From Jewish Settlers to West Bank Palestinians: The Young Women Sharing Language in Jerusalem

It all began with two friends, an Arab and a Jew, who wanted to learn each other's languages; now it involves hundreds of people around Jerusalem

Manar Bader, a 26-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem, and Lior Urian, a 32-year-old Jewish Israeli from Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, September 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Manar Bader, a 26-year-old Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem, and Lior Urian, 32, a Jewish Israeli from Tel Aviv, met in the hall at Hebrew University of Jerusalem nine years ago and became friends. “We lived in two separate spheres with deep ignorance and gaps in language, but we became friends quite quickly,” says Urian.

“I was an out-of-touch resident of Tel Aviv, and via Manar’s story, I understood the reality of the eastern part of the city,” she said, referring to East Jerusalem, “the people behind the facts. Years later we thought that our story was the story of the city, and we wanted to build a platform that would make it possible for other women to better understand the other side.”

Two years ago the pair decided to try to expand their mutual circle of friends in Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. They started a Facebook page where they proposed creating a women’s group in which Arab women would teach their Jewish counterparts Arabic and the Jewish women would teach the Arab women Hebrew. 

Within two days, 250 women from all over Jerusalem had signed up. Now, two years later, their numbers have swelled to about 700 registered participants. The first meeting was held on the roof of the Panoramic Golden City Café in Jerusalem’s Old City, which hosted the group without charge. Since then the group has become the largest independent Hebrew-Arabic language group in the city, but it has also become much more than that. The members speak about empowerment, breaking down barriers, getting to know the other side and mutual assistance.

For most of the period since Jerusalem was reunited in the 1967 Six-Day War, Jews and Arabs living in the city did not made great efforts to learn each other’s language. The exceptions were generally Arab men, who learned Hebrew if they worked with Jews, and many older Jews, who knew Arabic from home. 

A change for the better

But something changed about a decade ago. Suddenly, in both parts of the city, there was enormous demand for the others’ language. Language courses and schools and private language tutors began to flourish on both sides of the city.

On the Palestinian side, it is easy to understand the demand. The construction of the Israeli separation barrier between East Jerusalem and the West Bank pushed the Arabs in Jerusalem to study and work in Jewish West Jerusalem – and Hebrew became an essential tool for advancement.

On the Israeli side, the explanations for the high demand for Arabic are more complex. “I want to speak with my neighbors. I live in an Arabic-speaking area and I want to fit in,” says Carmel Gorni, 53, one of the participants in the group. 

One of the group's meetings in Jerusalem, August 2019.
Manar Bader and Lior Orian

But the exposure of many Palestinian women to Israeli society and Hebrew has always been low because they were not part of the labor force. For those who decided to look for work or to study, the Hebrew language barrier made it especially difficult for them.

“For Palestinian women, the meetings are first of all to learn the language,” explains Urian. “The language is a tool and without it, you have a barrier to feeling confident, to feeling comfortable, to being able to be independent, to being able to fulfil your potential to study and work. The language opens doors.”

In addition to the Facebook group, a nonprofit group called Lissan, meaning language in Arabic, has had great success teaching Hebrew at all levels to hundreds of women from East Jerusalem. 

Higher education

Dana Kawasmeh, 19, from the Shoafat refugee camp in northern Jerusalem has had a dream to study architecture at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Last year she took the entrance exams and passed, but she failed the interview stage. 

“I was at a lower level in Hebrew, and I didn’t have the right words to speak, so I came with a translator,” she recounted. “They saw that I knew how to speak Hebrew but thought I didn’t have confidence, so I wasn’t accepted.”

For now, she is studying interior design at the Azrieli College of Engineering in Jerusalem. She plans to apply to Bezalel again next year. She joined the group to improve her prospects at her next admission interview. 

“At high school, we studied grammar, but I couldn’t speak. In Hebrew class at school, they don’t do anything,” said Kawasmeh. “But it’s the same with the Jews. They’ve studied literary Arabic, but they don’t know how to speak the language.”

Manar Bader, a 26-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem, and Lior Urian, a 32-year-old Jewish Israeli from Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, September 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

The members of the Facebook group come from all over the city, some come from West Bank Jewish settlements around the capital and some from Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem that are on the West Bank side of the separation barrier. The participants, who serve as both students and teachers, include religious women – Arab and Jewish women who both wear head coverings – along with nonreligious women who at first glance make it hard to know which of the two languages they came to learn.

