The bilingualist

As a pending bill stands to remove Arabic as an official state language, Amin Khalaf still dreams of an Israel where every citizen is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic.

Arab Jewish relations 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Hand in Hand)
Arab Jewish relations 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Hand in Hand)
Amin Khalaf grew up speaking Hebrew as well as Arabic, but did not have an in-depth meeting with a Jewish person until he enrolled at the Hebrew University at age 18.
Born and raised in Mukeibila, a small village near between Afula and Jenin, his childhood was full of love and warm neighborly relations, but stories of his parent’s childhood and the disparities he saw around him left him full of questions.
In his early years, life was extremely rural, with unpaved roads, kerosene lamps for light and occasional use of a generator for electricity. By the fourth grade, in the 1970s, when his village was wired for 24-hour electricity, he started to wonder why Mukeibila received services seemingly years after other neighborhoods.
As a teenager, he would often stand in the hills to look over into the new Jewish community of Magen Shaul and wonder why the Jewish neighbors he never met had more than he did: paved roads, grass yards, playgrounds, soccer fields and pools.
His parents were not angry people but they recalled the traumas of their childhoods frequently.
After 1948, Khalaf’s father was the only remaining family member in Mukeibili, which was first taken over by the Jewish army and after the cease-fire became part of the newly formed State of Israel.
For nearly two decades, until the 1967 war, his father did not see his more than three dozen family members – siblings,parents, aunts, uncles and cousins – who had fled to the hills of Burkin, minutes away in the then-forbidden West Bank side, ruled by Jordan.
Amin Khalaf’s mother was a teen in 1948 when her village, Sandala, only a few kilometers away from Burkin, found itself defined as part of the State of Israel. Not long after the war, her three brothers were killed by a land mine while walking to school. She was only about 100 meters away when it happened.
Two of her brothers were killed on the spot, the third died minutes later in her arms.
Khalaf loved his family and small-town life, but was always aware of a sense of separation and loss.
Later, when he wanted to study at university, the sense of separation intensified as he realized there were no universities in Israel for Arabic speakers.
At age 18, in 1983, he enrolled to study Islamic and Middle Eastern studies in Hebrew at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. He went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s of arts degrees in these subjects, as well as a teaching certificate and a master’s of business studies.
For the first time in his life, he also got to know and even befriend Jewish students.
Later, he taught Arabic and multicultural studies at Jewish and Arab high schools and at the Hebrew-language David Yellin College, and ran workshops for Jewish and Arab teachers at the Hebrew-language Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem.
It was a workshop at Israel’s only Jewish-Arab village, Neveh Shalom/Wahat as-Salaam, that he says changed his life: He started to believe that Jews and Arabs must be jointly engaged and trained in language and education in order to work towards greater equality.
In 1998, Khalaf, with Jewish partner Lee Gordon, founded Hand in Hand (Yad b’Yad), the only network of bilingual schools in Israel. From a few dozen pupils in the first year, today 850 children are enrolled in campuses in Jerusalem, the Galilee, Kafr Kari and Beersheba.
Though Jewish Israelis are not required to learn Arabic in Israel, Arabic is an official language here. It was mandated by the British authorities in 1922 and carried forward by Israel in its Declaration of Independence, despite David Ben-Gurion’s objections.
Arab leaders, however, have charged that the legal status of the language has often been more symbolic than practical. There are Arabic translations of tax forms and some national security forms, but translated documents and the availability of translators vary from institute to institute, department to department, and in the courts, sometimes even from case to case.
Fifty years after the founding of the state, most national roads around the country, except in Jerusalem and Haifa, did not have signs in Arabic, including major roads through villages that were Arabic-speaking before the founding of the state and that became mixed Arab-Jewish communities after 1948.
Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, petitioned the Supreme Court in 1998 to have national road signs include Arabic alongside the Hebrew and English. Two of the three justices on the case ruled in favor, and today all major roads and mixed cities like Nazareth, Beersheba, Lod, Ramle and Jaffa have signs also in Arabic.
