Israelis are amazed at Hebrew-speaking Egyptians. They are reporting on the events in Egypt, and surprise us no less than a cat reciting Shakespeare. We are surprised to see an eloquent Egyptian journalist who says sensible things on the Channel 10 news, and ask how it can be that such a woman wears a hijab. We know what a hijab is; we’ve seen women wearing it. We’ve seen them screaming at soldiers in the West Bank and weeping over the dead in the Gaza Strip. But a woman in a hijab who speaks in good Hebrew about social justice? That’s a woman like we’ve never seen before.
Why does she surprise us? Why are we surprised by the Hebrew of Heba Hamdy Abo Seif, on Channel 10 news, and Munir Mahmoud on Army Radio? We are surprised because their Hebrew blurs the clear boundary that must separate enemies. The funny Hebrew heard on the Kol Hara’am radio station, which was broadcast from Cairo in the 1960s − that we could handle even today. That Hebrew set a clear boundary between the Arabs and us, and bolstered what we had always known: that we are superior and they are ludicrous. That is how it’s supposed to be between enemies. Until Abo Seif appeared on television, that boundary was strong and stable. While she has managed to undermine it a bit, even her eloquent Hebrew will not erase a century of mutual loathing.
Abo Seif and Mahmoud reflect an image of the Arab that was drummed into us at school; back then we knew what an Arab was without ever having known a single one.
A study conducted in 1985 by education professor Adir Cohen determined that in local children’s literature, the Arab is “primitive, cruel and traitorous.” Dr. Sara Zamir’s 2004 study on junior-high school literature revealed similar findings. “In ongoing, severe and violent conflict situations,” she wrote, “there is an increasing tendency of each side to view the opposite side as an inhuman entity, which does not deserve to take part in the community of nations.”
The children who read the children’s books and studied in those junior high schools are “disciples” of the conflict. When they enlisted in the military, they became pursuers of wanted militants and guards of checkpoints. That is how they encountered weeping women and frightened children. Years of indoctrination were of no avail to those who faced women and children: They had trouble facing a crying child despite having been taught that he was merely a primitive, cruel and traitorous enemy.
But the feeling of superiority did not suffice: These same people were positive that they surpassed the enemy by any measure. They were therefore offended, for example, to find that Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat’s English is better than Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s, and were disappointed to learn that Iran will be playing in the World Cup while Israel’s team will not.
Being raised on a certain image of the Arab did something to us: Today it is hard to find Arabic speakers in Israel who are not Arabs or who were not born in a Muslim country. Ninety percent of the Arabs in this country speak Hebrew, while only 3 percent of Israeli-born Jews speak Arabic. Last year only some 2,000 Jewish high-school students took the matriculation exam in the language of 20 percent of their country’s residents. The teenagers who took that test in Arabic did not see it as bridge: They saw it as a weapon, and most of them, presumably, were inducted into Unit 8200.
Meanwhile, anyone who was not interested in serving in that unit or elsewhere in Military Intelligence asked: What’ll Arabic get me? And so, with those few words, Shimon Peres’ dream of the New Middle East was wiped out. It was wiped out by those who were supposed to realize it. No young Israeli believes anymore that something will come of his studying Arabic, even if two geezers from the Middle East don’t stop shaking hands on the White House lawn.
Nobody here dreams anymore of language as a bridge between peoples − certainly no one in the press does. Its job after all is not to build bridges but rather to report the news. It has to report on what we want to know and also on what we need to know. Evidently, we neither need nor want to know about the world around us.
What do we know about the Arab world? Nothing. The Israeli press had no correspondents in Cairo and Amman even when times were quieter over there and better over here. We know the world around us through Zvi
Yehezkeli’s trivia on Channel 10 and Ehud Yaari’s MI briefings on Channel 2.
We’ve never had a real interest in the lives of Munir Mahmoud and Heba Hamdy Abo Seif, and therefore radio host Razi Barkai was surprised to hear Mahmoud’s Hebrew. If we knew how they live there and what is taught there, perhaps Barkai would not have been surprised − but, then, our faith in our superiority would be shaken. The knowledge that we are actually pretty similar to each other would nullify the sense of superiority on which we were raised, and without an awareness of that superiority there can be no victory in war.
The recognition that there are human beings nearby who are like us is subversive and dangerous: It might yet awaken us from our sweet dream. In reality we are a small country that refuses to believe it is in the Middle East. In our dreams, we are Europeans. Singing in the
Eurovision contest, playing in the Euroleague and skiing in the Alps. When they show women in a hijab on television, we say: Yuck. And then along comes
Abo Seif and confounds us.
We may be confounded, but even 100,000 rabid Beitar fans won’t convince us that we are not living where we imagine ourselves living.