. Now that num­ber is 50,000, among them a satel­lite dish sales­man, two cut-stone mer­chants and a trav­el­ing toy ven­dor study­ing in Abu Sham­siya’s sec­ond-floor class­room in He­bron.

A fe­male med­i­cal stu­dent fields Abu Sham­siya’s ques­tions, hop­ing He­brew will help her se­cure a gy­ne­col­ogy res­i­dency at Jerusalem’s pres­ti­gious Hadas­sah Hospi­tal. Then there is Hanadi Ta­haboub, a 32-yearold home­maker wear­ing a pink head scarf.

“When I am at check­points and I hear Is­raeli sol­diers talk­ing among them­selves, I feel like an il­lit­er­ate,” Ta­haboub said. “Now at least I will know what they are say­ing.” Spe­cial correspondent Samuel Sockol con­trib­uted to this re­port.


Ran Vit­tel­son, 18, was re­cruited by Is­raeli mil­i­tary intelligence in his sopho­more year of high school for his pro­fi­ciency in Ara­bic.

Mazen Abu Sham­siya, who runs a He­brew lan­guage in­sti­tute in the West Bank city of He­bron, said most of his stu­dents are Pales­tinian mer­chants who do busi­ness in Is­rael.

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