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Abridging A War of Words: Gazans Learn Hebrew

• January 09, 2013 • 5:16 PM

The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright; but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness.

–Proverbs 15:2

The Associated Press’s Diaa Hadid reports that a leading university in Gaza (Wikipedia informs me it has nine universities), the Hamas-linked Islamic University of Gaza, is now offering a degree in Hebrew. The man-bites-dog aspect of this is that Hamas has called for the extirpation of its Hebrew-speaking neighbor Israel, while Israel has pretty much sealed off its 31-mile border with the 139-square-mile Gaza Strip.

But calls for destruction aside, neither entity is going anywhere, and having some facility with Hebrew would, if nothing else, seem a savvy move for a small entity hoping to ju-jitsu its more powerful foe. And that’s the motivation cited by Gaza’s education minister, Somayia Nakhala: “As Jews are occupying our lands, we have to understand their language.”

In Israel, meanwhile, as Yardena Schwartz explained in our pages in 2011, Arabic instruction is mandatory – kinda—in Israeli public schools. As she wrote then:

The Ministry of Education mandates the teaching of Modern Standard Arabic — the form used in writing and the electronic media. But MSA is not spoken by people on the street, and the requirement only applies to seventh through 10th grades. Many schools ignore that rule.

“In Israel, compulsory is a recommendation,” notes Shlomo Alon, who heads the ministry’s Arabic education division. Alon estimates that only half of Jewish schools actually enforce the requirement, and even in those that do, the students are unable to speak the language, since what they learn is geared toward reading and writing.

Schwartz’s article detailed the work of The Abraham Fund, an American-Israeli nonprofit that promotes peaceful co-existence between Arabs and Jews. Teaching Israeli schoolkids Arabic, sometimes from real, live Arabs, is one of the fund’s initiatives, a single candle in the cursed darkness.

But the language of my enemy does not necessarily deliver words of love. Gil Lainer, the consul for public diplomacy at the Israeli Consulate in New York, told Schwartz, “There is an understandable animosity towards the language of the countries which declare they would like to eradicate Israel rather than coexist,” while Hadid notes that Hebrew-language teachers tread gingerly in Gaza, even though many older Gazans still speak some Hebrew from both Israeli occupations and more amicable times.

“It is the language of our enemies,” Hadid quotes a 60-year-old language teacher Jamal al-Hadad. “But it is also the language of our neighbors.”

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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