‘In Arabic, learning culture more important than learning language’

As more and more Israelis want to learn the language of the neighborhood, two experts talk about techniques, methods, and the key to success

 RAISED AS an Arab: Yosef Mahfoud Levi attends a cultural/business meeting in Jordan.  (photo credit: UDI SHAHAM)
RAISED AS an Arab: Yosef Mahfoud Levi attends a cultural/business meeting in Jordan.
(photo credit: UDI SHAHAM)

Abu Ghosh is known for its famous hummus and its welcoming people. People who know a bit more about the place would also say that in 1948, Abu Ghosh was one of the very few villages that helped the Hagana, Irgun and Stern Group in their struggle to build an independent home for Jews.

But very few Jews regularly enter the heart of the village, beyond the main street and the commercial center where the restaurants and bakeries are located.

In a small and colorful alley, which lies on a steep road above the old mosque and Benedictine monastery, there’s a house surrounded by flowers and trees that has a magical and pastoral scenic look. Besides a small A4 paper sign pointing at the door, no one would guess that in this old building there’s a unique Arabic school.

Chen Kupperman, 31, the founder of Blend.Ar – an NGO that promotes social cohesion through language learning (the name stands for “blend Arabic”) – said that when he studied Arabic, he felt that studying in class with a teacher writing on a whiteboard misses a big chunk of language learning.

“During my university studies, I had a job as a mathematics teacher in a school called Meitar in Haifa. Their main motto is that studying is a process that should be accompanied by action. 

 CHEN KUPPERMAN in Blend.Ar headquarters in Abu Ghosh. (credit: UDI SHAHAM) CHEN KUPPERMAN in Blend.Ar headquarters in Abu Ghosh. (credit: UDI SHAHAM)

“While some think that studying should be done in a generic way in all subjects – by sitting at a desk, listening to a teacher who writes on the whiteboard, and memorizing reading material – this school believed that real study is done by actions. Studying math could even happen in the shower when you suddenly realize something,” he said.

“While some think that studying should be done in a generic way in all subjects – by sitting at a desk, listening to a teacher who writes on the whiteboard, and memorizing reading material – this school believed that real study is done by actions. Studying math could even happen in the shower when you suddenly realize something.”

Chen Kupperman

With this insight, Kupperman founded an Arabic school for adults that is presented only in Arabic, just like an ulpan, and includes establishing contact with the local residents by being with them in their homes and workplaces, as well as in their community life. They offer weekly lessons on four different levels, seminars for companies, online classes and other activities.

“Our main program is a month-long course during the summer in which the students can choose to live here in the village. During this course, they study in the ‘traditional way’ – in the classroom, all in Arabic. For the rest of the time, they do volunteer work, such as babysitting in homes, giving a hand in local groceries, and also tours, and other outside activities.”

The key to success, according to Kupperman, is establishing what he labels “meaningful interactions” with Arabic speakers.

“A meaningful interaction is having someone with a clear presence in your life,” Kupperman said. “Someone who calls you to say ‘Shana tova, and you call him to say ‘Eid Mubarak’ to him on his holidays; someone who comes to your family weddings and you go to his; someone who you can say is part of your life, which rarely happens in Israeli society. It happens not only between Jews and Arabs but also between seculars and haredim and other groups, 

Between Jews and Arabs, unlike other factions in Israeli society, the main barrier is language. But learning the language is only a door or gate to the real thing – which is the culture.”

Kupperman, who studied Arabic at the Givat Haviva Arabic Studies Institute, calls the culture the “holy of holies” among Arabic speakers.

“Most people don’t understand how important tradition and rituals are in the Arab culture,” he said. “The language, which also has a distinct place in this culture, could be a gate for it, but people don’t always let you enter,” he said, adding that oftentimes Jews who speak Arabic to Arabs are answered in Hebrew.

“When someone speaks Arabic to you, it means that he’s somewhat allowing you into his culture,” he said.

BLEND.AR’S Abu Ghosh headquarters – a five-room apartment that still preserves the massive arches and halls of the Ottoman-era house – hosts Arabic language-training sessions with young Arabs from across the country who have no previous experience. They do it for a scholarship or as part of the regular staff.

“We hire them for one or two years, with no previous experience. We do that intentionally. We want them to be excited about the relationships they create with the students. This isn’t something that you can get with veteran teachers,” Kupperman said.

“Having these young teaching assistants is fulfilling two of our goals. First, we provide meaningful interaction between them and the students – and we have seen some great relationships coming from these lessons. 

“Second, we help young men and women to gain some experience and to get to know people from various places. We once had a course for the employees of a large computer company. One of the teaching assistants was a computer science freshman. In that position, she was teaching the CEO of the company. It was a unique moment to see someone who comes from a minority society, who often feels left out, as the stronger side in this situation.”

