top of page

Why do Palestinians learn Hebrew?

During the background interviews I did for the "Hebrew Al-Quds" article of "Jerusalem State" in the fall of 2019, I spoke with a public figure in Jerusalem's Palestinian society, a man who previously worked at an employment center on Hillel Street in the city center. He told me that about nine years ago, a number of women from East Jerusalem approached the employment center asking for work. Someone in the office promised them a job in cleaning, but on the first day of work they found themselves in a private apartment in Tel Aviv where they were expected to work in the oldest profession in the world.

Although this is a very extreme case, not knowing the language is a weakness that leads many of us to places we would not want to go, and limits our freedom of movement and independence.

As a Palestinian woman from Jerusalem, we feel the language gap when we come to look for work. According to a survey by the Jerusalem Municipality from 2016, about 80% of the Arabs in East Jerusalem who speak Hebrew at a good level are employed. On the other hand, 93% of those who do not speak good Hebrew, are not in the workforce. In other words: those who speak Hebrew work, those who don't - much less.

In recent years, dozens of language schools for learning Hebrew have been established, and the number of Hebrew learners has grown significantly. This is a relatively new thing. The turning point was with the construction of the separation fence, which began in June 2002. Many Jerusalemites turned to West Jerusalem, instead of the West Bank, in search of work because access to the West Bank became more difficult and also because the earning potential is higher in Jerusalem. For the same reasons, many of us also choose to study in Israeli educational institutions.

The story surrounding the mastery of the Hebrew language is complex. On the one hand, there is the practical question of how to teach Hebrew. It is worth noting that Hebrew studies in East Jerusalem are not at a level that allows East Jerusalemites to work in the West of the city. Many people do not know how to hold a basic conversation, which is manifested in the fact that many people I know, with academic degrees, work as waitresses because they do not know Hebrew.

After years of neglect and lack of investment, there is an attempt to face this challenge. In May 2018, government decision number 3790 was passed, the purpose of which was to reduce social-economic disparities and lead to economic development in East Jerusalem. A significant part of the decision's budget went and goes to Hebrew studies. There is still no critical report from the authorities on the effectiveness of the study programs, but according to field officials and dozens of people I spoke with, it is still impossible to see the program as a success. Additionally, there is still no infrastructure to learn Hebrew beyond the school system.

On the other hand, the question arises regarding the meaning of the depth of learning Hebrew. Language is a central part of power relations. Language control changes the power relations. but how?

We study in Israeli institutions and work in the west of the city in increasing numbers - something that contradicts the principles of the Palestinian resistance, which advocates non-recognition of the State of Israel and the abolishment of any connection with it. Ben Avrahami, who was an adviser on Arab affairs to the former mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, was interviewed for the article. According to him, we are seeing a process in which the "Arabs of '67" of East Jerusalem become the "Arabs of '48".

That is, we are going through Israelization. This is a concept that indicates a very large process, which in my opinion may eventually lead to greater well-being for the Arabs of Jerusalem but also - and no less important - to the widening of the gap between us– the Palestinians of Jerusalem, and our siblings in the West Bank as well and the continuation of dissolving the fabric of local Arab life. It will also increase the Israeli “divide and conquer system”, in the way of rooting the policy of identity construction at the base of which Israel tries to create an artificial difference within Palestinian society in order to control it.

The separation fence does not separate Arabs from Jews, but between Arabs and Arabs. It created a physical border between the Jerusalemites inside the fence and those outside it, but above all - it created a mental border that will lead to a different Jerusalem consciousness. Different from that of the "Arabs of '67" and the residents of the West Bank but also different from that of the "Arabs of '48".

We never forget the politics and history but sometimes we have to look at the bigger picture. In March 2010, I visited my sister, then four years old, at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. On the parents' faces I saw concern and sadness that I did not understand. I found an excuse to walk around the ward alone hoping to find some kind of sign or someone to tell me which ward we were in and what the children staying there had but everything was in Hebrew so I didn't understand that my sister was suffering from leukemia. During her treatment, which lasted about two years, my parents tried several times to hide from me information that they also barely understood, which they heard from the Israeli doctors. The only solution I had was to learn Hebrew.

With all the pain and complexity, we do turn to Hebrew studies. Israel thinks that this will make us lose our identity, but it gives us the power to unite even more.

414 views0 comments


bottom of page