In Gaza and Jerusalem, a Palestinian and an Israeli Teach the Enemy’s Language

A Palestinian who teaches Hebrew and an Israeli Jew who teaches Arabic: Two men in love with their enemy's language, who hope teaching it can boost mutual understanding.

Sobhi Bahloul and his Hebrew students in Gaza City.
Shaina Shealy

It’s a late spring lesson at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Arik Sadan is introducing his students to the Arabic verb zara, visit. He asks if they have plans to go abroad over the summer vacation. Modeling the grammatical construction of a double negative, he tells his students, in slow Arabic, that he does not have a passport that is not Israeli. There are many countries in the Arab world he would like to visit. Some of them though, he says, do not welcome Israelis.

At 40, this Jewish Israeli scholar is a renowned expert in Arabic, due mainly to his book, “The Subjunctive Mood in Arabic Grammatical Thought.” But as an Israeli, Sadan cannot attend academic conferences in countries that do not recognize Israel and it can be difficult to forge relationships with colleagues in the field.

Beyond Israel’s southwest border, Sobhi Bahloul also wrote a book, “Kitaba Wa’Ti-ibrya” (Hebrew Book). Divided into seven parts, it comprises the Hebrew-language curriculum for the Gaza Strip. Bahloul trained all of the territory’s 12 Hebrew teachers.

Bahloul, 53, is a native of the Gaza Strip who has been speaking Hebrew more than half his life. In 2002 he earned a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University in Hebrew language. After the Islamist Hamas organization took control of the Gaza Strip, in 2007, Bahloul became Hamas’s go-to guy for all things Hebrew. He teaches it in their schools, serves as a consultant to businessmen and translates documents for Gazans in Israeli hospitals and prisons.

“Hebrew is the language of an enemy,” Bahloul says. But he also believes Hebrew can bring Gazans closer to Israeli culture by helping them understand customs and daily life.

Bahloul and Sadan are so passionate about one another’s language that they teach anyone who expresses an interest in it — including soldiers and militants. And while the two are separated by a bitter conflict, they are linked by the belief that language’s power to unify outweighs its other uses.

To mom, with love

When Sadan was in the seventh grade, his Arabic teacher brought Arab culture into his classroom in Rehovot, Sadan’s hometown. “He brought a finjan (a Turkish coffee pot) with Arabic coffee, and drank it with a lot of noise,” Sadan says, mimicking his teacher’s loud slurp. “He said, ‘Why are you laughing? This is how Arabs drink. They enjoy their coffee. Not like you Jews!’”

That’s when Sadan fell in love with the language. Later that year, he made a little toy, gluing a tiny pom-pom and a pair of googly eyes onto a small piece of cardboard. He wrote an inscription on the back, in Hebrew and in Arabic, and gave it to his mother, Drora Sadan. “I was surprised,” Drora recalls. “Not that he wrote, in Hebrew, ‘Fro my mother with love.’ But in Arabic? Why in Arabic?”

Even now, 27 years later, she keeps the toy next to her bed. One of Sadan’s most admirable characteristics, Drora says, is his ability to understand people who are not like him.

Arik Sadan, in his Arabic class in Jerusalem, and Sobhi Bahloul, a Hebrew teacher from the Gaza Strip.
Shaina Shealy, Elisheva Strauss

Others, however, questioned Sadan’s affection for Arabic and wondered what he would do with his proficiency in the language. Some suggested he should go work for Israel’s Shin Bet security service.

Yonatan Mendel, a researcher at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says the Education Ministry encourages the study of Arabic for use in the military and intelligence. Most teachers of Arabic in Jewish schools in Israel served in Military Intelligence, Mendel says, and many of their students learn Arabic with the intention of doing the same during their mandatory army service.

While Sadan did use his Arabic in a special intelligence unit during his three years in the Israeli Defense Forces, he says he had no interest in using his linguistic skills to spy on Arabic-speakers. He was more interested in the language itself and its close connection to his native tongue, Hebrew. “I love the etymology, the explanations of the roots, the logic of the patterns. And the same can be applied to Arabic,” Sadan says. Both languages use similar verbal patterns and have many words in common. “It shows the same way of thinking. It shows people [can] be closer to each other like the languages.”

A good example is the word for blood, Bahloul says, speaking outside a seaside hotel in Gaza City, which is pronounced dahm in both languages.

Bahloul fell in love with language early on, too, while growing up in Rafah. His father learned Hebrew while working alongside Israelis as a laborer, before Israel restricted movement to and from the Gaza Strip after the Hamas takeover in 2007. Bahloul was fascinated by his father’s ability to communicate with Israelis, so he taught himself the Hebrew alphabet when he was 10. Then, he studied cartoons such as the Hebrew version of “The Smurfs” and the Israeli production of “Sesame Street,” “Rehov Sumsum,” and began to build sentences on his own.

As an adult, Bahloul built Hamas’s Hebrew-language curriculum from Hebrew books that friends in Israel sent him. He included Israeli history and culture but modified the content to fit a Palestinian narrative.

No need to study the Holocaust

For example, he says, because the Muslim and Jewish narratives of the Passover story are different, he cut it from the curriculum. He also skipped references to the Holocaust. “We don’t need to learn or study the Shoah, because we are all the time in Shoah here under the occupation.”

Still, it’s important for Gaza’s Hebrew students to learn some Jewish history and greetings for holidays, Bahloul says. “Just to know how to say Hag Sameah and Shabbat Shalom.” He sees it as a sign of respect when his Israeli friends send him an appropriate greeting during Ramadan, and wants Gazans to extend the same respect to Israelis for Jewish holidays. “The culture,” Bahloul says. “It’s more important than the language itself.”

