Speaking in tongues

Hebrew ulpanim in east Jerusalem are flourishing despite economic and cultural obstacles.

ulpan class 88 (photo credit: )
ulpan class 88
(photo credit: )
”Lamadti, lamadta, lamadt, lamad, lamda” Fifteen voices conjugate the past tense of the Hebrew verb “lilmod,” (to learn) while teacher Rami Masarwa nods approvingly, silently repeating the words to himself. Colorful Hebrew letters hang on the walls, and the students hold the newspaper "Davar" a sheet of paper familiar to everyone who ever studied in an ulpan (intensive school for learning Hebrew.) Welcome to a class at “Medabrim Ivrit” an ulpan located next to the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem. Established two years ago by Masarwa, “Medabrim Ivrit” is one of the many Hebrew ulpanim sprouting up all over the eastern part of the city. Before its establishment and the establishment of similar institutions those interested in mastering the Biblical tongue enrolled in ulpanim in west Jerusalem, such as “Mila” or “Beit Ha-am.” “But two, two-and-a-half years ago we started to observe this phenomenon of ulpans run by Arabic institutions or private teachers in the eastern section of the city", says Iba, who has been studying Hebrew for the last two years. There is “Medabrim Ivrit,” “Inta Ma'ana,” “Markaz al-Quds,” “Markaz al-Quds al-Taalimi,” “Al-Maahad al-Tikni al-A'ali,” and many others. Some specialize only in Hebrew languages, others offer private courses in computers, math, English and now also Hebrew. All of them are private institutions. But unlike the more common ulpans in west Jerusalem, all of the students are locals, born in Jerusalem. Some appear to be in their early twenties, others in their forties and fifties who've decided that it's never too late to study. And prices on this side of the city are considerably cheaper. The course in “Medabrim Ivrit” costs NIS 600 while those on the western side can cost as much as NIS 1,200 1,800 per course. Samir, a diligent student who owns a vegetable store in the Old City, says that he feels he really needs to know Hebrew for his business, not only so that he can communicate with his clientele, some of whom are Israeli, but also in order to pay his bills and deal with the municipality. It's not at all easy for him to come here twice a week, after a hard day's work, for a two-hour lesson, but Samir has already completed the beginner's level and now he is in “mitkadmim” the advanced group. “Hebrew is very important, it's the official language of Israel; if you don't speak it it's just as if you were mute and deaf,” he explains. Nabil, a student sitting beside Samir, is a municipal employee who lives in the Mount of Olives. He holds a BA and MA degree from Tashkent University, where he also mastered perfect Russian. “If only we'd studied Hebrew at school,” he sighs. None of the students at “Medabrim Ivrit” studied Hebrew in school. Now some of them say that they are concerned that their children do not learn Hebrew in school, either. According to Wahid Musa, Education Ministry inspector in east Jerusalem, only about one half of the students in east Jerusalem attend public schools, where Hebrew is taught. Others attend private institutions, where teaching Hebrew is not mandatory. In most cases, children from east Jerusalem do not attend public schools because the education authorities have not built enough classrooms for them. The issue is currently being reviewed by the High Court of Justice. Not that attending a public school is a guarantee that your children will speak Hebrew fluently when they graduate, Musa acknowledges. He explains that as a result of an agreement between the Israeli government and the community leaders in east Jerusalem, the schools in east Jerusalem adopted the Jordanian curriculum which was recently updated to the Palestinian program. “Although Hebrew is a mandatory subject, the children begin learning the language in the third grade, approximately three hours a week. They are not tested in the end and it is not part of the tawjihi [the Jordanian and Palestinian alternative to the Israeli bagrut (matriculation) exams - K.S.].” “Naturally this affects the motivation of the students, since they know that they do not have to take a test and do well at the end,” Musa concludes. In contrast, English is taught from the first grade and is part of the matriculation exam. Another problem is under-qualified Hebrew academic personnel for this task. “The standards are generally lower then for English or mathematics," Musa notes. The problem of qualified personnel is also an obstacle in many Palestinian universities, where Hebrew was taught until the beginning of the Intifada, in October 2000. Most Hebrew teachers hold Israeli ID cards and so for the past five years they have been barred from entering the Palestinian Authority. As a result, Palestinian universities such as Bir-Zeit and Bethlehem do not have Hebrew language departments. Even al-Quds University in Abu Dis only offers an advanced Hebrew-language course for those students who already have a background in the language and speak it well. Masarwa believes that all schools in east Jerusalem should be required to teach Hebrew and he blames the government for the language gap between east and west. Language, he says, is crucial not only for the sake of communication but also for creating strong ties of friendship and trust between the nationalities. “I believe that we cannot understand each other if we don't even speak the same language and probably many conflicts could be resolved much faster if we did. When you study the language, you do not only study the grammar and the words: you also start to understand and relate to the history and the culture, which will inevitably affect your attitudes,” says Masarwa. Suad Abdulla teaches English at a Waqf-controlled school in the Old City. She is a devout Muslim who covers her head carefully and prays five times a day, according to religious dictates. And she has been studying Hebrew for two years. Smiling, she even shows off some of the most recent Israeli slang that she's learned and notes that some of it originated in Arabic. More seriously, she continues, “Israelis who see my head covering think it's strange that I am studying Hebrew. I observe Islam, but I am not a political extremist, and I want to learn Hebrew so that our two communities can communicate better.” She is disappointed, she says, that Israelis don't learn Arabic, but adds, “I guess it's always that way in a majority situation Israelis are the majority, and we are the minority, so we have to learn your language. But Arabic is supposed to be an official language in Israel, too, and it is insulting that so few Israelis even try to speak with us in our language.” She acknowledges that some in her community object to her studying Hebrew. “They think it's disloyal, as though I'm not being a loyal Palestinian. But I don't think so I hope that we'll have our own state and city some day very soon. And I oppose the Israeli control. But we'll always live side-by-side, and we'll always have to communicate.” Suad is hardly in the minority at “Medabrim Ivrit”; many of the students are girls. “In our society girls rarely go to work in Israeli institutions so there is no pressure on them to pick it up in school,” says Iba. “Moreover, the majority go to private schools which do not usually include Hebrew language in their curriculum.” IS THERE an increasing awareness of the need for the Hebrew language, I ask Fadel Tahboub, a Jerusalem dignitary who himself speaks perfect Hebrew. “I personally believe that the situation in east Jerusalem is not that bad, and I wish that Israelis knew Arabic half as well as Arabs know Hebrew. “Although Arabic is also an official language here in Israel, it is often neglected and all the papers and official letters come written in Hebrew only. “So there is an interesting phenomenon on one hand people feel that they are pushed to study the language, and that leads to a certain protest, but on the other hand, if you want to live and to work with the Israelis, there is just no other way.” Tahboub, who was 23 years old in 1967 when Jerusalem was unified, relates that he just picked Hebrew up in the street, realizing that this language was of crucial importance when trying to make contact with Israelis and negotiate with 'the other.' “But Israelis also must begin learning Arabic. They have to face a reality this is the Middle East here,” he concludes. But Masarwa's students aren't waiting for an Arabic revolution among Jewish Israelis. The numbers at his ulpan and others speak for themselves. “Not only the residents of east Jerusalem, but also Palestinians from Ramallah and other areas are very interested in studying Hebrew,” he says. “Hebrew is too important to just give up on it, especially here in Jerusalem,” concludes Masarwa, as he patiently teaches students to conjugate a new verb, l'daber (to speak). "Dibarti, dibarta, dibart, diber, dibra….”