Listening to Hebrew songs is officially frowned upon by many West Bank residents, but interest in learning the language of the “other society that is very close but still far away” is clearly picking up among Palestinians wishing to understand Israelis. One example is the Mohammed bin Rashid Bin Al-Maktoum School in Al-Bireh, a town adjacent to Ramallah, where many students in grades 7 through 10 are opting to study the Hebrew language.
A somewhat strategic explanation for this little-known fact was offered by Samer Nimer, a director of the private school, who told The Media Line that, “We want to know what is going on in Israel first hand, not what others are saying about Israel.” Perhaps even more surprising is Nimer’s revelation that “we use the curriculum issued by the Israeli Ministry of Education.”
Interaction between Palestinians and Israelis is often limited to conflict-related situations, such as Palestinians passing through Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank; or Palestinian laborers who are permitted to work inside of Israel finding themselves in need of a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew.
For these reasons, the administration of the 600-pupil school, considered to be conservative with boys and girls separated, made the decision to offer Hebrew as the third language, after Arabic and English. “We found support from the parents who thanked us,” Nimer explained. “Some parents said they preferred their children to learn French, but we think the use of French is limited here,” he said.
According to Nimer, there are presently around 120 Hebrew students in the school, including eighth-grader Lana [her name is changed for her safety], who is in her second year of study. Her mother told The Media Line that, “This is the language of the enemy, and it’s important for us to learn it.” Nevertheless, Lana herself offers a more optimistic outcome from her Hebrew study. She said, “I visit Israeli websites and try to read. Also, on school trips, we try to speak with Israelis in Hebrew.”
Although Hebrew is mostly viewed as a practical language, many Palestinians apparently agree with Lana’s mother, and are interested in following Israeli affairs in order to gain an insight of what is going on in Israel.
The language courses are not the only indication of the Palestinians’ interest in wanting to know first-hand what is going on inside of Israel. The Palestinian Ma’an satellite television channel presents a weekly show that translates reports from Israeli media; and three daily newspapers printed in the West Bank carry a regular section of articles and op-eds translated into Arabic after having been published in the Israeli press.
Maher Safi, a private sector employee, not only agrees with this approach, but wants public schools to follow suit as well. He told The Media Line that, “There is a saying that ‘One who wants to avoid the other nation’s harm should know their language.’ I think the Palestinian Authority should teach Hebrew as part of its curriculum.”
Jihad Zakarneh, the Director General of Curriculums in the Palestinian Ministry of Education, explained that the PA schools do not teach Hebrew because Hebrew is not a language that is used outside of Israel, and therefore, “the demand for this language is not high. Students who want to study abroad seek German, French, or Russian language because it will help them,” according to Zakarneh.
For those who want to learn Hebrew, there are options. There are some 200 language and translation centers operating in the West Bank and the PA’s Education Ministry grants them permits to teach Hebrew. “Hebrew is not a forbidden language, but most of those who wish to learn it are workers in the private sector who have to deal with Israelis in their work.” He explained that “there is a demand for Hebrew among those who work in imports and exports, finance, insurance and customs.
Shorouq Mraqatan, a 30-year old public employee from Hebron who works for the Palestinian Standards Institute, has been studying Hebrew for 6 months, claiming that while it’s out of necessity, he enjoys it. “I need to know Hebrew to read the Israeli standards, and I also like to learn about Israel,” he told The Media Line.
The PA’s Zakarneh added that the decision by the Hamas-controlled education ministry in the Gaza Strip to offer Hebrew to its students was justified by need. “Gazans need Hebrew as their only outlet to the outer world. Our students in the West Bank don’t need Hebrew.”
The PA’s Education Ministry has no estimate of the number of private schools teaching Hebrew on the West Bank because such programs are not supervised. But they make the point that “a considerable number of those who know or teach Hebrew have learned the language during the time they were imprisoned by Israel.