The French Monk Who Took on Himself to Be a Bridge in a Divided Land

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French monk J. Elihay, born Jean Laraouh, taught Israelis to speak Palestinian Arabic through his books.

On Saturday morning, J. Elihay, the author of books for learning spoken Arabic, died at the age of 94.

Born as Jean Laraouh, he was a French linguist and monk who moved in 1956 to Israel, where he changed his name to Yohanan Elihay. He researched spoken Palestinian Arabic for decades and did his best to use the knowledge he acquired to serve as a bridge between the two divided peoples living in Israel. He won the Yigal Allon Prize for Exemplary Pioneering Activities last year.

Many Arabic teachers are familiar with his books. They all agree he was a kind person who loved the Arabic he researched and was endowed with generosity and a love of mankind. All who knew his books were amazed by the Frenchman’s expertise and by his comprehensive knowledge of both Arabic and Hebrew. Besides his linguistic talents, he was blessed with a well-developed sense of humor.

And yet, his books are full of male chauvinist content and conversations, which were recorded in Israel between 1965 and 1989, that are like a field full of violence on all levels.

The characters in his books are weak women, chauvinistic men, children who fight and hit each other, and educationally dysfunctional parents. Take, for example, his first book: “Did Joseph hit his sister Miriam? No, she is the one who hit him, and I asked her and she was quiet. It is proof that she is the one who hit.” He wrote on another page: “The neighbor committed suicide because his wife left him. … I asked her why did you leave your husband and children, she was silent. The poor man, may his memory be blessed.”

In his second book, a man is angry at his wife because she made a mistake in arithmetic. She is always wrong and they are losing money. Afterward, the “generous” husband admits that he was also wrong when he was angry at her. Rather, he should have said things more nicely. In the end, he brings her a bouquet of flowers and all ends well.

I have no illusions that Palestinian society – past and present – is void of chauvinism and violence. I also write texts for my students in which I openly criticize and speak about the phenomena of male chauvinism, violence, discrimination against women as well as the entire LGBTQ community and more. What bothers me in Elihay’s books is the absence of echoes of other voices and opinions from within Arabic society. I miss in them influential figures in Palestinian society and Arab society in general, not to mention the lack of deep conversations. Despite this, I always rejected the criticism of Elihay the man, and I thought we should focus it on the content of the conversations in books, as if one could differentiate between the writer and his writings.

I blamed the period – “You can’t judge a person who belongs to an older generation by codes of the new generation.” It is probably the right thing to do, and it is likely that the Arabic education I received made it hard for me to criticize him about his life, out of respect for an elderly man, who was faultless in his intentions and motivations. Either way, there is no disputing his contribution to raising the status of the study of spoken Arabic in Israel, whose numbers of students continue to grow.

Over the last two decades, in my work as a teacher of Arabic as a second language, I had the opportunity to meet Elihay twice. The first time, we invited him to speak with my Arabic students at the Jerusalem Intercultural Center. I met him the second time at a lunch that one of the students organized in honor of the publication of his last dictionary. I was disappointed in the first meeting by his request to speak with the students in Hebrew.

“I don’t feel the Arabic flowing in my mouth, like it used to,” he explained. I convinced myself that age was taking its toll. After the conversation, I asked him if he still kept in touch with Palestinian friends he had spent years with in his distant past in the Galilee. When he answered me in the negative, I asked him if he had Arab friends anywhere, and again I was saddened to hear the answer no.

The knowledge that a man who had dedicated his life to making the Arabic language accessible to Hebrew speakers had no Arabic friends especially grated on me. I felt that Elihay symbolically understood what the rules of the game were and what was expected of him in this country – to choose a side, to express unconditional loyalty to it, and if he befriended the other side, to do so from a distance.

I became familiar with Elihay’s opinions over the years. I heard his criticism of the settler enterprise, his position on the occupation, the left-wing Zionist position. I also learned of his great love for the State of Israel. I felt uncomfortable about these positions. It was hard for me to accept this unconditional love of Israel from an outsider who is not part of this struggle. I wanted his voice to be clearer, his position for historic justice to be unequivocal, to renounce the occupying entity and to reevaluate his love for it, but it didn’t happen. Now I understand that I also expected him to choose a side, but the other side, which is being dragged from behind.

I wonder how he felt to live in a strange land, to take part in a struggle between two other peoples and how it was to die in a land that was not his.

As I write these lines, and from the moment his death was announced, my telephone is being flooded with messages from students who felt the need to stop for a moment to show their respect for him. It is strange that I was the conduit through which they chose to express their feelings of loss. And it is even stranger that I feel his absence and the need to part ways, even though we didn’t know each other personally. Perhaps, and it is comforting to think of him this way, this non-Jewish land knew how to love him back. May Allah have mercy on him!

The writer is an Arabic teacher at Hebrew University and the Jerusalem Intercultural Center.

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