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On language, laffa and coexistence

Learning Arabic is not just a tool for Israelis to maintain security, it is a way to reach out and make peace with The Other

The taxi driver swung his head back so sharply that the cab careened and almost rammed into the car in front of us. He was absolutely astounded to hear near-perfect and properly accented Palestinian Arabic coming out of the mouth of my daughter – a statuesque, Hebrew-speaking American-Jewish girl in shorts, tank top and colorful basketball sneakers. It was clear that he could not really figure out how to reconcile what he was seeing with what he was hearing. It was a classic moment of cognitive dissonance, and the taxi driver was not only perplexed – he was quite literally floored.

Daughter and Driver proceeded to have quite an extensive and happy conversation, out of which I understood precious little. When we arrived at our destination, the driver went on and on about Daughter’s Arabic skills, marveling at her proficiency. “How is it possible,” he shook his head in wonder, “that she knows not only Palestinian dialect, but Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian dialect, too?” (Hey, a blogger can kvell.)

We have been staying in a mixed area of Jaffa this summer, and as a result, I have watched this scene play out on a daily basis in countless businesses, from the greengrocer to the hummus joints to the spice shops that line Shderot Yerushalayim. The reaction on the part of Israeli Arabs is invariably shock, giving way to smiles, delight and deep appreciation. For language matters. Language connects.

I am a Hebrew translator and interpreter, and I make my living by facilitating business and creating linguistic bridges between Israel and other countries. As such, I am more aware than most people of the role of language in daily interactions.

Notwithstanding, it has been unexpectedly rewarding and magnificent to watch how the surprise at my daughter’s fluency in and love for the Arabic language creates, time after time, transcendental moments of connection between Arab and Jew out of what would otherwise be ordinary and mundane interactions.

Is Israel doing enough to encourage wide-spread proficiency in Arabic, or is the assumption that since most Israeli Arabs know Hebrew, that we do not need to make the effort to be able to learn and speak in their language? Why is Arabic not studied as extensively as English in Israeli schools? For the most part, with the exception of heritage speakers (Israelis who learned Arabic at home, from their families), truly proficient speakers of Arabic are few and far between.

As a translator, I am all too aware of the vital importance of language in terms of security and defense exigencies. But watching my daughter converse, I realize that fluency in Arabic is not only mandatory for intelligence gathering. It is also an unsurpassed tool in Israel’s quest for peace, or even a modicum of true coexistence.

Now, I am hardly naive enough to maintain that language is the answer to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in this intractable, likely unresolvable reality in which we live, those frail and oft-fleeting moments of human connection that are facilitated by knowledge of the language of The Other become profoundly meaningful.

In terms of education, both of the official languages of the State of Israel need to be a national priority. All Israelis learn English in order to be capable of interacting with other people throughout the world. We need to put a far greater emphasis on the universal study of Arabic in all Israeli schools, in order to be able to interact more effectively and respectfully at home, with one another.

About the Author
Rina Ne'eman is a translator and interpreter, and the managing director of She is a proud Israeli and an avid amateur photographer. Follow her on Twitter @rinaneeman or e-mail her at