The Missing Connection: Language Learning as a Tool for Peace in Israel/Palestine

For five years, Moriel Rothman-Zecher dreaded the prospect of being ordered to hold an M16 and then finding himself on a bus in Jerusalem beside his Palestinian colleagues and friends. The twenty-five-year-old peace activist, who conscientiously objected from Israeli military service, is in a unique position for an American, Jewish Israeli citizen: he speaks Arabic.

Rothman-Zecher is one of many American Jews taking on Arabic as a way to connect meaningfully to Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. The Modern Language Association reports that between 2002 and 2009 enrollment in Arabic classes on American college campuses more than tripled, from about 10,500 students to over 35,000.  Last fall, the New York Times printed an article titled “More American Jewish Students Take Up Study of the Arab World,” in which Richard Pérez-Peña interviewed three recent American Jewish college graduates, including Rothman-Zecher, who studied Arabic while in college. Two of them continue to work in the Middle East on issues related to Israel-Palestine.  The sentiments of the students were the same: in order to understand the “other side,” and in order to be true activists, we must learn Arabic.

An Arabic teacher writes letters on a white board.

Understanding can only be achieved when "both Israelis and Palestinians can, very literally, understand each other by speaking each other’s languages," the author writes. Credit: Creative Commons: Wikimedia.

Yet, as Arabic language programs in the U.S. grow and encourage communication with Palestinians for American Jews, Israeli stigmas surrounding Arabic language continue to worsen. In Jewish-Israeli culture, as Haaretz columnist Yarden Skop explains, Arabic is perceived as the “language of the enemy” and carries with it decades of political struggle. Consequently, in April Education Minister Shay Piron abolished the requirement for Arabic study in the tenth grade, a move that, while meant to elevate the discipline’s attractiveness by making it an elective, drastically decreased the amount of students in Arabic classes.  In reality, most Israeli students studying Arabic seriously have goals of joining Israeli Intelligence and spying on Arabs.

Regardless of their motivation for learning the language, Israelis who speak Arabic can relate to Palestinians on a more human level.  In the 2014 film Omar, written and directed by award-winning Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, a young Palestinian man (Omar) arrested for killing an Israeli soldier mistakes his captor for an Arab because of his flawless accent in Arabic. It is not until the agent answers his cell phone during a meeting and speaks to his wife and mother in Hebrew that Omar asks, “Where did you learn to speak Arabic?” with a smirk.  “It’s my job,” the agent replies.  Omar gently furrows his eyebrows, “I thought you were an Arab,” he mumbles.  “Do you know any Hebrew?” the agent asks.  “Two words,” Omar responds, “mom and Spiderman.”  The two men chuckle and a moment of humanity passes between them. Despite the tension between the captive and captor, the brief conversation about language is the only moment in the film when the two men substantially relate to “the other.”  The fact that Omar mistakes the agent to be an Arab illuminates their inherent sameness and the arbitrariness of which man is wearing the inmate’s jumpsuit.

Misinterpretation as an Obstacle to Peace

As the conflict in Israel/Palestine escalated in the past few weeks, the blistering rhetoric of both Palestinian and Israeli leaders made any sort of compromise, let alone peace, seem an impossible puzzle—one with rigid, ill-fitting pieces whose edges are coated in the polarizing nationalist sentiments of the region’s citizens.  Hope is hard to maintain and short-term solutions therefore aim toward survival and cease-fire, not toward grassroots understanding.  The often-overlooked casualty of increasingly violent tensions in Israel/Palestine is the long-term vision of, if not peace, simple understanding.  Such consideration for the other depends on both sides acknowledging their shared humanity—a feat that will never be achieved until both Israelis and Palestinians can, very literally, understand each other by speaking each other’s languages.

Many analysts write on the power of language learning to create grassroots peace, and advocate for a push toward stronger language education in Israel/Palestine.  Yet, because children in grade school will not take the political reins for decades, and there are more urgent priorities (such as preventing further violent destruction), such authors are often unsuccessful in creating change.  In order to realistically begin a movement toward the creation of more holistic language learning programs, we must draw a tight connection between high-level negotiations and grassroots language programs.

Losing ground in incredibly difficult negotiations due to misinterpretation is common in Middle East talks.  In his article “Language and Conflict Resolution: The Limits of English,” Raymond Cohen evaluates the role of language differences in conflict resolution and peace in the Middle East.  Referring to Israel’s negotiations with Syria in the mid 1990s, Cohen writes that “Syria’s conception of peace was derived from the formalistic idea of salam, a contractual agreement between states putting an end to the state of war and establishing diplomatic relations between them,” while Israel’s conception of peace, shalom, entailed a relationship of friendship and harmony.  The disjuncture between these linguistic interpretations resulted in Israel falling back to using normalizatzia(normalization) as a term to describe the future of ongoing relations—a shift that Syrian negotiators objected to because of it’s negative connotations in the Arabic translation of that word, causing further agitation.

Translated, this graffiti says, "Only someone who speaks Hebrew/Arabic can understand me." Credit: Creative Commons/zeevveez.

