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Finding a common language with foreign neighbors

The kids don't speak Hebrew, and my Arabic is poor -- shoddy grounds for conversation among neighbors
Illustrative. Kid doing chin-ups in the park. (iStock)
Illustrative. Kid doing chin-ups in the park. (iStock)

Last week, I went to a public workout facility situated in a park in Jaffa. As this recreational site is located only minutes from my apartment, such an outing is a common excursion for me. Yet this recent trip was vastly different.

Upon arriving at the exercise station, I encountered a group of roughly one hundred Arab youngsters playing. As I approached the pull-up bar to begin my routine, about ten of them swiftly congregated around me, eager to go up on the crossbar as well. One by one they directed me to assist their short bodies in reaching the bar: “erfa’ane,” (“lift me” in Arabic) they exclaimed. Captivated by these charming kids, I naturally complied to their demands.

During the limited breaks from this exhausting service (that, with time, I began to regret agreeing to), I made an effort to converse with these children. But it soon became apparent that they didn’t speak nor understand Hebrew, so I was forced to utilize my beginners level Arabic. In spite of this considerable linguistic barrier, I learned a bit about them. One of the boys explained that they were 8-year-olds from East Jerusalem, who were taking part in a co-ed summer camp day trip to Jaffa.

Curious to learn more about this group, I approached one of the counselors, who appeared to be of high-school age. Like her campers, the teenage girl wasn’t fluent in Hebrew, so instead spoke with me in English. Accustomed to interacting with Hebrew-speaking Arabs in Jaffa as well as on my university campus, I was bewildered by this group’s lack of proficiency in Hebrew. Thus, I asked the counselor how it is possible that she and her campers – both residents of Jerusalem (Israel’s self-proclaimed undivided capital city) – don’t know even basic Hebrew? She explained that most of them didn’t learn the language as they “don’t have the opportunity” to do so; many of them learn in private schools that focus on teaching western languages, such as English and French.

This brief exchange with the teenage girl highlights the considerable gaps that are prevalent between many Arabs and Jews. While both peoples share the same land, they rarely make a serious attempt to understand each other. Such a deficiency is particularly evident in the domain of language. The trend in which some Arab youth are denied a Hebrew education lessens their ability to engage in meaningful interactions with Jews. Similarly, the inadequate instruction of Arabic to Jewish students diminishes the opportunities for fruitful dialogue; Arabic education is commonly undervalued, undemanding, and tailored to the lexicon of the security establishment. Had it not been for my broken Arabic and the camp counselor’s English fluency, we – neighbors separated by a mere one-hour long drive – would have no way to communicate. Such a disparity constitutes an obvious barrier to peace.

As Jews, both in Israel and abroad, we should question how we may be contributing to this divide. While these campers and their counselor don’t know Hebrew since they are educated in private schools, their Arab counterparts in state-run schools do learn the official language of the Jewish state. Considering the Israeli Ministry of Education’s and the Jerusalem municipality’s underfunding and neglect of East Jerusalem public schools, however, it comes as no surprise that able residents opt for the private option. If we recognize the importance of a Hebrew-speaking Arab populace, state and local officials must work to improve the quality of public education for this sector. Furthermore, the recently passed nation-state bill marginalizes the standing of Arabic. The controversial legislation demotes Arabic from an official state language to one of “special status.” Although accompanied by an emphasis that such a move “does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect,” this unnecessary and provocative measure does exactly that. The nation-state law delegitimizes the mother tongue of approximately 21% of the Israeli population. Consequently, instead of bridging gaps, this bill irresponsibly widens the rift between Arabic and Hebrew speakers in the Jewish state.

After thanking the counselor for her explanation, I attempted to proceed with my workout — albeit unsuccessfully. The campers instantly demanded that I return to the job that they had allotted for me. Soon after, and to my relief, the counselor blew her whistle loudly several times, indicating to her campers that it was time to assemble before their departure from the park. Clearly not wanting the fun to draw to an end, a camper insisted in Arabic that I help him reach the pull-up bar one last time. To the dissatisfaction of the boy’s counselor, I lifted him up. After helping him back down, the youngster glanced at me with a big smile, before running off to join the rest of his group. As he stood beside his friends, the boy called back at me, “shalom” (“goodbye” in Hebrew), and waved farewell. Taken aback by his seemingly conscious and cordial decision to part ways in Hebrew, I responded in kind: “ma’salame” (“goodbye” in Arabic). Having exchanged goodbyes, we both went home. I concluded my interrupted workout before setting off for my nearby apartment. They — my newly acquainted, yet once foreign young neighbors — boarded their Birthright logoed buses back to Jerusalem.

About the Author
Ben Rathauser is the Founder of The Overcomers Project, which is devoted to helping teenagers and young adults overcome their personal hardships this summer in Israel. To learn more about this unique program, reach out via email to, or call 561-710-9950.
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