Cultural exchange was the most important part of Bahloul’s experience studying alongside Israeli Jews at Tel Aviv University, he says. “How is life in Gaza? Are all of you Hamas? Are all of you terrorists?” Bahloul recalls some of the questions he was asked. “How is it that you can kill yourself and bomb yourself? When we hear you and see you, you are not one of them.”

Drora Sadan.
Shaina Shealy

One ultra-Orthodox Jewish classmate from the Hasidic community of Kfar Chabad told Bahloul that she was so afraid of him that her heart raced when he came near her. So Bahloul shifted his priorities at university: His primary goal was to humanize Gazans, “to say, “‘No, I am one of them! And most of the people [in Gaza] are like me,’” he says.

Bahloul succeeded. The woman from Kfar Chabad eventually spoke to him. At graduation, another classmate apologized to him on behalf of all Israelis for their perception of Gazans. “You erased the black idea that we had about you,” she said.

Bahloul was in tears. “This was the hard part in the university,” he says. “How to convince the people that we are the same.”

Language as a weapon

The stigma associated with Arabic, Sadan says, is why it is one of the least popular subjects in Israeli schools. When Sadan speaks Arabic outside his classroom, he fears that Jewish Israelis might shout at him or ask him to stop. He feels intimidated to speak because, he says, “Unlike 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, Arabic is considered the language of the enemy.”

Since 1995, Israel’s education policy has dictated that Modern Standard Arabic be taught from the seventh through the 10th grade in all Israeli schools. The rule, however, is not always enforced. Only about 25 percent of Israeli children study Arabic in school, and only three percent elect to take the bagrut matriculation exam in the subject. Sadan says he was lucky to learn Arabic in the 1980s, before the first intifada, when Jews and Arabs had more chances to meet.

One of Sadan’s students in Jerusalem, a 26-year-old man who asked to be identified in this article only as Yosef, says he took Arabic in high school in order to serve in an intelligence unit. During his army service, he says, he often forgot that Arabic was a language spoken by people.

Modern Standard Arabic is the mainly written form of the language that is used and understood throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It differs greatly from colloquial Arabic, the regional dialects spoken in each region or country. Native Arabic speakers study MSA Israeli universities alongside Jews, many of whom are fresh out of military service. Yosef did not meet Arabs until he studied with them in Sadan’s class. Until then, he says, “I always thought of them as the Arabs that hate Jews, that hate Israelis.” In Sadan’s classroom, however, he made some Arab friends, whom he would meet for coffee and to review notes from class. Because he learned that there’s “a different Arab,” he says, he wanted to learn more about the people and culture behind the language.

“Others might say that we, Jews in the military, are learning Arabic to protect the country from the Arabs, Hamas and Hezbollah, while the Arabs are doing the opposite.” There might be truth to that, he says, “but it’s not that black and white.”

Yosef’s newfound awareness is how Sadan defines his professional success, and the professor is determined to challenge stereotypes beyond his classroom in Israel. He lectures about his research at conferences abroad. Presenting himself to the world as a Jewish scholar intrigued by Arabic, he says, “could be a step forward.”

Arik Sadan in his army days.
Shaina Shealy

Despite his enthusiasm, some of his Israeli colleagues are more pessimistic. Some complain of harassment while at conferences abroad, others have had difficulty finding readers for their papers due to the international call to boycott Israeli academics.

Sadan is not concerned, however, about how his nationality might affect his career. He just wishes more Israelis today would embrace a language whose structure is so similar to that of Hebrew. “I sometimes joke,” he says, “that I only wish the people would be closer, like the languages. Only 10 percent as close as the languages are.”

Reading shampoo labels

Jehan Abdul Rahman, 41, one of Bahloul’s Gazan students, says she studies Hebrew in order to understand the Israeli media as a means of self-protection during wartime. But she also wants to be able to read the labels on products that are imported from Israel, like shampoo and face creams. “We’re ladies at the end of the day,” she says.

Ashraf Bahloj, 40, says he learned basic Hebrew in the 21 years he spent in an Israeli prison. (He declines to discuss the circumstances of his incarceration.) He wants to teach the language to Gaza’s youth so that they can communicate with Israelis and diffuse potentially hostile encounters. Bahloj says he built sincere relationships with his Israeli jailers when he spoke to them in Hebrew, first about soccer and later about politics. “The idea was that there was something in common, something we both share,” he says. “Still, [Israel] is the occupier, but the level of hatred may go down if you talk.”

Whether it’s to “know the enemy” or to choose the best hair product, Bahloul encourages all Gazans to learn Hebrew. “If you understand your enemy it helps and facilitates the mission,” Bahloul says. “Never mind if the mission is military or social or education. If we understand each other, it is good.”

Private email 

Last year, Sadan gave a presentation at a conference in Belgium that a scholar from Lebanon also attended. They didn’t speak much until the last night of the gathering, when they bonded over — not surprisingly — language. The Lebanese linguist asked Sadan for help translating ancient Hebrew manuscripts he had found in a library in Beirut. “It was a really nice experience. We found ourselves speaking of manuscripts from hundreds of years ago,” Sadan says. “I offered him my private address knowing that there might be problems sending emails to an Israeli institute’s address.”

The Lebanese scholar joked that an email from Beirut to an Israeli university address would bring a trail of spies that could land him in jail. Both scholars laughed. “But then,” Sadan says, “he was more serious and said it would be nice to have the Gmail address.”