Worlds – and words – apart

He wants people to talk to each other. He hopes it will start something positive.

The approximately 10-minute lesson was significant more for the interaction than the instruction (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The approximately 10-minute lesson was significant more for the interaction than the instruction
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On Friday, outside an Aroma Cafe on Emek Refaim Street, Robert Berman tried an experiment and with it helped answer a question. Would Jews be willing to learn Arabic? But more fundamentally, would Jews be willing to talk to Arabs? The experiment involved two signs, a table, Arabic words printed on paper, four children from Hebron that acted as Arabic teachers and an enthusiastic salesman.
For NIS 10, a passerby would be taught Arabic for 10 minutes and help children stop begging. For NIS 10, a passerby would speak to an Arab.
This was and continues to be Berman’s experiment. It was his experiment because it might largely be over. It continues to be because he hopes try again and aspires to have it move beyond him.
Berman’s desire to start these lessons can be traced to September 30 of last year. On that day both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spoke before the United Nations.
Berman, like many Israelis, was able to watch Netanyahu’s speech on television, due in large part to the simultaneous translation from English to Hebrew.
Abbas’s speech was not so accessible. “They never translated it [from Arabic] to Hebrew. The commentators practically lowered the volume and spoke over him the entire time,” he said.
“That’s the thing about Israelis, everyone talks over each other. If you watch an Israeli high-school debating team all they do is yell at each other. That speech reminded me that as a country no one here really listens to each other,” he said.
Until then, Berman had been studying Arabic for nearly seven years. “I wanted to understand Arabic, understand Arabs before I decided to have a conversation with them.”
So when he noticed a group of children from Hebron selling nana (mint) and begging for money, he approached them.
“I kept seeing them, they would come up to you and sell nana and beg, so one day I told them I would give them a job, they would teach me Arabic and they wouldn’t need to keep begging.”
As he continued to improve his Arabic with his new teachers, the UN speech nagged at him.
By September, Berman had a plan. He would share his Arabic teachers and in doing so try and cultivate meaningful interaction between Jews and Arabs.
Everything was on track until the terrorist attacks began again.
“We were going to start, but then the attacks started. We had planned to start the exact week the couple [Eitam and Naama Henkin] was killed in the West Bank. It no longer seemed viable.”
So he and his four teachers, Muhammad, Abdullah, Hanin and Innas, waited.
They waited until July 8. Their first lesson, which took place in the German Colony, garnered them about NIS 100.
Berman live-streamed the kids teaching Arabic to passersby on Facebook. The video, which had over 15,000 views, encouraged Berman to try again.
But it also came with a fair share of negative comments.
“I have had extreme reactions of love and hate. I going with love,” he posted on Facebook shortly after uploading the video.
The next week they tried again.
From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. the children taught – with a sternness characteristic of teachers who have suffered far too many of their pupils’ mistakes.
Holding up a paper with Arabic phrases and pictures of common food items, they would guide you through their language. Pointing to a picture of a chicken, they would slowly say “jaj” and then you would say “jaj.” If you made the pronunciation correctly, you would move on to cheese, “jibne,” eggs, “bed,” and so on. If you failed at the pronunciation, they would repeat themselves even more slowly, making sure to emphasis the part you got wrong.
The lesson, which lasted approximately 10 minutes, was significant more for the interaction than the actual instruction. In 10 minutes a child who lived only a few miles away but worlds apart would try and teach you something. In those 10 minutes you would see how they respond to difficulty, confusion, success and the different.
But during those 10 minutes you were unlikely to notice the snide comments or plethora of people that declined a lesson without acknowledging the offer. The indifference and outright hostility took place quickly and quietly between Berman and the other adults.
He was often asked, “Why Arabic? Why here?”
Sometimes he was asked why he was doing this altogether. Other times he would be accused of taking the kids out of school, of abusing them, of taking advantage of them.
A woman who took the lesson wondered loudly to me how children from Hebron were able to travel so freely.
Over and over Berman responded, his restrained annoyance wavering.
Not all passersby shared in the negativity. A man who took a lesson said he believed in these types of positive cultural interactions.
Some people stopped and took the lesson. They did so with a smile. But by the end of the day it was clear the negativity had had an impact.
“I don’t know if we will do this again,” he said to me. “We only made NIS 500, we’ll try Mamilla [mall] next. If that doesn’t work we will have to give it up. They make more money begging,” Berman said.
When I asked him how he felt he said, “Disheartened.” He did so with a hint of frustration. The sort of frustration that so often underpins cynicism.
Its impossible to know what Berman thought as he walked away, down an alley, carrying a table and a sign, and talking hurriedly to two of the children keeping pace next to him.
You hope that he wasn’t thinking of giving up.
You hope for Berman, not even because you agree with what he’s doing, but because it’s hard not to admire his selflessness. You hope for him because it’s easy to feel besieged by cynicism. Because when so much ground has been ceded to frustration, you hope for optimism. And he is an optimist.
He wants people to talk to each other. He hopes it will start something positive.
It’s not a large request. But it is hard not to see it as a difficult one.
He will likely try again. And maybe Jews will start talking to Arabs. Either way, a man will have tried something optimistic – and it is hard to find fault in that.