Opinion |

Israeli Arab Educators Aren't Teaching Hebrew Out of Love. They're Coerced

A viral video of an Arab teacher reciting a Hebrew nursery rhyme illustrates Israeli oppression in a heartbreaking way.

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
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An illustration showing Sayed Kashua laying in a puddle crushed under the Hebrew letter 'Shin.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

No, the Hebrew children’s verse “Rain, rain dripping,” performed by a teacher from Taibeh named Jehan Jaber – which has gone viral on YouTube – is not cute. You know very well it’s not cute.

I, too, would like to say that the teacher from the Arab city in central Israel is delightful and that she’s teaching Hebrew out of love. One’s heart truly goes out to her – but from pity and from knowing that wolves will prey on her and lightning flashes of racism will threaten to strike her.

Jehan Jaber, a teacher from Taibeh, performs a Hebrew children's verse.

The clip of this teacher is sad and painful, and its hysterical sharing by Israelis hardly attests to a feeling of closeness and better relations. Rather, it is viral pathology whose main explanation is the Israeli craving to feel superior, sense derived from the desire to view the Arab as inferior. The first time I watched the clip, I was overwhelmed with anger. I was so angry that I wanted to scream out that we’ve had enough of teaching Hebrew in Arab schools. My fury was such that I almost vowed never to speak Hebrew again.

I’ve always felt more comfortable – relatively speaking, of course – writing Hebrew than speaking it. I hate the Hebrew that comes out of my mouth. I picture it landing on the attentive ears of the Israeli who looks for the nuance of the accent, who justifies the wall of language. When I’m compelled to speak Hebrew aloud, I am reminded of skits of the Hagashash Hahiver comedy troupe and the late entertainer Dudu Topaz, and “hummus ya ibni” from the satirical program “Zehu Zeh,” the Arab woman pharmacist from “A Wonderful Country.” And now the teacher from Taibeh who is not even aware of her accent, bringing satisfaction to the owners of the ruling accent.

The woman in the clip brought to mind my teachers in primary school and junior high. For the most part we liked them and they did their job faithfully, but they couldn’t pronounce either Hebrew or English properly. They never told us that there’s a difference between “e” and “i,” between “o” and “u,” between the Hebrew vowels holam and shuruk or the letters bet and peh. The woman in the clip reminded me of the affable teachers of yore, who, even if they made an effort to educate us and taught us that the letter “b” has a stick pointing upward, and “p” has one pointing down, they still pronounced them both in the same way.

I was sure that things had changed, that the Arabic education system was by now a little more refined and that today’s educators are graduates of teachers’ seminaries and universities. I thought there’s surely no place for a Hebrew teacher who needs a sheet with the vowels spelled out, and who teaches his or her students Hebrew that’s fit for Israeli comedy skits, which always disgusted me and made me hate the language.

What appalled me the first time I saw the clip of the teacher from Taibeh was the way Hebrew is being taught to young children. The kids repeat in a chorus the teacher’s mistakes, mistakes that will stay with them for life and be a source of ridicule from the average Israeli, exactly according to the manual of occupier-occupied, of native and foreigner.

At first I was furious that the teacher-of-accent-preservation was also working to preserve the status of these schoolchildren in Israeli society. I wanted to write in condemnation of the way language is taught, and of the inspectors, principals and responsible officials in the Ministry of Education who don’t take measures to ensure that students learn language properly. After all, proper diction is a vital tool for higher education and for the labor market in vocations where a foreign accent is not a blessing.

I wanted to reflect on whether the teaching of substandard Hebrew is a policy for maintaining barriers, for accent-based ethnic separation, for preserving social classes according to pronunciation. You know, if your outward appearance doesn’t betray your ethnic origin, the security personnel at the entrances to malls or the airport need only ask, “How are you?” in order to identify the accent of your identity, and then ask, “Where are you coming from?”

I wanted to write about the importance of language for social advancement and economic status. But suddenly I was filled with shame at the very demand to imitate the Master’s accent, at the desire to adopt his language, to prove to him that I, too, can trill the resh, make the gutteral ayin disappear and turn the het into khet, as in khamor, like the Israeli-Arab news presenter Lucy Aharrrrish, like the firrrst Drrruze broadcasterrr.

It was disheartening to watch the imitations that sprang up like mushrooms after the rain and discover the Mizrahi impersonators, such as Shiri Maimon, Adi Ben Zaken and many others.Their parents were targets of ridicule; in the Israeli narrative, they were cast as inferior Arab extras. Instead of sorrow and sensitivity, the children are wearing the new coat that wasn’t tailored to fit them; they are obliged to trample their parents’ way of speaking, so they can say: Look, Ma, no accent. They don’t understand that the method of ridicule has been streamlined, that now they are situated between the Arab and the Israeli conscience that finds the teacher from Taibeh to be actually cute.

I, who did all in my power to adopt a language that never asked to adopt me, found myself watching the teacher with the darbuka drum, and wanting to cry out: Enough! We don’t want to learn Hebrew anymore, release us from it, from the language that can’t accommodate us, whose rules seem to have been preset to suit Jews only. A language with fences, a barrier at the entrance and an armed guard who asks for an ID card from everyone who wants to cross its threshold.

I no longer know which comes first, the nation or the language. And I don’t know whether God can create a language that he can’t speak. But what I do know is that the teacher from Taibeh is not teaching Hebrew out of love but from coercion. The Palestinian’s love for Hebrew will forever be unrequited, one-sided, until the language can prove differently.

But how can the Arab reject the language, even if it rejects him? How can he even think about forgoing Hebrew? What about employment, what about the National Insurance Institute forms? How will he understand his salary slip, the lecturer’s comments, the judge’s ruling, the policeman’s orders, the building contractor’s demands and the prime minister’s threats?

Could it be that I’m blaming the language for no fault of its own? After all, it’s become a mother tongue, even if it’s a stepmother and even if it asked me to send my biological mother to a camp in exile. Sometimes, when I write Hebrew, I hope that readers feel my sense of foreignness and anger, that somehow I manage to foist the feeling of guilt upon the written words. Sometimes I hope that my Hebrew feels the heaviness of the accent and it’s aware of the weight of the unfairness even when it hears “unbairness,” and that the occubier will understand he’s the one who destroyed the house. Until he understands, I have no choice but to go on singing, together with the teacher, “Rain, rain driffing / Rain, rain, so much bun.”