A tale of love and bureacracy

I came to Israel this summer for a number of reasons. The more “official” reasons, so-to-speak, was to do research for my Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Senior Honors Thesis, and to study Palestinian Arabic. This combination itself is ironic and meta to a certain point — I’m now researching why Jewish students at Israeli universities are choosing to take Arabic, while I’m filling that role in one way or another.

The other reasons, which are arguably more important on a personal level, include a strong desire to reconcile my love for Israel and my understanding of Israel’s flaws, as well as a deep-seated interest in experiencing all that Israeli society has to offer that I had yet to experience. Although I’m nearing the end of my trip I can confidently share that I have barely even dipped my toes into each of the issues that matter to me, despite near-constant engagement.

I have devoted a lot of time to learning about the ways in which the conflict and the occupation inform, complicate, and supersede mainstream Israeli consciousness. Although I have lots to say regarding the all-to-familiar buzzwords such as “occupation,” “BDS,” “Iran,” and “Hasbara”, the most important buzzword of my time this summer, which is one of the omnipresent symptoms of these words is the following: bureaucracy.

A very naive and optimistic Hannah landed in Israel on May 21st, expecting to interview high school students about their choices to study Arabic just a few days later. After a number of days of taking long pleasure walks across Jerusalem, I finally got permission from Brandeis’ IRB (Institutional Review Board).  I was ready to start, and began making phone calls to the schools on my list. I got a response to one of my shaky voice messages asking if I had permission from the “Mad’an Harashi,” i.e. the Head Scientist of the Ministry of Education.

“emmm mi? Af pa’am lo ‘amru li sheyesh min tzorech kazeh…”

(“ummm who? No one ever told me that there’s this sort of requirement…”)

“Ani mitzta’eret, aval titkashri suv ksheyesh lach ta’ishur hanachon. Bai.”

(“I apologize, but call again when you have the right permit. Bye.”)

I panicked as I looked up the form, knowing that I clearly wouldn’t get any sort of permission before the schools would close for the summer. I also realized that my academic Hebrew might be up to scratch, but bureaucratic Hebrew is a whole ‘nother animal. I put out a couple of posts on facebook asking for help, and got myself a meeting with a prominent professor of Education for later that afternoon. When I first got there, he bluntly asked why I was even bothering to do research here. I’m a smart-enough-cookie, why not look at the role of Spanish in America and skip all of these Israeli traps?

I got a little defensive in response, but scaled back because it was futile — this professor had moved to Israel himself to make a career out of educational research. He decided to call of the Ministry of Education for me so I could potentially get a meeting with them as soon as possible. He began explaining my situation, and the clerk was ready to pencil me in for the next day. When she found out I was from an American university, she abruptly said there was nothing she could do for me. As of a month before I had arrived in Israel, with the change in government, a new policy had been put in place that forbids a researcher from a foreign institution from getting the necessary permits to go into public schools.

I looked up at the professor in disbelief. I knew exactly where this policy was coming from — it was instituted as part of a series of proposals to keep “internationals” and “leftists” (NGOs specifically) out of Israeli institutions. I know that this is a manifestation of Israeli defensiveness and paranoia that is alive and well. It is understandable considering the flux of BDS and “Tear Gas Tourism,” but these policies are hardly justifiable. I have spent much of my time trying to break down the Hasabara-oriented conceptions of Israel that are ever-so-present in the American Jewish Community, but this a lens I never expected to have incurred before working for any of those allegedly evil leftist NGOs.

By the end of the meeting, I established that I would write about university students, therefore bypassing that policy and the need for parental consent. Besides, I am pretty well connected into different circles of university students who fit the bill and have already been incredibly helpful in a number of ways. The demographic shift is probably for the benefit of the project since university students are far more in control of their educational decisions, and can articulate both their rationales for studying the language amongst other experiences that have shaped their language ideologies. 

The so-called “happy ending” of the story is that I finally got permission to begin interviews… seven weeks into my time in Israel. I have already learned so much from the people I’ve interviewed so far, and I genuinely enjoy hearing all of their stories.

It’s possible that I got a bit too much of an insider’s view of Israeli bureaucracy for an American Jew who is doing a (quite frankly, very) small-scale research project. It doesn’t make me reconsider any interest in doing similar work here again, but it does mean that I have my work cut out for me. These policies are part of a broader framework within Israeli society that are unhealthy and discriminatory (and I’m not talking about myself here).

The conclusions I come to in my research will have some decently important implications of language policy in Israel, and for now, just continuing the project is a means of bringing the likely-to-be-suppressed issues to light (whether Bennet likes it or not). Israel’s well-being and intellectual honesty (and freedom) are two values that are remarkably important to me, and I hope to be a part of any effort that makes these trending policies a thing of the past and allows these two values to coalesce.

About the Author
Hannah Kober is a rising senior at Brandeis University, studying Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Linguistics. On campus, she is involved in various minyanim, a cappella, and J Street U. She is originally from Kew Gardens, NY.