Sam Shepherd

Speaking the same language

Students paint the word "Love" in Arabic, Hebrew, and English on banners at the Mishkan Museum of Art as part of a shared learning project organized by The Abraham Initiatives. Photo by the author.
Students paint the word "Love" in Arabic, Hebrew, and English on banners at the Mishkan Museum of Art as part of a shared learning project organized by The Abraham Initiatives. Photo by the author.

Nelson Mandela once (reportedly) wrote, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

The late South African leader only visited Israel once in his lifetime. I can therefore only imagine what Mandela would say about my trip to Ein Harod on March 14th, in which I saw teachers using language as a tool to reach the minds and hearts of Jewish and Arab teens.

On a rainy Tuesday morning, I travelled to the Mishkan Museum of Art in Israel’s north to witness a shared learning class as part of my year-long internship with The Abraham Initiatives. At the museum, I behaved like a still life painting on the wall peering over a class, observing an educational field trip with Jewish and Arab teens from the Gilboa region.

For an hour, I watched two teachers from an Arabic and Hebrew high school work together to deliver a lesson for a room full of boisterous ninth graders. In an exhibition room dedicated to the works of esteemed Palestinian-Israeli painter Walid Abu Shakra, the two teachers asked a circle of students to share their opinions on art and creativity. The teachers asked questions like, “Do you like art?” and “What do you do to stay creative?”  Despite their primary languages being either Hebrew or Arabic, the teachers and students all communicated in English.

This lesson was part of a broader, long-standing project with The Abraham Initiatives titled “Education For a Shared Society.” The session I dropped in on was the final of eight sessions throughout the semester in a pilot project engaging teens from local Arab and Jewish public schools in Israel’s geographic periphery.

Despite growing up and living in towns and Kibbutzes near each other, before the classes, the Jewish and Arab teens reported little to no interaction with one another’s societies. They attended separate school systems in separate languages of instructions, which made it easy to perceive their neighboring community as a villainous “other.”

As I followed the group through the hallway of the gallery, some doubts about the initiative filled my mind. With controversial judicial reforms on the horizon and an increasingly tense political atmosphere in Israel, a field trip to a museum on a weekday seemed to me like a frivolous distraction from much larger issues at hand. Was I really qualified for any of this?

Likewise, many of these teens likely had much more urgent issues on their minds than forming intercultural friendships. These kids had exams, family troubles, and the ordinary pains of adolescence to worry about. I mean, could anyone seriously expect a room of young people living in an unresolved conflict zone to hold hands and learn together? It is hard to enough to be fourteen years old already!

Still, as I moved into the side room of the museum to observe a painting lesson, I was humbled by small moments of cooperation and solidarity among the students and staff. A group of teenagers worked together on painting a banner in which the word “Love” was painted in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The teachers, who were trained beforehand to co-teach, worked to reconcile different pedagogical styles to form a cohesive lesson in a foreign language.

I even broke my neutral observer status when a young Jewish girl invited me over to paint a peace sign. I then spoke again when I weighed in on a contentious political debate between a group of Jewish and Arab boys: not “Israel or Palestine,” but “Messi or Ronaldo.”

According to Mandela’s saying, the best way to reach people is through speaking to them in their native tongue. While I understand Mandela’s rationale, when it comes to shared society initiatives in Israel, this strategy poses a unique strategic problem. Jewish and Arab Israelis attend entirely different public school systems run in Hebrew and Arabic respectively. Conducting a shared lesson in either language would put one set of teens at a disadvantage.

English, on the other hand, provided an ingenious third option. Both Jewish and Arabic schools in Israel are mandated to teach English, and both curriculums start at around the same time. Rather than imposing the dominant language of Hebrew upon Arab citizens of Israel, conducting the class in English allowed for both Jewish and Arab participants to step outside their comfort zones and met each other in the middle.

The shared learning initiative in the Gilboa region offered a rare opportunity for spoken English practice among middle-school aged children, all while forging new bonds of camaraderie and inter-community connection between a younger, more impressionable generations of Israeli citizens. I am grateful for The Abraham Initiatives in giving me the opportunity to commute north for the day and observe these teens on their field trip. As imperfect and complicated as this work can sometimes feel, ultimately, this is what shared society looks like in practice.

My visit to the shared learning session left me with an overall feeling of hope about the future of shared society in Israel, as well a sobering sense of the urgency and necessity of this work. As I exited the gallery, my mind flashed back to a series of drawings of trees in the first room by the artist Walid Abu Shakra. No matter how much the wind blew against their trunks, the trees would not be uprooted from the soil.

No matter what the future holds, Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel are not going anywhere. The only feasible future in Israel is a shared one that treats every person in its borders with dignity. While people living in Israel today may not agree on every issue, it is high time to start speaking the same language.

About the Author
Sam Shepherd (he/him) is a recent graduate of McGill University, where he studied history, literature, and Jewish Studies. He is currently volunteering in Lod as part of the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, in which he works as an English-language teacher and community volunteer. Sam is also an intern at the Abraham Initiatives for 2022-2023.
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