Some in East Jerusalem Regret Neglecting Hebrew, ‘Language of the Occupier’

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School girls in East Jerusalem. In the limited number of schools beyond the separation barrier where Hebrew is actually taught, the level is extremely low.
School girls in East Jerusalem. In the limited number of schools beyond the separation barrier where Hebrew is actually taught, the level is extremely low. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Sahar Khader

It may come as no surprise that for many years now the level of Hebrew teaching in East Jerusalem schools has been seriously deficient. Even though there have been attempts in recent years to expand the scope of Hebrew teaching in some schools, in many others – particularly those in neighborhoods on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier – the quality remains low.

In 2018, the Israeli government announced that it would invest significant funding (approximately 2 billion shekels, or $560 million, at the time) in a program aimed at reducing socioeconomic gaps in East Jerusalem.

But the five-year economic and educational project – which among other things places a strong emphasis on augmenting the study of Hebrew – has raised objections by some Palestinian parents. They claimed that the objective is to encourage “Israelization” or “de facto annexation” of the eastern part of the city among students who are not even citizens of Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinian schools that are not taking part in the scheme because they do not teach the Israeli curriculum, are not receiving government budgets.

Thus, in the large number of schools where the Palestinian curriculum is being taught, particularly in the neighborhoods that lie beyond the separation barrier, the level of education in general is extremely low.

These neighborhoods, which are physically detached from Jerusalem – and include Kafr Aqab and the Shoafat refugee camp – consistently suffer from an inferior level of services in all realms, despite the fact that they are officially within municipal borders and their residents hold Israeli identity cards (albeit no Israeli citizenship).

Over 100,000 people – nearly one out of every three Palestinians in Jerusalem – dwell in this municipal no-man’s land and are forced to pass through the Qalandiyah checkpoint to receive basic services, such as health.

A significant proportion of the schools in the neighborhoods beyond the barrier are operated by private organizations, “contractors” who in effect are not supervised by any regulatory authority. The low salaries paid by these contractors to teachers constitute a significant problem when it comes to hiring educators. And that is besides the fact that many of those who possess official teaching certification choose not to enter the area from Israel proper due to the hardship of passing through checkpoints. Therefore, the majority of the teachers in the neighborhoods in question come in from the territories.

Thus, in the limited number of schools beyond the separation barrier where Hebrew is actually taught, the level is extremely low. Due to the dearth of Hebrew teachers, one person is sometimes compelled to teach all grades, from first through 12th. Frequently, little more than the Hebrew alphabet is taught.

In these schools, if a pupil receives four failing grades he or she will usually be held back a year, but if one of the failing grades is in Hebrew, it will typically be disregarded by the administration. The students are aware of this and often downplay the importance of studying the language, even though they are aware that it can be a key to integration in institutions of higher learning and to employment. Nevertheless, one Hebrew teacher in Kafr Aqab, who refused to reveal his name due to fears of losing his job, told Haaretz 21: “Hebrew instruction in the public schools in Kafr Aqab has actually improved recently, because there is now a program that takes into account the different ages of the pupils.”

Mirna, Lara and Abed al-Fatah Natsheh, three siblings who attended schools in Kafr Aqab, experienced the problems of studying Hebrew firsthand.

Pupils enter a school in Kafr Aqab, East Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

“I began learning Hebrew in sixth grade,” Mirna explains, “but I did not really feel that I was behind in my studies as compared with the others, who had begun in third grade, because the teachers simply went on repeatedly teaching the same basic materials.

"Every year, the teacher would begin to teach from the beginning, as soon as she realized that a sizable share of the pupils did not know Hebrew – even though it is not normal to still be teaching the letters of the alphabet to pupils in seventh grade. What’s more, the textbooks were terrible. The pupils themselves would disparage the Hebrew lessons.

"This situation changed in the high school to which I transferred; our teacher also taught at a university. He taught us articles that were age-appropriate. As for conversational Hebrew, to my regret they did not teach us any at all, so I was compelled to study at a Hebrew-language institute after completing high school. It’s important for me to stress how terrible this was. The woman who taught us in elementary school was not certified to teach Hebrew; she spoke the language, that’s it.”

Her sister Lara adds: “The emphasis in elementary school was mainly on letters, reading and basic vocabulary. But they did not make any effort when it came to conversation. I, too, was compelled to complete my Hebrew studies at another institution, after finishing high school.”

Says Abed al-Fatah, their brother: “At school in Kafr Aqab, I only learned the alphabet and the most basic things, until seventh grade. Afterward, in high school, the person who taught me Hebrew was the physical education teacher, who continued to teach us the same things as in elementary school. I only became able to converse in Hebrew when I entered the job market. But not in reading and writing.”

Kafr Aqab ,East Jerusalem, seen behind the separation barrier.Credit: Emil Salman

“I was in shock when I came across a teacher who taught at a boys’ school for years and was teaching his class Hebrew in the feminine gender form,” relates a veteran educator who has worked in schools on both sides of the barrier in East Jerusalem. “On more than one occasion,” she continues, “I found teachers who were teaching Hebrew without any knowledge of the language, simply because they had to fill their quota of teaching hours.”

