Ulpan in Gaza

Should we be welcoming reports that Hamas is teaching 'the language of the enemy?'

Media reports last week tell of Hamas’s leadership in Gaza opening up Hebrew lessons for high school students. No doubt, some will look at the reports with deep suspicion. The New York Times Jodi Rudoren quoted a Hamas official as saying, “We look at Israel as an enemy. We teach our students the language of the enemy.” The Times story is accompanied by a photo of a Gaza woman writing on a blackboard in Hebrew, “Hebrew is a beautiful language.” A propaganda picture, some will say.

Frankly, I welcome the development, and urge governments giving aid to the Palestinian Authority to encourage them to follow suit in the West Bank.

An “ulpan” is an Israeli language school where new immigrants learn Hebrew. I recall that the beginners’ ulpan class in Netanya looked like others I had visited: Adult students copying exercises from the blackboard and answering their teachers in rudimentary, heavily accented Hebrew. But there was a stark difference: On one side of the room was the plucky former prisoner of Zion, Ida Nudel, with her faithful collie at her feet. In the middle were some American Jewish olim and some Christian tourists. As far away as possible, on the other side of the room, were several Muslim men who were uncomfortable with the presence of the dog.

The class was in Ulpan Akiva, the time was in the late 1980s, and my guide was the legendary head of the ulpan, Shulamit Katznelson, a winner of the Israel Prize. Shulamit was teaching not just a language, but coexistence. Not the saccharine, kumbaya, Israel-is-guilty type of coexistence, but a proud, Zionist program that made no apologies for Israel’s existence, and demanded that all students respect the “other.”

Members of Knesset attended the ulpan’s Arabic program, and no Jew could get out of the requirement of rooming in the dorm with an Arab studying Hebrew.

Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza were studying Hebrew alongside Israelis studying Arabic. And not just MKs. I observed a class of Arab midwives and Israeli women soldiers working together to match idioms in both languages such as “buying a hatul basak (the Hebrew equivalent of a pig in a poke).” (More recently, I walked through the quad of a busy Jordanian campus where I was startled to hear one young woman — probably an Israeli Arab — say to her friend in Hebrew, “chaval al ha-zman,” best translated as “awesome!”)

The Arab midwives were from the Hebron area, and they were about to spend a month in Hadassah Hospital’s obstetric ward. They needed Hebrew to learn and to communicate. Over the next few years, I would meet Arab doctors, bank clerks and teachers, as the ulpan invited me and my family to spend Shabbatot and lecture to the students. All the Palestinian Arab students had contacts with Israeli institutions or companies. Some were setting up branches in Gaza.

I’m sure that the dog-in-the-classroom problem was worked out by Shulamit. Later, I met those religious Muslims from Gaza who complained to me about Israel Television’s Arabic broadcasts. There was no cable TV in Israel and very few stations. Israel TV would offer an hour or so of Arabic broadcasts every day. The men’s complaint was serious: To attract Arab viewers, the Israeli broadcasts included clips of naked women, such as lascivious dancers from the Rio Carnival. The channel would never permit such programming during the Hebrew broadcasts. The solution was a little “out-of-the-box:” Putting the Gazans in touch with an Israeli feminist organization.

Ulpan Akiva founder Shulamit Katznelson (center) with the author's wife and two Gaza professionals whose faces have been blurred to protect their identity (photo courtesy)
Ulpan Akiva founder Shulamit Katznelson (center) with the author's wife and two Gaza professionals whose faces have been blurred to protect their identity (photo courtesy)

Shulamit brought two of her Gaza students to my son’s bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. One, a doctor whose family later suffered tragically in the Gaza war, argues today for coexistence, not vengeance. A few years ago, I noticed Israeli security personnel giving him a hard time at JFK airport, and I quickly vouched for him. The other guest was a building engineer. A couple years after the bar mitzvah, I was invited to inspect several US Agency for International Development projects in Gaza. Congress was suspicious of the Agency’s management. The AID projects I toured were well-advanced beyond the parallel European projects, suggesting vigilant and effective management. Suddenly I received a tap on the shoulder – it was the engineer from Ulpan Akiva – and he proudly showed me the fruits of his labor.

Another of the Gazans I met in Netanya 20 years ago was a Hebrew teacher and disciple of Shulamit Katznelson. She was preparing to open an ulpan in Gaza.

The experience provided important lessons for my children. Years later one son was serving as a soldier at a checkpoint. He broke the tension with one Arab who approached riding on a donkey. “Saker el motur – (turn off the motor),” he said in Arabic, and the man smiled and “turned the key” on his donkey’s back. Another son’s Arabic came in handy when he was on patrol in a West Bank town and stopped a man from pummeling and kicking his wife. The communication and warning probably kept her safe, at least for a while. And another son, an officer in the IDF reserves, treats Arab patients from the territories daily in one of Israel’s leading hospitals.

On the other side, I recently met a young Bethlehem tour guide who brought a group of European Christians to the town of Efrat in Judea. I asked him where his Hebrew was from and he answered that he learned it as a boy when he would accompany his merchant father to the Haifa port to pick up appliances.

I shop with Jewish and Palestinian Arab families in the Rami Levi supermarket at the Gush Etzion junction and exchange pleasantries with the Muslim and Christian checkout women from Bethlehem, Hebron and Halhoul.

In truth, I cannot describe these encounters or the Ulpan Akiva experiences as creating “friendship,” but I can describe them as establishing “mutual respect.” An exchange of “Ramadan karim” and “Shabbat shalom” is a start.

The Ulpan Akiva experiments in coexistence ended when Arafat and his thugs landed and took over Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority put an end to such cooperation, and launched a media and educational brain-washing campaign comparable to the anti-Semitic, genocidal Hitlerjugend programming in Nazi Germany. It still continues.

That’s why the teaching of Hebrew (and Arabic in Jewish schools) is so important. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have still not accepted the existence of a Jewish State, but if the peoples can at least communicate, perhaps they’ll see past the official PA/Hamas line.  Maybe there’s still a chance for co-existence.

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is a public affairs consultant, writer, researcher, editor, and historian of early photographs. Ben-David is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs." He worked for AIPAC for 25 years in Washington and Jerusalem.