It is not only language that can be tragically misinterpreted; actions also have the potential to be misread and therefore mishandled.  Three years ago, after Palestinian Waal al-Arja threw a stone at Israeli Asher Palmer’s car and caused him to fatally lose control of the vehicle, Ofer Military Court convicted Arja of intentionally killing Palmer and his one-year-old son.  Shortly after his sentencing, Israeli journalist Amira Hass published a controversial op-ed in Haaretz titled “The inner syntax of Palestinian stone-throwing,” and argued that, in the context of the Occupation, stone-throwing is the physical manifestation of the phrase, “We’ve had enough of you, occupiers,” and is not a murderous act.  She concludes that the Palestinian Authority’s tendency to engender adaptation to the Occupation instead of acknowledging the Palestinian people’s desire to rise against it creates “a clash” between “the inner syntax of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people,” and therefore an even greater discord between the syntax of the Palestinian people and the Israeli government.

All right-wing criticisms of treason aside, Hass’s article represents an important affirmation of the multiple dimensions of syntax and action in Israel/Palestine. Aside from throwing stones, Arja had few avenues to convey his message of resistance to Israelis.  The Israeli court that convicted him interpreted his actions in a context and language that were completely detached from the context and language in which the actions were performed.

Accordingly, much of Hamas’s strength in the current conflict stems from the organization’s acknowledgement, through charged rhetoric, of the Palestinian people’s desire to rise against Israel and end the Occupation.  In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said, “The world has two choices: they have to help us reach peacefully this state or we will expel [the Israelis] from our land,” demonstrating the same sentiment as Palestinian stone-throwers attempt to convey, but on American public television and through an English translator.

During this summer’s conflict, Hamas succeeded in communicating both internally with the Palestinian people, and somewhat externally through increased media presence in Western news outlets. Despite Hamas’s violent tactics and disturbing disregard for human life—both Israeli and Palestinian—they are successful in one regard: drawing attention to the immediate request to end the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian territory. Such exposure capitalizes on the humanizing effects of communication—the world legitimates Meshaal’s requests because we can see and understand him.

Language Learning as a Path to Humanization

Taken out of military and high-level negotiations contexts, Moriel Rothman-Zecher believes that in speaking Arabic, Israelis can adjust power imbalances inherent in their day-to-day interactions with Palestinians.

“I appreciate the ability to put myself in the weaker position,” Rothman-Zecher explained, “which is to say speaking to someone in their first language and my second or third language.  It’s something I really appreciate being able to do, as sort of a gesture of non-patronization, or non-condescension.”

On a more personal level, the tri-lingual poet considers his experience living with a Palestinian family in Deir al-Asad as a key factor in his conscientious objection to Israeli military service.  To Rothman-Zecher, who contemplated the decision of whether to become a conscientious objector for five years before moving to Israel, his exposure and ability to comprehend Arabic culture in its primary form made it difficult for him to imagine taking on a soldier’s identity.  More than anything, Rothman-Zecher’s language skills make each Palestinian life lost even more palpable to him, more painful.

“I know it maybe sounds simplistic, like I’m boiling down these complex geopolitical issues to levels of humanization,” Rothman-Zecher said, “but I think that that’s a big part of what language has done for me.  It’s cracked open my ability to dehumanize, and made it less.”

The classroom wall of the Hand in Hand school.

A classroom wall at the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education. Credit: Creative Commons/wikimedia.

One effort to increase humanization between Jews and Arabs comes in the form of integrated grade schools. The Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education creates opportunities for children, their parents, and the schools’ staff to learn each other’s languages and cultures.  With five campuses—in Jerusalem, the Galilee, Kfar Kara, Jaffa, and Haifa—the program educates Jewish and Arab students in both Hebrew and Arabic.  Galia Sagee, a guidance counselor and teacher at Bridge Over Wadi School is Kfar Kara, believes that the Hand in Hand schools succeed in providing equality in education for Arab and Jewish children while simultaneously encouraging humanizing friendships.  Students have shortened vacations for both Jewish and Muslim holidays and celebrate all significant religious and cultural events in the classroom.

“It is the only school in the world in which Jewish children study in an Arab town,” Sagee explained in Hebrew, “there are better days and worse days, days that there were more Jewish children and times that they left.”

In the context of the war this summer, Sagee is hopeful that the families involved with the school continue to aim for peace and compassion.  When students return to school in the fall, the staff will deal with challenges brought on by the war.

“It is clear to me that we’re going to go back to school and it will not be easy for us at the start of the year,” she said.  “But with that, people who are involved with the school are people who…understand how important it is that we live together.”

At the very least, the program ensures that a small percentage of the region’s next generation has the strongest tool for compassion: understanding through shared language.

Because of stigmas resulting from decades of fighting, the Occupation, and legal discrimination against Arabs in Israel, Arabic language learning is not a priority on the immediate level for the education ministry.  Unfortunately the Hand in Hand program grows at a stunted pace because of its reliance on private sources of funding in order to put two teachers, one speaking Hebrew and one speaking Arabic, in each classroom.

If Israel is to be a thriving and peaceful society, a deeper level of understanding must emerge for sustainable shared living. Regardless of what kind of settlement is finally reached, Israelis live in the Middle East. And the Middle East speaks Arabic.


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