Reading Agnon in Amman

We should not delude ourselves. Increasing the number of Hebrew-speaking Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis will not bring peace.

January 8, 2017 20:53
3 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)

The study of Hebrew is perceived by many as reserved for members of the Tribe.

Whether it be olim going through the challenging process of integration into Israeli society or previously unaffiliated Jews interested in learning more about their roots by grappling with Jewish texts in the original, most of the people interested in learning the Holy Tongue seem to be Jews.

There are exceptions, such as Israel’s Arabs who make up a fifth of the population, the majority of whom speak flawless modern Hebrew. Arab novelists like Sayed Kashua create in Hebrew. There are also thousands of foreign workers and asylum-seekers who have learned Hebrew out of practical necessity. Serious Bible scholars of all faiths learn Hebrew and so do some Makuyas.

Still, generally speaking, Hebrew – reborn as a modern vernacular with the return of the Jewish people to its historic homeland – is an exclusively Jewish phenomenon, whether at Hebrew school, ulpan or yeshiva.

The Jews’ aversion to both assimilation and proselytizing and tendency toward clannishness might have something to do with it. Nor is it particularly practical for many to learn a language spoken by around 10 million people, most of whom are Jews. Better to devote the time and energy to learning a more widely spoken language – Mandarin Chinese, for instance, or Arabic.

That is why it was so interesting to discover through the reporting of The Jerusalem Post’s Arab Affairs Correspondent Ben Lynfield that there are non-Jews in the region who envision Hebrew as a vehicle for interaction between Arabs and Israelis. A unique conference that took place in Jordan and which was attended by professors of the Hebrew language from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan called to boost the teaching of lashon hakodesh – in the Arab world, of all places.

It might be premature to declare Hebrew the lingua franca of the region, as Aramaic used to be. There is, however, some interest in the study of Hebrew in Amman, Cairo, Riyadh and Baghdad.

Abdullah Swalha, director the Center for Israel Studies in Amman, put it simply: “Language can bridge the gap between our countries.

I want to understand you as an Israeli, as my partner, my future friend or enemy... and you can’t understand the other if you don’t understand their language. So it’s very important to us.”

Swalha lamented the fact that in the year 2000, there were about 600 Jordanian students who studied Hebrew at Yarmuk University in Irbid in northern Jordan, while today there are just 100.

An indication of the problematics of teaching Hebrew in Arab lands was Swalha’s unwillingness to provide the names of the professors who participated in the conference, for fear they would be punished for calling to encourage Hebrew study.

As Swalha noted, those in Arab nations who opt to learn Hebrew are accused of attempting to “normalize” relations with Israel. Teachers of Hebrew are unable to travel to Israel to interact with colleagues here in the same way that specialists from Spain and France can.

Hebrew programs in Arab countries are in need of money to replace outdated textbooks, build language labs, and fund scholarships that send exceptional graduate students to study abroad.

Israel has an interest in supporting Hebrew language programs in Arab countries. Knowledge of the language can be a vehicle for learning more about Judaism as well as modern Israeli culture. This in turn can help dispel prejudices and misconceptions. True peace can only be achieved through mutual recognition and respect for cultural differences. Acknowledging similarities while celebrating differences is essential to deepening ties.

We should not delude ourselves. Increasing the number of Hebrew-speaking Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis will not bring peace. But reading Agnon and Oz, Grossman and Keret could contribute to Arabs’ understanding of Israelis’ motivations and aspirations, desires and hatreds – in short, all the things that make us human.

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