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What is an Ulpan? What is ‘Not an Ulpan’?

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

If you’re reading this blogpost, it may not come as a shock to you that in 1948, Israel needed a solution to a mass influx of Jewish immigrants from all over the world as well as find a mechanism to legitimize the new nation state- quickly. Israel’s answer, which was really Eliezer Ben Yehudah’s answer (the father of modern Hebrew), was to use the Hebrew language and Hebrew education, to create a hegemonic-Hebrew speaking- Israel.

The solution to the immigration influx and legitimacy problem was the development of the Ulpan, which is directly translated into a language studio. It is important to note that Ulpans are and were funded by the Immigration Absorption Ministry and the Ministry of Aliyah, meaning the Ulpan served a very specific goal of transmitting cultural norms, attitudes, beliefs and politics to new immigrants through Hebrew education. The inherent goal was to educate newcomers into the status quo(s) and absolutely not to question / resist them.

Oh and Israel’s founding fathers were majorly from Europe so the designed ‘hegemonic Israeli’ was initially made in the image of a white European.

Perhaps you can venture a guess on the cultural signals and attitudes overtly and covertly transmitted in Ulpan(im) to new immigrants regarding Palestinians, immigrants from the global south, LGBTQ+, women’s roles and the Israeli Defense Forces.

As the Socialist Organization of Israel wrote in their magazine, Matzpen, the Ulpan is “an institute for good Hebrew and bad ideology”. Matzpen went so far as to create an ad for a theoretical Anti-Ulpan.

In addition to bad ideology, Ulpans may not actually be all that great at teaching Hebrew. Ulpans have traditionally aimed to teach high-Hebrew from the foundations of modern Hebrew, with a strict adherence to grammar and conjunctive words. This practice has continued into the 21st century, with mixed to negative results for participants. A 2007 study conducted by the Israeli government found that after five months of intensive Ulpan study, 60% of new immigrants over the age of 30 could not read, write, or speak Hebrew at a minimum level.

As a response to ideology infused and ineffective Hebrew courses, This is Not an Ulpan (TINAU) was born in 2012; a product of the 2012 Social Justice Protests and a bunch of seriously fed up Ulpan teachers and students. The goal was simple- to create a language school which would turn the traditional Ulpan on its head and teach Hebrew and Arabic in a new and critical way. The means to achieving the objective was the creation of a cooperative of language learners, educators, and activists who would build a non-hierarchical language school together.

Rather than enforce the various status quos that exist, TINAU uses our language studio to ask students to question EVERYTHING in Israel-Palestine, while learning the Hebrew and Arabic needed for interacting and changing society. Additionally, we seek to break the traditional power structures between teacher and student, because the classroom has the potential to be one of the most radical spaces for challenging societal norms and power structures. Our students are encouraged to question our content, bring their interests to the classroom, and are invited to help us create the syllabus.

All content and education is constructed through the lens of critical pedagogy, many instructors have attended Middlebury’s language MA program, and events include a mix of activism, arts, language, and touring. Course subjects include feminism, LGBTQ, human rights, Palestinian forms of resistance, life in Palestine, Israelization of Al Quds, the occupation, queer Hebrew, creative writing, Mizrahi struggles, and Tour de Tel Aviv/ underground JLM.

We offer courses in Tel Aviv- Yaffa, Jerusalem- AlKuds, and online. Online courses are suitable for folks living abroad and last between 2-4 months, depending on the level. Physical courses take place 1x or 2x per week in our studios and last 2.5 months or more. Additionally, we offer intensive courses which take place four days a week, four hours per lesson, for the duration of four weeks.

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