Kadima MK Avi Dichter recently proposed a bill to cement in Israel’s constitution that Israel is defined as a Jewish state and homeland, including a clause demoting Arabic from “official language” to “language with special status.” So far, the bill has more than 40 signatures in its support.
Khalaf sighs when he reads about the bill. He retired as executive director at Hand in Hand several months ago, and now works as a strategic and education consultant. He spent a day with The Jerusalem Post to share his experiences, inspirations and dreams for the ways he thinks that bilingual education can benefit Jews and Arabs in Israel.
There are many ways one can contribute to civil society; what made you choose language as your path?My son Yazam was born in 1993; we were thinking about where to send him for kindergarten [and] dreamed for him to grow up in an environment of equality. At age three or four our stereotypes are already starting to develop, so we wanted Jews and Arabs to grow up together. But there were no schools like this and none that met the needs of the Arab citizens of Israel. If you go to a Hebrew-speaking school, then you don’t learn Arabic language or history. If you go to school in east Jerusalem, the curriculum is Palestinian and you will not learn Hebrew, the history of Israel or civics.
Why do you want Arab citizens to learn Israeli history and civics?[We] should know Hebrew, Jewish history and about the culture, because Jews are the majority in this country and because our life, our future, is here in Israel. There is a mess if you don’t learn these things.
What interests me is how to make our lives better. I have the same questions now when I go to east Jerusalem and [other Arab neighborhoods]. Instead of hate, I have always wanted to ask: how can you change things to benefit both sides? My goal was and is to find a way for the minority and majority, Arab and Jew, to live in equality in Israel, and the answer I found was bilingualism.
Arabs should learn Hebrew and Jews should learn Arabic, and they should learn each other’s history and culture. In 1998 we had a paper with this vision and nothing else but a belief that it is possible and that both sides can grow from this.
How did city and state officials respond to your vision of bilingual state schools?The Arab towns liked the idea but it was more difficult to find Jewish partners. At the time, the head of the Jerusalem education department said it was not the right time or place. In Haifa, which is called the city of coexistence, [mayor Amram] Mitzna [in 2000] said, “not now, come back in a few years.”
But the Misgav regional council liked the idea and we were able to work with Misgav and the Arab city of Sakhnin and the Arab villages of Sha’ab and Kaukab.
After Yossi Sarid became education minister and [Ehud] Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert was 1,000 percent behind us. He helped us raise private money, and around 2000 or 2001, the [Jerusalem] municipality and the Education Ministry finally agreed to fund us.
How hard was and is it to get parents to send their kids to an Arabic-Hebrew speaking school?We wanted to start at age three or four before the prejudice or stereotypes develop.
To let them grow up together. We had lists of Arabs who wanted to sign up, but it was hard to get Jewish pupils, especially in the sixth and seventh grades.
We found that in the first six years, the Jewish pupils of this age will [often] leave.
The classes are small and maybe [the Jewish] parents were afraid there would be dating.
[According to Shuli Dichter, the new executive director of Hand in Hand, last year veteran parents from the Jerusalem school met intensively with parents of children going into the sixth grade and for the first time the sixth and seventh grades now have a 50-50 matriculation of Arabs and Jews].
One of the things I learned is that sometimes people are on the “Left” but would not send their kids to a school like ours.
There are people who would fight for our rights, but would not want to have an Arab neighbor.
How were the relationships outside of school?The average [Jewish] Israeli could live his life without ever entering an Arab household. People are afraid. That you agreed to sit in my living room is very rare. We encourage the kids to visit each other, yet sometimes in the beginning parents are afraid or face a shock when they see my child’s [modern] room... they are expecting a room with a camel, or that we live in tents.
Apparently this kind of education is also challenging in terms of getting parents and staff on the same page: Author Sayed Kashua recently wrote a satire about it, and years ago when I was at Neveh Shalom, a teacher said that even if you teach in both languages, the Arabs will still know Hebrew better than the Jews know Arabic and Hebrew will always be dominant, and that this does affect the feelings of Arab pupils. Your thoughts?Half the teachers at Hand in Hand are Jewish and half are Arab. The Arab teachers know Hebrew but the Hebrew teachers don’t usually know Arabic. In my time there was always the question of pedagogy vs ideology and the friction between them continues. We all have racism in us and we have to fight against it. There is an ongoing process to work on keeping our eye on the vision as we are swimming against the tide.