Kupperman noted that philanthropic donations made many of the activities possible. Among the organizations supporting them is the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. In the past, they have received funding from the Shutfut Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“It is hard to make a living out of it, but I truly believe that Israel will be a better society when Jews will speak Arabic and can understand without mediation what’s going on around them,” he said, adding that the ultimate goal of his project is to create a community that could be beneficial for both Jews and Arabs.

‘Pave a way to the heart’

When Kupperman studied in Givat Haviva, the person who taught him Arabic was Yosef Mahfoud Levi.

Levi, 34, has gone a long way with his own Arabic studies. He now has an MA in Arabic language and literature from Bar-Ilan University.

He also invested in multiple activities related to Arab culture. He started a company called Insijam CLS (“harmony” in Arabic) that teaches Arabic and culture in various institutions and bodies, such as Foreign Ministry diplomats, the police, private sector companies and law firms. His company mediates between Israeli and Arab businesspeople from multiple Arab countries; it also helps West Bank businesses with the Israeli bureaucracy to facilitate imports and exports. 

Among his educational roles, he teaches Arabic at Bar-Ilan and in Givat Haviva; he is in charge of assimilating data analysis studies in Arab high schools for the Education Ministry; and in the past, he was a pedagogic supervisor in the Al-Qassimi College in Baka al-Gharbiya.

Levi’s approach to Arabic comes naturally. Like Kupperman, he sees the culture as the main thing, and the language as the tool to understand it. It is natural because he feels that he was essentially raised as an Arab.

“I grew up in the Neveh Amal neighborhood in Herzliya, which is all descendants of Yemen. And I say it with full confidence: We are Arab Jews. We speak with ‘het’ and ‘a’yin’,” he said, referring to the pronunciation of letters in a way that is similar to the Arab pronunciation. “And our cultural rituals stem from the Arab culture.”

Knowing how to pronounce Arabic, Levi decided to teach himself Arabic through cassette recordings when he was 14.

“Later, I decided to take it more seriously and study  in an official school. After finishing that in Givat Haviva, I started my honeymoon with Arabic,” he said. “I went South and lived with a Bedouin community for several months. I also had a family that hosted me in Baka al-Gharbiya in the Northern Triangle. Then I started my academic studies but kept deepening my studies of Arab culture.”

During his adventures, Levi said he realized how similar the local Arab culture is to his own. “You can see it in day-to-day activities, in physical gestures,” he said. “For example, there are things that are similar across the board in the Arab culture, and it doesn’t matter if the Arab is Muslim, Christian, Druze, or even a Jew. These things are usually connected to the daily activities or to life events, such as weddings and funerals.”

In his lectures, Levi talks about these similarities and suggests that through them, diplomats, businessmen, and whoever wants to use the language could open a door to the Arab culture and to the heart of their counterparts. He also talks about deep cultural tensions that most people won’t even realize.

“Among these tensions is the one between religion and culture,” he said. “In most cases, the culture either wins or absorbs the religion and thus makes a cultural tradition a religious deed. For example, the reverence that Arabs have for the right-hand side. Eating and drinking with our right hand, starting things on the right side, etc. The origin of these habits was in pre-Islamic Arab culture, and it received religious certification in the Hadith [Muslim traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad]. 

“Another example where the tradition prevailed is the blood revenge. Thar [the Arabic term for “vengeance”] is haram [forbidden by Islamic law]. But it is still present among Arabs. In most cases, the tribal code is stronger than religion,” he said.

Levi emphasizes the do’s and don’ts. “In business, we Israelis like the tachles; we are very straightforward. Doing business with Arabs, in most cases and especially with conservative ones, requires patience. Talking business right away is considered impolite.”

A term that Levi repeats is “getting to the heart” of the other.

“The Arabic language is filled with idioms and sayings. Knowing the language is not only knowing the expressions but also knowing when to say them,” he said. “If you see that an Arab friend of yours is praying, saying ‘Taqbal Allah’ [May Allah accept good deeds] will probably pave your way to his heart. It is like if your kippah fell on the ground and your Arab friend would pick it up, kiss it, and hand it over to you.”

Both Kupperman and Levi are trying to walk delicately around the elephant in the room – politics. While Kupperman said that people from across the political spectrum are coming to his programs, Mahfoud Levi said that he has no political affiliation.

“I am well aware of both the positive and negative sides of the culture,” Levi said. “But I don’t really care about politics. I like meeting people, and this is what drives me to continue.

“I also don’t think that everyone should speak Arabic; only those who have interaction with Arabs,” he said smiling, and continued, “and I don’t think that there’s anyone in the country who doesn’t have interaction with Arabs.” 