“I was a pupil who got high grades in all of my courses, including Hebrew, but when I began to study at university, I discovered that nothing of what I had learned until then was of any help to me,” relates Sara Fahem, a resident of Beit Hanina who studied at what was considered a prestigious high school in East Jerusalem. “That came as a big surprise to me, because I had to deal with difficulties I didn’t think I’d have to face. I am interested in continuing my studies and I want to do a masters degree, but I’m having a very difficult time due to the language.”

Israeli vs. Tawjihi matrics

Due to her desire for a higher level of education for her two elementary school children, including in the Hebrew language, Farah Ahmed enrolled them in a private school in Beit Hanina. The level was so much better there that she says she had to improve her own Hebrew so she could help her children with their homework. But the price of that choice was, literally, quite high: While tuition in the Arab public school system in Jerusalem is only 200 shekels a year, in the private schools it can reach between 3,000 and 12,000 shekels.

Aslam Sarhan, a Hebrew teacher at a school in Silwan, a neighborhood abutting the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, believes that the problem also lies with the pupils themselves: Some of them are opposed to learning Hebrew since it is not part of the Tawjihi (Palestinian matriculation) examinations, or cite ideological grounds: It is the language of the occupier and should thus not be taught.

“To my regret, not all of the students have sufficient awareness of the importance of Hebrew language,” Sarhan explains. “I have to explain this to them every so often, because otherwise they do not listen in class and they disturb other students. They have to be persuaded to learn it with all their heart – not only in order to pass tests. For instance, I remind them that it will save them from having to find someone to translate documents or forms that they will need at some stage of their lives. I also emphasize that if they do not understand Hebrew, they will not be able to understand the police officers they see in the street. And of course it will also save them from having to do the preparatory year of study should they be interested in going on to an Israeli university.”

Sarhan says she also comes across younger students who are willing to study the language but because of the poor instruction they receive, are forced at a later stage to relearn it. Moreover, the socioeconomic background of the students directly affects their desire and ability to advance in Hebrew, she adds.

Moshe Kaptowsky, a project consultant at the Jerusalem Development Authority who works with civil society groups and minorities, admitted to Haaretz 21 that “the situation of Hebrew instruction in East Jerusalem and beyond the separation barrier is not good.” He says residents of East Jerusalem learn the language mostly for pragmatic reasons. “It is an identity issue,” he explains, adding that the poor level of knowledge is related not only to a lack of proficient teachers and to outdated instructional methods, but also to the pupils’ lack of interest in learning Hebrew. In addition, in his opinion, the Tawjihi matriculation track also induces a lack of motivation to study the language, although the level of Hebrew in schools that teach according to the parallel Israeli bagrut system is not appreciably better, Kaptowsky says.

“In order to solve the problem, there is a need not only for a collaborative effort on the part of the national government and the municipality, but also of a civil society that cares. Parents are an important part of this story. As for the neighborhoods beyond the barrier, the identity issue is stronger there. These people are even more detached from Israel, and that creates a sense of ‘nobody cares about me.’”

The identity issue

Dr. Clila Gerassi-Tishby, executive director of the Milah Institute for Hebrew Studies, agrees that the perception of identity among East Jerusalemites in general, and individuals living beyond the barrier in particular, is more Palestinian than Israeli, and that directly affects people’s willingness to put an effort into Hebrew studies.

“Back when Israel tried to force the Israeli curriculum on schools, there was extremely high opposition to it,” she relates. “They objected so strenuously to it that they moved their children to private schools, or did not send them to school at all. It was a sort of strike. At a certain point, Israel caved in and said, ‘Okay, you can continue to teach the Jordanian curriculum’ – which in the Oslo years became the official curriculum in the Palestinian Authority and is still adhered to in the majority of the schools in question. So when there is a Tawjihi, in which there is no obligation to be tested on knowledge of Hebrew, combined with the lack of civil status over the years, it has caused residents of East Jerusalem to remain a great deal more Palestinian than Israeli in terms of their identity. And of course Hebrew is also the language of the security forces and of people with whom interaction can be very negative. There was a time, prior to the first intifada, when there were Jewish Hebrew teachers in East Jerusalem, but after that, they stopped going there.

“There is still a lack of Hebrew teachers [in the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods]. Now, they mainly hire Arab university students from northern Israel to teach Hebrew but the majority does not undergo any formal Hebrew-instruction training. At times the pupils look unfavorably on the teachers, due to identity-related reasons.”

Gerassi-Tishby says that the East Jerusalem students who come to her Milah institute after high school to improve their language skills “come with a very low level, altogether basic, which isn’t enough for anything. There is now a government plan in which much has been invested, which is supposed to advance education in the eastern part of the city among other things, but the subject of Hebrew also involves training teachers, writing study materials that are adapted to Palestinian society, and also fomenting a dramatic change in how the language is perceived and in the psychological barrier [to it].”

Regarding the neighborhoods beyond the separation barrier, Gerassi-Tishby notes that the current situation there of a “no-man’s land” that is not under the full responsibility of Israel or of the Palestinian Authority “has indeed caused great neglect in this realm, as well.”

Sahar Hader is a student of Hebrew literature at the Open University, a mother of three daughters who lives in Kafr Aqab, beyond the separation barrier. She is a participant in the Haaretz 21 initiative for promoting voices and stories from Arab society in Israel.