Tongue-tied: Arab and Jewish Jerusalemites Are Flocking to Study the Other’s Language

Arabs need Hebrew to work in the west of the city, which is coming off its most violent year in decades; Jews have more varied reasons for learning Arabic.

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Jews and Muslims ride the Jerusalem Light Rail.
Jews and Muslims ride the Jerusalem Light Rail.Credit: Emil Salman

East Jerusalem Arabs are filling up Hebrew classes almost as fast as the courses can open, and a similar thing is happening with West Jerusalem Jews studying Arabic. Arabs consider Hebrew a must to make a living in the west of the city, while  both leftist and rightist Jews are learning Arabic.

When the Jerusalem Intercultural Center began its Arabic study program 13 years ago, the center’s director, Hagai Agmon-Snir, said there were hardly enough people to fill a class. Now he says the classes set for September — seven months away — are already full, and there’s a waiting list for at least three more classes.

The L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art has also opened an Arabic course. “The first class filled up in a week and we opened two more,” said the museum’s director, Nadim Sheiban. “If I had good teachers I would open five more courses.”

According to Anwar Ben-Badis, who teaches Arabic (including to this writer) at the intercultural center and the museum, “I get three or four offers of work a day and have to turn them down.”

On the other side of the city, the same thing is happening with Hebrew. Last year, no less than 10 Hebrew courses opened in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

In the Beit Hanina neighborhood, a vocational training project of JDC-Israel and the government has opened, including an option for Hebrew-language studies. Neighborhood administrations are opening Hebrew study groups for Arab women, and private college are opening programs, including ones in Hebrew language, to prepare Arabic speakers for academic studies.

The government and the Jerusalem municipality have recognized the need for Hebrew studies in the east of the city and have earmarked funds accordingly.

Last year was one of Jerusalem’s most violent years since it was unified. One outcome was a decline in registration by Arab Jerusalemites for Hebrew classes in the western part of the city. Instead, they’re seeking institutions that offer the language closer to home.

Some people regard the language phenomenon as a sign the city is becoming binational. As long as it was believed the city could be divided politically, the demand to learn the other language remained low. According to these people, now that the city’s future seems binational, the demand to get to know the other side is growing.

An Arabic class at the Jerusalem Intercultural Center. Photo: Emil Salman.

Clearly more Arab Jerusalemites know Hebrew than Jewish Jerusalemites know Arabic. Knowledge of Hebrew is most common among young men, while women, children and older adults have limited facility in the language and cannot read or write it.

Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that the “Israelization” of East Jerusalemites was responsible for Arabic speakers learning Hebrew. They want it for leisure-time activities as well as employment and studies.

In addition, the separation barrier in East Jerusalem has separated many Arab Jerusalemites from Palestinians in the West Bank. It has thus increased their dependence on West Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem has become one big ghetto. Where will they go? It’s hard for people, but they have to fit in,” said Amin Khalaf, a founder of the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.

Interviewees for this article agreed that the language phenomenon has nothing to do with recognition of the occupation. Still, most Hebrew-language students asked not to be photographed; Hebrew is considered a necessary evil, an activity that might be seen as giving up one’s Palestinian identity.

In any case, Jews have more varied reasons for learning Arabic. There are leftist activists, tour guides who work in the eastern part of the city, and parents of children in the bilingual school. And Orthodox Jews and settlers can be found in almost every class.

“There are three kinds of Jews who study Arabic. Some are in daily contact with Arabs and want an easier, nonaggressive means of communication. Some are conscience-stricken but they don’t necessarily study. It’s important to them to say they’re studying,” Ben-Badis said.

“Then there are those who study Arabic out of fear. They want to stop being afraid of Arabs; for example, settlers who want to feel more secure in their homes.”

Anwar Ben-Badis teachers an Arabic class at the Jerusalem Intercultural Center. Photo: Emil Salman

For both Arabs and Jews, the challenge is to find qualified teachers. “There’s no supervision, no oversight — it’s chaos,” said Ali Ayoub, the director of the Beit Safafa Community Center, which runs a Hebrew class.

Ayoub hopes to launch a proper curriculum and write Hebrew-language books geared for Arabs. Currently, Palestinians complain that Hebrew study books are written for new immigrants and convey political messages.

For Jewish students of Arabic, the situation is better — they can delve into books written decades ago by Yohanan Elihai, a French monk who has lived in Israel since 1956. The 88-year-old said he was not aware of the trend but is glad to hear about it.

“Maybe that explains why I’ve been getting phone calls lately from people thanking me and wanting to meet me,” he said.

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