Zelda Harris
Five on the 100 aliyah from UK list!

Breaking news……This is …a first!

My friend called me today and asked if I would join her in a Skype conference call with  students in a  hebrew learning centre,in GAZA.This would be the first time since the intifada that such a thing took place.

The woman in Gaza , who made this possible,  was  formerly the head hebrew teacher of the Gaza branch of Ulpan Akiva. She had been a student of the iconical Shulamith Katzenelson who in 1951 founded Ulpan Akiva, in a small dilapidated hotel near Netanya.

The lapping waves of the mediterranean  created a backdrop for this dynamic and unique undertaking, which was to teach both Arabic and Hebrew.

 Presidents, Ministers, politicians of every hue as well as academics,artists,agriculturists,doctors and practitioners of every kind  in the region, as well as people from around the world, passed through the portals of this unique font of learning. They shared rooms with speakers of another language and  after 6 weeks graduated, not only speaking a new language,but also  knowledgeable about each other’s customs and culture.

The branch in Gaza during the 70’s and Eighties was set up due to the popular demand of those whose daily life took them into contact with either the Israeli Civil Administration and  officials in Israel, or to advance professional studies and for commercial reasons. 

In 1986 Shulamith received the Israel prize for her contribution to bringing arabs and Jews together in order to  understand one another.   In an interview at the time she said”We are perhaps naive in trying to approach the problems of the region in this way,  ”But we believe that the firm foundations necessary to build and consolidate peace can only come about through person-to-person contacts and the ability of each side to speak the other’s language.”

In 1987 the first intifada broke out.

Gradually all activities at Ulpan Akiva in Gaza ceased, but that did not stop those who cared and my close friend and colleague Gal Springman from organising seminars of virtual teaching whenever possible.

Today’s virtual experience was the culmination of this  collaboration.

At 17.00 exactly, the familiar Skype ring pierced my ears and I did not know what to expect, this dramatic meeting was taking place in my home.

A young man who could have been anyone’s favourite son,student at any university or just the boy next door,said “Hallo Gal” He called another man whom Gal knew and he welcomed us, as we then welcomed them.

They panned the camera around the the room and we saw around 20 men of differing ages some women, one with a baby and all were smiling.The elegant lady who is a driving force behind this new initiative, was in the background and camera shy. Gal introduced me and said that as I originated from England I should greet them in English. A white clothed table we noted, had been arranged with food and flowers and Gal asked if they were having a party to celebrate. We then said that we had fruit and biscuits and tea and would love to be able to share it with them.To which they replied Inshalla,  Baruch Haba and yom echad.

Their ivrit was eloquent and those who knew Gal were visibly emotional and extremely warm. This was their end of year celebration and they wanted to share it with us.

Shulamith’s dreams have not yet come to fruition although more than 50 years have passed and she no longer with us.  Gal and I share her belief that we need to speak each other’s languages  and create those person to person contacts.

I am sure she would have been proud of everyone who took part in what we hope is the first of many encounters.”Baruch Dayan Emet”.


About the Author
Zelda Harris first came to Israel 1949, aged 18. After living through the hardships of the nascent state, she returned to England in 1966. She was a founding member of the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry. In 1978, she returned with her family to Israel and has been active in various spheres of Israeli Society since. Together with the late Chaim Herzog, she founded CCC for Electoral Reform, was the Director of BIPAC in Israel, and a co-founder of Metuna, the Organisation for Road Safety, which received the Speaker of Knesset Quality of Life Award for saving lives on the roads and prevention of serious injury. She is now a peace activist, blogger for Times of Israel and is writing her life story.