How Can We Talk Peace With Arabs if We Don’t Bother to Learn Arabic?

How did it come about that I, who grew up in the supposedly mixed city of Haifa, never made a genuine effort to learn that language?

Neri Livneh
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Neri Livneh

On the occasion of her birthday, our friend Shula decided to invite her best friends (about 50 people) for a tour of Jerusalem under the auspices of Ir Amim, an NGO that, as its English-language website explains, seeks “an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed political future.”

The conflict takes many different forms in the city, such as expulsion of Palestinians from their places of residence in order to build sprawling Jewish neighborhoods, small settlements and national parks, without providing them alternate housing. There are large disparities between the educational systems, and also great differences in infrastructure development and the level of social welfare services between Palestinians and Jews. In addition, Palestinians who live in Jerusalem are condemned to lives of uncertainty, because their residence permits can be revoked at any time under all manner of pretexts.

On the tour, our attention was drawn above all to the creation of facts on the ground by means of nationalist initiatives. These have brought about Palestinian ghettos, encircled in a stranglehold by Jewish neighborhoods and settlements. So much so, in fact, that any possibility of dividing the city in the future has been rendered impossible.

A gloomy and despairing atmosphere, which intensified as the tour went on, pervaded the bus, most of whose passengers are readers of Haaretz and belong to what’s known as “the left.” For most of the participants, those who do not live in Jerusalem and who are not journalists, this was the first time they had seen with their own eyes the horrors of the occupation – the protracted injustice done to the Palestinians for which we Jews, even if we voted for the “right” parties, bear indirect responsibility by the very fact of being Israelis and therefore being privileged.

Our greatest privilege is to feel like the lord and master, while they, even if their families have dwelled in Jerusalem for decades or even centuries, have been made to feel like unwanted guests for the past 47 years, with their homes and their ID cards – which afford them only minimal rights – liable to be wrested from them at the drop of a hat.

We are the bad guys in this story. “Let’s just say in summary that we’re shits and go back to Tel Aviv,” I said to my friend Manuela, who founded Saving Children, a project that refers Palestinian children to Israeli hospitals for free treatment, for Palestinian children. For her, even more than for me, there was really nothing new about the depressing information with which we were plied.

“The question is what the people who are now so shocked by this knowledge will do afterward,” Manuela said.

The answer is self-evident: We will all retreat back into the bubble. Most of us into the bubble we’ve been living in for years; a few of us, like me, for example, into the one I fled to a few years ago after living in Jerusalem for 31 years. Until I became weary of going to the right demonstrations and writing the right things, and despaired of the belief that what I do or say had any effect on anyone who didn’t think as I did from the outset.

Standing next to the security barrier intended to block Palestinians’ free passage to the road to Jericho were some young Israelis who were making funny poses for the camera. It won’t be long before couples who are about to be married start having their pictures taken near that wall, too – yet another attraction for the wedding album, in addition to the windmill in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe neighborhood and the East Talpiot promenade.

This will all make the deep and substantive difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv or Haifa definitively clear: In Jerusalem there are walls – exceedingly ugly, high concrete ones that we built. Haifa and Tel Aviv have the sea, which is open to the world, to the places where racism hasn’t yet become a political principle or come to mean “love of the Jewish people.”

I tried to read the graffiti on the separation wall. Most of the inscriptions are in English and talk about freedom and love. I was filled with pride when I was able to read the word “Palestine” in Arabic. I decided to find out how many of the people on the bus, all of them highly educated and most of them older than I, know Arabic. The result did not surprise me: Every one of them speaks at least one language that is not Hebrew, but not one speaks Arabic.

I don’t know Arabic, either. In my case, the shame is particularly intense: My grandfather taught Arabic in high school, and my mother also was a teacher of Arabic for two years in the very high school in which I myself later learned that language for two years – although the only result of that is that I can decipher Arabic letters and also say “lilath urushalim barida,” when it was a cold night in Jerusalem.

How could it be that none of us – including the father of Mika Almog (my fellow columnist in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz), who is doing admirable work in proffering medical aid to the Palestinians in the West Bank, and including also Manuela, who’s spent 16 years helping Palestinian kids – speak the language of the Middle East in which we live?

What meaning can there be in our desire to “conduct a dialogue” with the neighbors we keep under occupation if we don’t even bother to learn their language? How did it come about that I, who grew up in the supposedly mixed city of Haifa, and then spent decades in another city, which is supposedly also mixed and even unified, never made a genuine effort to learn that language?

The partial sociological answer has to do with the fact that, as a rule of thumb, it’s the minority who learn the language of the majority. But underlying this resonates another terrible truth: Most of us never really come to terms with the fact that we live in a country that is situated in the Middle East, of all places, not Europe. It’s as though the very location of the state founded by our parents and grandparents between Egypt and Syria, Lebanon and Jordan – all of which, rest assured, are in the Middle East – is some kind of geographical miracle. We’re here, on the shores of the Mediterranean, but actually we are Europeans.

That’s the only way I can understand the tremendous joy that has spread among those who until recently considered Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) and who will soon be able, just like me, if they present the right documents, to obtain a Spanish – i.e., European – passport.

This is no innovation for me. “If Grandpa’s grandpa came from Tetouan, Morocco, then we are actually Moroccans,” I once said to my mother. In response, she placed a hand on her heart as though about to suffer a coronary, and said, “Excuse me very much – we are Moroccans? We are pure Sephardim, from Spain, from the descendants of the poet Yitzhak Ibn Kalfon, the teacher of Shmuel Hanagid.”

“In that case, can I now get a Spanish passport?” I asked her, and then a scary thing happened: My mother went mute, for the first and last time in her life. That was about 20 years ago, when the question of being able to receive a Spanish passport was purely rhetorical and totally far-fetched.

My mother will never know that she could have won the argument, and that if she were alive today she could even have obtained that passport. My guess is that she wouldn’t have bothered even trying: Her dream was to become an American citizen.

Illustration by Avi Ofer.

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