Thirty years ago, while we were spending a year living and working in Be'er Sheva (I took a year off from HUC-JIR), I signed up for a weekly evening Arabic class at a local community center. It was fascinating for me, as the teacher was the first Israeli Arab I had met, and Im sure I learned more culture than language. In any case, having missed several classes around mid-year, my frustration level upon my return made continuing not productive, and I dropped out. Then, after our aliyah, in the mid 90s, both Tami and I tried again, signing up for a weekly conversational Arabic course; again, the mid-year frustration set in and we both dropped out, only to try again and drop out again a year or two later.
As the years have gone by, my inability to communicate in Arabic has weighed on me increasingly. Im not entirely sure why that is. After all, this is the Jewish state, and one of the most impressive achievements of Zionism is the renewal of the Hebrew language and the creation of a whole modern culture in Hebrew. For me, one of the most attractive aspects of living here is living in Hebrew, and feeling a kind of completeness, a connectedness with Jews and the Jewish experience across all the centuries and all the lands in which we have lived. I love Hebrew grammar and the experience of discovering the connections between words through their roots; I love to listen to Hebrew well-spoken; I love the feeling of satisfaction that comes from finding mistakes in the Hebrew of my native Israeli friends and colleagues. For me personally, Hebrew is an important link between Jewish and Israeli identities.
And yet, the more I live here and explore and experience Israeli history and culture, the more I realize that the picture is more complicated. The old zionist slogan, a people without a land has returned to a land without a people, is problematic, for the land was not and is not empty of others. Israel, sooner or later, must be seen as a part of the Middle East; it will never be more than a tiny island in an Arabic-speaking sea. I am not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg, but it seems to me that peace and Israels accepting of itself as part of the Middle East and not a European outpost are somehow interconnected.
The love-hate relationship between Israeli and Arabic culture is fascinating; for a century we have been imitating and envying, learning from and teaching, embracing and killing and being killed by our Arab neighbors. Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau: a brother thing, perhaps. So its no wonder that we are ambivalent about Arabic language; also, consider that over half of Israels Jewish population are immigrants or the children of immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries.
The Jewish schools teach Arabic as a third language (after English); most kids get only a few years in junior high. The Arabic that is taught is literary, not conversational - and there is a big difference. I have never succeeded in getting an explanation for that decision; usually people just shrug when I ask. Many of the small minority who choose Middle Eastern Studies as a high school major (where available) do so out of a desire to serve in the intelligence corps - know the enemy.
I know this is romantic and unrealistic, but I believe that every Israeli Jew ought to be able to speak Arabic. I believe that the change in mentality implied by such a policy would have far-reaching effects on our self-definition and on our relationship with our neighbors both inside Israel and all around it.
Tami and I finally decided to take some action, and hired E., a teacher from Sachnin, to meet with us privately once a week. Our progress is obvious to us, and it feels great; we find that we are able to put together sentences and make sense out of snatches of conversation around us; in learning a language, one reaches a certain point where it clicks, a critical mass, an opening of the ear - and we seem to be almost there.
Maybe if we could all open our ears, we could also open our heads.