What inspired you about multiculturalism in other countries that you brought back to Israel?In California, where there is a small percentage of Jews, about 3 percent, I was watching the news and the newscaster said, “good evening and happy holidays to our Jewish viewers.” I was in shock – 17% of Israelis are Muslim, so why can’t the newscaster on public TV [here] say good evening and happy holidays to our Muslim viewers? This will not bring peace to the Middle East, but it does make people feel respected.
I realized that in Israel calendars list only Jewish holidays. Why not Muslim, Christian and Jewish and some international holidays with explanations in Hebrew and Arabic? Calendars should be for all the citizens of Israel. This is my dream and why I created this [he shows a calendar he created with Hand in Hand, with Muslim, Jewish and Christian holidays noted and explained in Hebrew, Arabic and English].
Why doesn’t the whole country have this calendar? It strengthens our knowledge and gives respect to each other. [The bill proposed by Dichter also contains a clause that would make the Hebrew calendar the official state calendar.]
Which Israelis today, beyond those born in Arab countries, speak Arabic?The first generation of Israelis [after 1948] wanted their children to speak Hebrew, even if they were native Arabic speakers. I think they were ashamed to speak Arabic and did not teach their children.
I think this was a mistake.
Today [the state] teaches Arabic in high school [as an elective] but the main reason people take it is not to speak to their neighbor but because of the army – to go into [military] intelligence.
It is not seen as the language of the neighbor but the language of the enemy and a language to learn if you want a good position in the army.
What is your response to those who argue that everyone who lives here should learn the first official language and not have to learn the languages of the minorities?The difference between this conversation in the US and Israel is that the Arabic-speaking minority here are natives, not immigrants. Arabic is the second official language but... more important than court rulings is the influence of relationship.
My family has lived here [for generations], I pay taxes.
I try to raise awareness, keep hope. Our achievements prove it is possible to live differently. I am proud of what I did and this is a fact in Israel. I hope it will continue in this direction, but despite my hope I am very disappointed that there is not more improvement.
Do you think life in Israel would be different if the founding Zionists had made Arabic language mandatory?I go to the pool with my son and if I speak Arabic everyone turns around and looks at me. It makes us feel bad. When I pass a checkpoint, if I am listening to Arabic music I lower it because I am afraid the guard might ask for my ID. Once, I was driving to the mall and talking to my kids [in Arabic] about what school supplies to buy and the the guard asked to see my ID.
This is a problem and not so easy for us. Of course we know how to speak Hebrew and want to be accepted. [But] if I don’t turn on the radio or speak in Arabic they won’t look at me or ask for my ID. Should I get different or bad treatment because I am speaking Arabic? The Jewish side sometimes blames the minority because they don’t know our language. People are suspicious or afraid if I speak to my son in Arabic or ask me not to speak in Arabic, instead of blaming themselves [for not knowing the language].
It leads to a lot of prejudice and fear at bus stations, malls and pools. Jews look at [us] Arabs as betraying them when we speak our own language. When I was a lecturer at David Yellin College, Jewish students didn’t want Arab students reading Arabic newspapers [there].
If Jews had learned Arabic, the daily relations could be better, with fewer stereotypes, and less fear from the other side.
And Arabs would feel better if their language and identities were acknowledged. It is not just a matter of learning Arabic but of comprehending culture. You can feel how deep the fear is and how afraid we are of each other, and this is a lose-lose situation and the tragedy is both sides think they are victims and in competition, and such a situation will not lead to anything good. Good will come about if [the situation] will be good for everyone.
In this environment, what gives you hope?
A. The children [at these bilingual schools] who have gotten an education in Arabic and Hebrew languages and cultures have received a special experience that no one else in Israel had of learning two languages, two cultures, and growing up together. That gives them a greater chance to be more creative than we have been and they will be the leaders of tomorrow.