This is Not an Ulpan: How a project for democratic and critical language pedagogy is challenging the politics of Hebrew and Arabic instruction in Israel

One Wednesday afternoon in late September a dozen students have gathered in front of a makeshift whiteboard in the artists’ collective HaMiffal in West Jerusalem. On the right side of the board, Muntasser, a Palestinian insurance salesman from East Jerusalem, is practising Hebrew verb conjugations. To his left, Robert, an Israeli of Latvian origin, is testing his newly acquired Arabic writing skills under the strict eyes of the teacher. Both are participants in a language exchange organized by This is Not an Ulpan/ Hon Mish Fusha (TINAU), a project for democratic and critical language pedagogy first set up in 2013 by North American immigrants disillusioned with the language instruction at Israeli Ulpans, as schools for Modern Hebrew are commonly known.

photo credit: Flash90

Studying Arabic and Hebrew together at TINAU Jerusalem, September 2016 (Photo by Maja Sojref)

TINAU aims to create a space for all those frustrated with conventional language pedagogy and with the teaching of Hebrew and Arabic in Israel in particular. When asked to share their best and worst experiences in studying languages, many of the participants in the Jerusalem language exchange shared anecdotes about disenchanted teachers and students. Robert for instance, vividly remembered sitting in a classroom with thirty other Latvian high school students, being taught to recite German phrases that had little to no practical relevance to his life. At TINAU Jerusalem he has signed up for German and Arabic classes because he is keen to revive his German skills and to learn some Palestinian dialect to better communicate with co-workers and acquaintances in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Taking ownership of their learning

Teachers at TINAU apply a non-hierarchical and participatory approach to language pedagogy, which encourages students to take ownership of their learning. “Every student is a teacher and every teacher is a student”, the website emphasises. “We are building a community made up of language learners at many different levels and with different strengths, so that we can learn from and teach each other.” What is more, classes at TINAU do not just teach syntax and semantics but bring students together to critically discuss topics that matter to them and that shape society around them, including gender and feminism, racism and violence, migration, political poetry and Israeli cinema. As the project´s title indicates, TINAU thus challenges the very foundations of language politics of Hebrew and Arabic instruction in Israel.

Most Ulpans are licensed and operated by the Jewish Agency, a non-profit organization that promotes Jewish immigration to the state of Israel and oversees the integration of Jewish immigrants in Israeli society. Offering Hebrew lessons to Jewish immigrants, Ulpans play a crucial role in the construction and cementation of Israeli national identity. According to an official guide to Ulpan study issued by the Jewish Agency, “[t]he importance of Hebrew as part of the absorption process cannot be overemphasised. (…)During ulpan you will learn about and experience Israeli society, politics, and culture, while getting to know those institutions, authorities, and agencies that you will be dealing with in the future.” The picture conventional Ulpan textbooks paint of Israeli society, is, however, one-dimensional. In particular, these textbooks gloss over the realities of occupation and militarization and often altogether exclude Palestinians from the country´s history and society. The widely used “Hebrew from Scratch” (Ivrit Min HaHatchalah) for instance, presents students with a map of Israel without delineating Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza in any way. In view of the continued construction of Israeli settlements in the Occupied West Bank and continued efforts of the Israeli government to deny and erase Palestinian heritage, such a depiction does not merely represent a stylistic choice but a conscious act of whitewashing. Similarly, in an intermediate textbook called “Hebrew – What a Language” (Agadah Shel Safah) students read Yoni Netanyahu´s letters (the Prime Minister's brother who was killed during the 1976 Entebbe Operation) describing his pride and sense of duty while serving in the Israeli army alongside an essay by philosopher Gershon Sholem entitled “The Self-deceipt of Assimilated Jews.” The latter textbook thus presents the state of Israel in its current form as the logical culmination of Jewish history. It provides students neither with the vocabulary nor the context necessary to understand the complexities of the conflict and of present day realities in Israel/Palestine more generally.

photo credit: Flash90

Biddi atlob... Students at the TINAU Beginner's Arabic class are learning to navigate and order food in East Jerusalem (Photo by TINAU)

Study of Arabic in Israel as preparation for work in military intelligence

Similarly, the Arabic curriculum in Israeli public schools has been determined by political and military imperatives rather than the aspiration to introduce students to the richness and beauty of the Arabic language. As Ha’aretz reports, Arabic lessons in Israeli junior high schools aim to prepare students for work in the military intelligence by teaching the language through the simulation of counter-terrorism missions rather than through poetry, prose and everyday conversation. According to a 2014 study by Dr. Yonathan Mendel, the close cooperation between education policy makers and the Israeli military establishment has thus led to the creation of what Mendel terms “Israeli Arabic.” A language without native speakers, “Israeli Arabic” is not a language of daily communication but has been created and sustained in Israeli schools and intelligence bodies solely to serve security interests.

In its form and content TINAU challenges both, the whitewashed perspectives on Israeli history and culture commonly narrated in Hebrew textbooks, and the militarized instruction of Palestinian Arabic in Israeli schools. Julia, a recent immigrant from Brazil, joined TINAU because she found Hebrew instruction at her Ulpan to be too narrow-minded. In addition to the regular Ulpan classes, she is now learning intermediate Hebrew through the methodology of Theatre of the Oppressed, a theatrical form which relies on improvisation and audience participation in order to provide critical perspectives on the political and social status quo. Incidentally, the word Ulpan is derived from the root אלף, the first letter in the Hebrew language, which also means to tame or train someone. During the Hebrew classes at HaMiffal organized by TINAU, Julia feels she can finally move and express herself freely in the new language.