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The Languages of Israel

This blog post is written by Mo Dagnicourt, a Yahel Social Change fellow living and working in Rishon LeZion.

Fellows stand together for a picture with Yahel's Hebrew teacher, Maayan.
Last Hebrew session with Mayaan

As part of the curriculum Yahel aims to adjust fellows in their cities, one of the most critical aspects within the fellowship program is language learning. From October until December, we were privileged to learn Hebrew with Mayaan, and in a few weeks' time, we will begin a month-long Arabic course. These experiences run perfectly in tandem with acculturation to Israel: being able to ask strangers for help, listening in on an impassioned conversation on the bus, and more importantly the ability to exchange insight and share moments.

But as I delve further into my volunteering—such as hosting small English groups at the local high school—I come across two things. The first thing I hear is "Why?" For Hebrew, most state that the language is exclusive to one country and ultimately would serve no purpose if I were to leave the country at the end of the fellowship. As for Arabic, the discussion revolves around the relevancy of learning a language that is not used...Albeit being in the Middle East and having a significant Arab-speaking population in the country. Another running theme that comes up when discussing language is the topic of immigrants retaining their native language as Olim (in this context Jews arriving in Israel as new immigrants). Several of the high school students I speak with have similar backgrounds in their families moving to Israel from either the former Soviet Union or Ethiopia and are in an introspective period in their lives in wondering what it means for them to be Israeli. Our conversation usually gravitates to languages spoken at home (Russian, Amharic, etc.) and I hear parallel experiences of students not being fluent in their parent's native language and the challenges therein of communication, as well as a difficult self-reflection as part of the new generation. I often hear students say that they feel embarrassed speaking the language in public space and/or regretful of not having had more emphasis from their household to speak it. Some say that their parents faced hardship from speaking a different language or having a foreign accent, and in turn not teaching their children the language to better assimilate into society.To others, their concern is to focus on English as an asset to their professional future, and learning other languages otherwise seems frivolous.

Establishing an explanation of this phenomenon—which is present in any country with significant immigrant populations—is obviously varied. It is not to be implied that this is the wrongdoing of a parent who doesn't teach their child a language, that not knowing the language associated with one's background should be a defining aspect of their being (or that learning a new language is), but it should be noted that language carries weight in society. Therefore, I can't help but correlate the contemporary preference to speak Hebrew (and to a lesser extent, English) as a historically established method to incorporate immigrants quickly.

At one of my placements at the senior center, I have the opportunity to talk with individuals who made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) before my high school students, and we typically discuss what it means to be "Israeli". Many, who mostly hailed from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) discuss a very similar struggle in adapting to a country that did not value diversity of background: one, assumedly because of the close cultural proximity many MENA Jews had with Christians and Muslims to the government's liking, and, two, the contradiction is would pose to a Zionist nation which idealized a uniform population in which multiculturalism was not at the forefront. Such is the cast of my grandmother's family that were placed in desert camps during the 1950s from Morocco and were "reeducated" into Israeli society at the time.

"But that's the way it was," is what I hear from the seniors when talking about this topic. The claim sometimes goes that it was ultimately used for the greater good of the country, even if it diminished or harmed the individual's perception of their culture. Many of them raised children only in Hebrew, cutting off the opportunity to connect to family members from elsewhere, learning more about their parent's origins, and ultimately falling into the same uncertainty as these teenagers feel. I try to press further to ask if this is a regretful decision to not teach their children, I don't get a clear response, but when I see how excited they get when us fellows come to the senior center speaking Farsi, French, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish...I know the answer.

The recent work of French-Israeli Avital Zer Aviv's play שדים (The Demons) alludes to similar themes in the challenges of a new family from France struggling to adapt to their new society, (with one of the components being to not speak French in the household). This, along with more harrowing elements in the story, suggests a negative effect that diminishing cultural indicators like language can result in.

The prospect of the high school students I work with potentially saying, "that's the way it was" is a frightening one. And I don't want the idea of losing a part of one's identity for a nation's sake to be one associated with Israel as well. I want my students, and ultimately Israeli society, to take a greater interest in what makes themselves and each other different. The recent work of French-Israeli Avital Zer Aviv's play שדים (The Demons) discusses these similar challenges of a new family from France struggling to adapt to their new society, (with one of the components not speaking French in the household)(1), showing the prevalence this subject has in Israeli society. Certain programs, such as at Atzmaut Plus in Ramat Eliyahu, have tackled this topic by teaching Amharic to heritage and other Hebrew speakers who carry an interest in learning a prevalent language used in the country and are exemplary in showing communal efforts to preserve and celebrate language as cultural heritage. Whether it be youth programs for Olim to discuss this new chapter in their life, language lessons for Israelis interested in knowing thy neighbor, and institutions promoting Israeli in all of its aspects, I hope that Israel effectively utilizes the monumental treasures of its multi-linguistic society for the continued nation-building of this incredible land.


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