I published this approximately 2½ years ago on the Times of Israel
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February 20, 2018
This week, I am beginning my fourth semester of spoken Arabic at the Polis Institute.
In truth, I should be working to improve my Hebrew. I can get by on the street, and I’m always able to compensate with some combination of English and Russian when necessary, but my written Hebrew is not what I want it to be, as a resident of Israel. My career potential here would certainly be higher if I invested my time in studying Hebrew, but I’ve been studying Arabic.
Before moving back to Israel, the thought of studying Arabic never crossed my mind, but as a Jerusalem resident, I feel compelled to learn it.
On a basic level, life in Israel is simply richer for people who can speak Arabic. Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs (not to mention the non-citizens who also work, study, pray, shop, etc. in Israel). I hear Arabic on the streets of Jerusalem, and I hear it spoken by many of the salespeople at my local supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, and shwarma stands. I see Arabs at the mall, but I never see Jews and Arabs shopping together or drinking coffee together. I’m not saying it never happens, but the rare instances of Jews and Arabs socializing together are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Regarding local and regional politics, I’ve spoken with many people across the spectrum about their views on the Israeli-Arab conflict. I’ve had engaging political conversations with left-leaning and right-leaning Jews regarding the peace process, the territories, the settlements, etc., but it’s come to bother me that I’ve never spoken to an Arab about these same issues. I’ve heard countless Jews (both Israelis and non-Israelis) talk about their perceptions of Arabs. I’d like to hear from some Arabs about their perceptions of Jews.
Granted, many Arabs do speak either English or Hebrew (and I once met one who spoke Russian), but not all do. Also, I feel that it’s a sign of respect to learn another people’s language. Whenever I’ve made an attempt to speak with an Arab in his/her native tongue, the response has always been positive, appreciative, and often curious. Whenever I’ve asked them to translate something for me, or to help me phrase something correctly in Arabic, they’ve been all the more appreciative and glad to help me. I feel that my efforts bring down an unspoken barrier between me, the Israeli Jew sporting a beard and a kippa, and the Arabs I interact with.
This experience has also led me to realize something about myself. On the one hand, I’m very skeptical (even cynical) about the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I don’t foresee a peace agreement in my lifetime. However, I’ve realized that I do retain hope for peace, and I believe that it can only be achieved by thawing out relations between the people who actually live in Israel and the territories. No document signed by the Israeli Prime Minister, the President of the PA, and other international leaders will bring peace here. This situation is inherently different than the “cold peace” that we maintain with Jordan and Egypt because the lives of Israelis and Palestinians are so intertwined. Again, twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs with relatives in the territories and most consider themselves Palestinians.
This brings me to another very obvious point, which I’ve alluded to. Beyond transactional interactions, I have nobody to speak Arabic with outside of Polis. Four months went by between my second and third semesters, and without the regular opportunity to speak Arabic, my fluency greatly deteriorated during that summer. The most valuable aspect of the Polis teaching method for me is that the language classes are taught immersively in the target language (like a Hebrew ulpan). This is how I best acquire languages – by using them. My Hebrew, for example, has improved tremendously in recent years because I work in a Hebrew speaking environment. Unfortunately, unlike my American and European Polis classmates, I have no substantive interactions with Arabs outside of the classroom.
In short, I need to make friends with Arabs who are willing to speak with me in Arabic. There are coexistence programs available for Jews and Arabs to meet one another, but these are not run in Arabic. I know of language exchange initiatives (I could help somebody with their English in exchange for help with my Arabic), but these meet infrequently. Something that I have not yet explored are opportunities to volunteer in the Arab community, which might allow me to interact with Arabs in their native tongue. I’m very open to ideas – I’m no political activist in the field of Jewish-Arab relations, but I wish to move beyond simply existing side by side with the Arabs around me. I want to gain more insights into their culture and worldviews. I want to engage with them in a substantive way. Most importantly, I want to practice my Arabic with native Arabic speakers, but I don’t know where to turn.