The Abraham Hostel in downtown Jerusalem, which provides overnight accommodations for young tourists, hosts the events, as do the artists from the Muslala workshop at the Clal Building nearby. Some of the Arab women find it difficult to come to the meetings in West Jerusalem because they come from conservative families or because they live on the other side of the separation barrier. 

But Kawasmeh says her father supports her desire to get an education: “My entire future is based on Hebrew. The language gives me an opportunity to continue along my path and fulfill my dream, and he [her father] doesn’t have a problem with me coming home even at 10 P.M., because he knows it’s important to me.”

Resistance from men

Wala’a Abu Sneina, 26, from the Old City, who is one of the managers of the group, explains that some of the women do in fact encounter problems and  negative reactions. “There are people, men, who say that this is normalization [with Israel] and ask ‘Why do you need to study with Jewish women?’” But she asks: “If I say good morning to my Jewish friend, is that normalization? I don’t know. We live these paradoxes. It’s part of us. That’s how it is in Jerusalem.”

All the women say that, despite the importance of a second language for them, the group means a lot more than that to them. 

“It’s possible to learn a language anywhere, but here the women not only get. They also give. You aren’t just a student. You’re also a teacher,” says Bader. “Some women come just to study and there are women who come because it’s really fun for them here.”

Referring to a resident of one Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood, Abu Sneina says: “There is someone from Jabal Mukkaber here who speaks excellent Hebrew, but she says she comes for the entertainment. You can get advice, help one another and be exposed one to another, and it’s very exciting.”

Sharon Goldberg, one of the members of the team organizing the get-togethers, says that while, for the Jewish women, learning Arabic is a hobby, for the Arab women, Hebrew is a necessity. “They make use of our help for every-day things – how to get from one place to another, preparing for job interviews and how to get accepted to university,” says Goldberg.

The get-togethers include two discussions for the entire group led by a volunteer, in alternating languages. Then they divide up into small groups and talk to and teach each other. One of the Palestinians recounted how she discovered that the hair that she sees on ultra-Orthodox Jewish women is frequently a wig. Holiday customs and foods are also a regular topic of discussion and interest. 

“I didn’t know about apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. It tastes good,” Kawasmeh exclaimed. During the most recent Muslim Ramadan fast, Bader hosted 90 people for an iftar breakfast meal at her home in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina.

Other Arabic-Hebrew language groups are active in Jerusalem, but they include both male and female participants. Some maintain a rule that talking politics is out-of-bounds. 

“Politics leads to an emotional discussion that can counteract the studies,” said Gorni. “In a group of women, we actually don’t need the rules, but there is a sense that everyone is very cautious.”

Goldberg, a religious woman who wears a head covering, actually thinks it’s a shame that the group doesn’t discuss politics more. “As far as I’m concerned, the group is my political activity. The human interaction is critical in this city, but I’m not sure that it’s enough to change views. It’s clear that it is more pleasant to talk about food, customs and religion, but I think we also need to talk about the elephant in the room.” 

The right to vote

Before the September Knesset election, Goldberg explained to the women in the group that only the Israelis had the right to vote. “Many of the Jewish women didn’t know that. To see the other as a person is wonderful, but it is not enough,” she said. 

Following Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, in principle the law has allowed Palestinian residents there to apply for Israeli citizenship, but in practice, that has become more and more difficult over the years. Residents without Israeli citizenship have the right to vote in municipal elections.

At another meeting, the women traded life experiences. A Palestinian woman talked about going through the Qalandiyah checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem. A Jewish woman recounted immigrating to Israel. 

“It’s clear that everyone has thoughts going through their heads, but they listen and are exposed to a new story,” says Urian. Most find it difficult to recall any kind of unpleasant incident at the get-togethers.

But Bader recalled the following: “In one incident, one of the students came to me and asked how could I know whom to trust? How would I know that someone wouldn’t get up and stab me? I told her that anyone who comes here wants to learn and is coming with an open and warm heart. She thought it over and in the end stayed in the group.”

“A lot of the young Palestinian women live in Jerusalem without having met Israelis, either men or women. They live in isolation,” said Gorni. “Their courage to come to the get-togethers in the western part of the city is moving and heartening, and it brings people together.”