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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

Digging Deep into the Power of Language

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | March 20th, 2007 | Comments No Comments

I used to think of language as a unifying force until I traveled to what was then Czechoslovakia with my friend Yara, who is from the Slovak city of Bratislava. While checking into our hotel in Prague (which now is in the Czech Republic), she got into a heated discussion with the desk clerk.

Although she wasn’t in her native region, Yara refused to speak Czech, and the desk clerk refused to honor her guest by speaking Slovak. Both women grew up learning both languages, but it seems the language one chooses – or refuses – to speak can reflect a power struggle.

I, or course, couldn’t tell the difference: It was all Greek to me. classroom.jpg

Language at Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam reflects similar power struggles. While everyone is encouraged to learn both Hebrew and Arabic – and the primary school classes are taught bilingually – Hebrew is often the default language, forcing endless community discussions to ensure cultural equality.

“We discuss language every meeting, thousands of times since the beginning,” says an exasperated Eyas Shbeta, the village’s director. “Most people [in Israel] speak Hebrew – even in Arab villages. Jews have a psychological block against [Arabic]: [speaking] it means we [Palestinians] can be equal. Even at [Neve Shalom’s] school, there are more Arabic students who speak Hebrew.” Next fall, the village’s primary school will experiment with language immersion to encourage an atmosphere where Arabic will be spoken by all students.

A British holdover, both Arabic and Hebrew are official languages of Israel. All children study both languages in 7th and 8th grades. Additionally, Israeli soldiers and police study Arabic as a way of gaining intelligence – “sort of a ‘know your enemy’ philosophy,” says Bob Mark, English and history teacher at Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam’s primary school.

To see firsthand how language plays out in the classroom, I joined a group of boisterous 6th graders on a field trip to some recently discovered archeological tombs. Their bicultural class is taught by two teachers, Fatin Zinati, a Palestinian woman sporting hip leggings and matching hijab, and Mark, an American-born Jew who moved here in his 20s and met his wife at the village. He leads today’s wild bunch through a faintly marked forest path, encouraging them to “discover” the 3 tombs of our search.
Gideon Sulimani, an archeologist who lives in the village, and Ragheda Kashkoosh, an archeology student from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, accompany us. Proving that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, 4 unruly boys descend on a broken bag strewn along the path. In a hilarious teaching opportunity, Sulimani picks through the garbage, showing the kids future artifacts and surmising what a soft drink can might tell future archeologists.

The children are spoken to alternatively in Arabic by these two women and Hebrew by these men, and respond in their language of choice.

Of course, I can’t tell the difference: It’s all Greek to me.

“Language is one of the symbols that makes things work. [Monolingualism] is a universal problem,” says Shbeta, a Palestinian. His Jewish wife, Evi Guggenheim, agrees, “Minorities speak the language of the majority everywhere to get along.” They speak Hebrew in their home.

“Those who have the dominant language speak it,” explain Daniela and Boaz Kitain. “[Jews] expect the Arabs to learn Hebrew [the way] you [Americans] expect us to learn English to talk with you.”

Greek is finally beginning to make sense to me.

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