Teacher’s In: Palestinian Kids Giving Jews Impromptu Arabic Lessons in Jerusalem Streets

Palestinian children often come to West Jerusalem to do odd jobs. Now, one group of kids has decided to ‘make peace with the Jews’ by teaching them Arabic on the street.

Innas, 12, teaches a 10-minute Arabic lesson to a child walking in Jerusalem near the table and bench she and her family have set up on Emek Refaim Street.
Oliver Fitoussi

With a quick skip, Haneen, a 12-year-old Palestinian girl, comes up close to an elderly woman carrying flowers and walking a small dog along Jerusalem's fashionable Emek Refaim Street.

It's Friday morning and there are plenty of passersby. Confidently, Haneen, with deeply dark eyes and a pretty smile, asks, "Do you want to learn Arabic?" She points to her grey T-shirt, with blue and red lettering identifying her as an "Arabic Teacher."

"I'm not sure," the woman hesitates.

"It's only 10 shekels, ($2.5)" Haneen insists, and, in broken Hebrew, motions her over to a Charlie Brown-like table and bench. A hand written sign advertises, in English: "The Teacher is In. 10-minute Arabic lessons... Kids from Hebron. Peace."

Mohanid, 18, and Abdullah, 12, teach Arabic to Jerusalem passerby under a sign saying 'The teacher is in. 10 minute Arabic lessons... Kids from Hebron, Peace'
Oliver Fitoussi

The woman sits down with Haneen on the bench, the dog at their feet.  Haneen hands her a printed page. "10-minute Arabic Lesson...Lesson #1," is written on the top.

This is the second consecutive Friday that Haneen, together with her siblings and cousins – Innas, 10, Abdullah, 12, Mohammed, 14, and Mohanid, who says he's 18 but looks more like a diminutive 14 – have set up shop at this corner.

Arabic without the politics

The neighborhood regulars recognize the kids. For years, Mohammed's mother, Samira, and Haneen's father, Samir, have been coming here from the southern Hebron region to look for occasional work, with permits allowing them through the checkpoints. On Fridays, they brought the children with them to peddle small packages of mint or the roughly-embroidered tiny purses that Samira would sew. But Samira died some two years ago, and more recently, the children started begging rather than peddling.

Robby Berman, a longtime resident of the German Colony neighborhood, says it was his idea to turn the children into improvised teachers.

Berman, 50, tells Haaretz that he "befriended the children. But how many packages of mint and purses-that-you-don't-need can a person buy?"

Berman, originally from Long Island, is the founder and director of the Halachic Organ Donor Society, an organization that encourages organ donation among Orthodox Jews, and says he has been studying Arabic for a few years. "But when I practice with adults, it usually turns to politics,” he says. “I figured, it would be better to study with children. So I asked these kids to talk to me in Arabic and, in exchange, I'd buy them an ice cream or a pizza.  Then I thought, why not let them set up a stand and offer lessons?"

Berman bought them the small folding table, had their T-shirts printed and prepared the lesson plans.

He watches as Haneen pets the elderly woman’s dog, then, businesslike, begins to teach. "Ismi Haneen (My name is Haneen). Shu Ismek? (What's your name?)"

Her student – who seems to know at least some Arabic  –  giggles. "I'm a retired teacher and now I'm back in first grade," she says in Hebrew to the people around her. "Ismi (my name is) Leah."

For a few minutes Leah repeats after Haneen the colloquial expressions listed on the page and when class is over, she pays up.

"Shukran, (thank you)" says Haneen, pointing to the printed page. “Afwan (you're welcome)," Leah responds. 

Muhammed, 14, points to something on his lesson sheet while a woman and young girl look on.
Oliver Fitoussi

Berman is the children’s agent, protector, and educator, keeping them in sight at all times. He engages passersby in conversation, drawing them in. He makes sure that the kids are paid, and insists that people actually have a lesson so that the children earn their money and don't feel they are begging.

And when Mohammed asks Berman to buy him a chocolate milk, the adult firmly reminds them that they are earning money now. Sighing, Haneen takes out 15 shekels; Mohammed buys the drink and they all share it.

Benjamin Nathanzon, a student from Haifa studying in Jerusalem, says "these lessons are great.  No politics, just learning.  See, I learned to say, 'Kulna fi hawa sawa,' (an expression meaning ‘We're all in the same boat').” Everyone laughs as he mispronounces the newly-learned phrase. "OK, I need to practice," he admits.

Fear and loathing

Not everyone is happy about the children’s presence. "I worry," says a woman who gives her name as Shoshana. "They are just cute kids, but they could also be a security risk. A terrorist could take advantage of them and give them a knife.”

"I'm not going to pay any Arab anything," mutters a teenager as he runs by. A child, appearing to be the same age as the teachers, rides his bike up close to Mohanid, swerving at the last second to avoid hitting him, and mutters "filthy Arab, get out of here."

Innas, and Haneen, 12, teach Arabic to Jerusalem passerby.
Oliver Fitoussi

The children also fear disapproval or retribution in the village near Hebron from which they hail, and don't want their last names given or their pictures taken.

"These kids should be in school," says Jerusalemite Judy Cardozo. "I've seen them here hundreds of times. Where are the truancy officers? Where are the municipal welfare authorities?"

"It's summer, so there is no school, and Palestinians don't have school on Friday anyway," Berman responds.

But, in fact, no one, at least not in Jerusalem, has official responsibility for these kids' welfare. A source at the Jerusalem municipality, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, acknowledged that no one really knows how many children come into West Jerusalem from the West Bank and East Jerusalem to beg, peddle, rake gardens, or carry vegetables for shoppers in the Mahaneh Yehuda market. "They aren't residents of Jerusalem, so we have no jurisdiction over them, no authority to investigate their families, and no budget to care for them," the source explains.

After four hours in the summer heat, the children are tired and begin to pick at each other, and Berman tells them to close up shop.

They've made close to 500 shekels ($130). Haneen’s father Samir says that he is glad that his children “come to make peace," although he is a bit disappointed that they didn't make more money.

“They used to make more before they were teachers," he says, suggesting that the begging was more lucrative.

But Haneen points to the sign. "I am a teacher,” she says in Hebrew and Arabic. “I make peace with Jewish people."