Jordanian conference urges boost for Hebrew study in Arab world

Workshop brings students together with professors from region.

January 8, 2017 07:55
4 minute read.
A STUDENT ADDRESSES the conference on Hebrew studies in Amman on December 22

A STUDENT ADDRESSES the conference on Hebrew studies in Amman on December 22. (photo credit: CENTER FOR ISRAEL STUDIES-AMMAN)

Abdullah Swalha, director of the Center for Israel Studies in Amman, views the importance of the study of Hebrew in Jordan as straightforward and almost axiomatic: Learning the language of your neighbor will promote better understanding of, and with, that neighbor.

“Language is very important to understand the other, it’s bringing people together,” he told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview. “Language can bridge the gap between our countries. I want to understand you as an Israeli, as my partner, my future friend or enemy. I’m not going to beautify Israel, I just want to put all the facts, the reality on the ground, so my students will be able to understand the other. And you can’t understand the other if you don’t understand their language. So it’s very important for us.”

Despite Swalha’s sentiment, the study of Hebrew in Jordan is in trouble, and it faces difficulties throughout the Arab world as well. Six-hundred Jordanian university students studied Hebrew after Yarmuk University first opened courses in 2000. Now the number is down to 100, largely because graduates in Hebrew have trouble finding jobs.

The center recently hosted a workshop to discuss the difficulties students of Hebrew in the Arab world face and to propose solutions. The conference, which is the first of its kind, was sponsored by the Israel Institute in Washington.

It was attended by 70 Jordanian students, and professors came from Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In a telling indication of one problem Hebrew instructors and students face, Swalha declined to name the professors for fear they could face negative repercussions in their home countries for having attended.

A professor from Egypt, where about 2,000 people graduate with degrees in Hebrew each year, was quoted by Swalha as telling the workshop, “If the knowledge of Israeli society is imperative for Arab citizens at times of war, it’s more necessary and compulsory in time of peace.”

Egyptian universities have been teaching Hebrew since the 1960s, in Iraq a Hebrew language department was founded in 1969 and Hebrew classes were offered at Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University beginning in 1994.

In Jordan, the students’ Hebrew skills are low, apparently not from any fault of their own. Lack of funding and the indifference, and at times hostility, of the surrounding society hampers those trying to gain mastery. One main problem is the teaching materials. Textbooks are old, libraries are lacking in Hebrew materials and periodicals and magazines are unavailable to students. A Jordanian professor told the conference that he uses a textbook from 1962.

“Hebrew is a very dynamic and changeable language,” Swalha said. “Every year there are new words used by speakers. You have to follow up on all these words. You can’t rely on old texts and journals.”

He added that he knows professors who have already translated books from Hebrew to Arabic, but don’t have the resources to publish them.

Another problem is the lack of language labs. “If there was a lab, a student could go for two or three hours to the lab, listen, speak and practice. He could develop himself and his skills and the department could develop the curriculum,” he said.

Students have to contend with negative views of their interest in Hebrew, which can be seen as violating a taboo on “normalization” with Israel.

“Sometimes the society looks at the students as tools for normalization, so it’s not easy for them. The society looks at their study of Hebrew in a negative way, because the society believes these students will use the language to interact and communicate with Israelis and this is a kind of normalization,” Swalha said.

Because of this taboo, students and professors could face difficulties if they travel to Israel to interact with colleagues in the same way that Spanish or French specialists travel to Spain or France.

Because of the low skill level, many students are failing exams when they apply for positions in the government or media. “They are given two paragraphs to translate from Haaretz and Yediot [Aharonot] and they can’t do it because their curriculum is weak and they don’t have modern books and magazines.” Swalha said.

“Most don’t find jobs because, unfortunately, they are not professional in Hebrew.”

In Egypt, there simply aren’t enough jobs for graduates, Swalha said. Some work in media, the military or intelligence and a few work in call centers for IT companies. But most end up in other fields.

The workshop’s recommendations included providing modern books, journals and magazines; establishing language labs and upgrading facilities; focusing on interaction and practice in teaching; attention to securing jobs for graduates; launching MA and PhD programs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia; scholarships for exceptional graduate students to study in Israel, Germany and the US; and establishing an association of Hebrew graduates of Arab nations.

Swalha hopes that money can be raised for this cause.

In the long run, peace could inspire much larger numbers of Arab students to take up Hebrew, he said. “Now people feel there’s no hope for peace. They say, ‘Why study Hebrew, we can’t visit Israel, work in Israel, study in Israel or have friends from Israel.’ But if there was peace, there could be huge partnerships with these departments.”

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