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Mideast linguistic divide grows

As their physical separation grows, a shrinking number of Israelis and Palestinians are studying each other's language, a casualty of the enduring hostility between two peoples still sharing one land.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Recruiters from Israel's military intelligence first identified Ran Vittelson, a stellar Arabic student, as a blue-chip prospect when he was a sophomore at the large public high school here.

Quiet and studious, Vittelson has a rare talent for Arabic, a language of dwindling interest to Israeli Jews, many of whom identify it with their enemy.

"I'll be translating Arabic texts and listening also to avoid terror attacks," said Vittelson, 18, who will begin his compulsory army service after graduation in a few months.

Malek Iram, a Palestinian merchant, is also a talented language student. The aluminum siding salesman is studying Hebrew, a language of declining interest to Palestinians who identify it with their enemy, at a small institute in the West Bank city of Hebron.

"I have to understand what the Israeli businessmen are saying," Iram, 26, said after class on a recent afternoon. "Otherwise, I'll be at a disadvantage."

As their physical separation grows, a shrinking number of Israelis and Palestinians are studying each other's language, a casualty of the enduring hostility between two peoples still sharing one land. Those Israelis and Palestinians studying Arabic and Hebrew, both official languages of the Jewish state, are doing so for reasons that reveal vastly different outlooks on the future.

"The attitude on both sides toward the other language, and by extension those who speak it, is very disappointing," said Sasson Somekh, who helped found the Arabic department at Tel Aviv University nearly 40 years ago. Now retired, he is lobbying against its closure. "Both sides are just very afraid of the other," he said.

Judging by enrollment in universities and private institutes, the number of Israeli Jews and Palestinians choosing to study the languages has fallen by a third in some places and nearly disappeared in others since 1993, when the Oslo peace accords established the semiautonomous Palestinian Authority and began separating the two peoples.

Many Israelis look to Europe as their prime economic and cultural reference point. In business, the language they need is more likely to be English or French than Arabic. Today, among those Israeli Jews studying Arabic, many more than a decade ago are doing so for one reason: preparing for service in the Israeli security agencies.

By contrast, many Palestinians view Israel's thriving economy as the nearest path to prosperity, even though fewer and fewer of them have permission to work in Israel. For ambitious Palestinians, Hebrew remains the lingua franca of business and a useful tool for navigating the Israeli military checkpoints.

‘An economic connection’
"At the end of this there will be two states," said Mazen Abu Shamsiya, who runs the Hebrew language institute in Hebron that Iram attends. "But I am convinced Israel will never live without the Arabs, so long as there is an economic connection."

In Israel's Jewish public school system, Arabic is technically compulsory through the 10th grade, although about 35 percent of students choose instead to study French or Russian or to enroll in religious schools where Arabic is not required.

Israeli Arab students, who attend separate schools, are required to study Arabic and Hebrew. All Israeli students must pass an English exam to graduate. In the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the Palestinian Authority does not teach Hebrew in public schools.

In a survey commissioned last year by Israel's Education Ministry, Israeli high school teachers said the main challenge in teaching Arabic was the "low image" of the language among Jewish students, a majority of whom said it should no longer be compulsory.

"If you study French, you are part of a sophisticated literary culture," said Shlomo Alon, the ministry's head of Arabic instruction in the Jewish school system for nearly two decades. "That's the true explanation, but no one wants to say it."

On Alon's office door hangs a poster featuring the Arabic alphabet, the insignia of Israel's military intelligence appearing prominently in one corner. The branch gives teachers classroom materials and tests the brightest students in their sophomore year. Only 2.5 percent of Jewish 11th- and 12th-graders choose to study Arabic at the highest level, a number unchanged since the start of the most recent Palestinian uprising six years ago.

Military intelligence recruits serve in safer posts than their classmates in the infantry. The classical Arabic taught in high school does not help with conversation in a language complicated by various dialects. But it is the form used in TV and radio news broadcasts in the Arab world, which the recruits monitor.

"My friends think it's a bit odd that I study Arabic," Vittelson said amid the din of his high school's hallways clearing out for Passover break. "But they are wrong."

Rosh Haayin, a town of 30,000 on Israel's coastal plain, highlights the demographic challenge facing military recruiters as the flow of Jews from Arabic-speaking countries dries up and the first new immigrant generation dies off.

Jews from Yemen, raised speaking Arabic, once dominated Rosh Haayin. But they now account for roughly 10 percent of the population, composed mostly of middle-class Jews with European and Russian backgrounds who have little interest in Arabic. "There are very few native Arabic speakers left in the Jewish population," said Carmit Bar-On, who teaches the language at the high school here. "There is a problem teaching Arabic because there is a problem between Arabs and Jews."

After military service, fewer and fewer Israelis are studying the language in university, threatening the future of some Arabic departments.

At 73, Somekh, the retired professor, is the dean of Arabic studies in Israel. He arrived a native Arabic speaker from Baghdad in 1951 after graduating from high school there. His Arabic classes swelled following the 1973 Middle East war, then dipped when the first Palestinian uprising began in 1987, he said. Since the Oslo accords, enrollment has fallen more than 30 percent, even though, he said, "the threat to Israel is higher than ever."

Eyes on the West
Reflecting the mood in Israel, he lamented, "A friend of mine tells me we are now a high-tech economy that the Arabs have nothing to do with, so now we can turn our eyes to the West."

Three years ago, after Somekh had stopped teaching full time, the university president told him that he was considering closing the department. "I told him the whole world will say the largest university in Israel just closed its Arabic department," Somekh said. "That scared him. But there is still this feeling of needing to get away from them as far as possible. This is the attitude shown toward Arabs and toward Arabic."

Last month, Israel's parliament voted to establish the state's first Arabic academy to promote the language.

Ulpan Akiva, a language school that occupies a seaside compound in Netanya, is the first stop for many new Jewish immigrants seeking to learn Hebrew.

Before the uprising and Israel's construction of a separation barrier, scores of Palestinians also studied Hebrew there each year, including a Hamas spokesman who uses the language in Israeli television interviews. Today, two West Bank doctors are the only Palestinians in the course.

The school also offers Arabic, which once attracted Israelis from a variety of political and professional backgrounds, including Jewish settlers from the West Bank. Most Jewish adults now enrolled in its Arabic courses work for the government as teachers, police and military officers.

"It's the wall, it's anger, it's fear," said Esther Perron, the institute's ebullient director. "But whatever happens, they will be here and we will be here. So let's talk."

Yasser Khatib, director of the Palestinian Yasser Cultural Center in Hebron, learned Hebrew at Ulpan Akiva in better days. Now he runs his own language institute.

The school's Hebrew teacher learned the language in an Israeli prison, where many Palestinian political leaders jailed during the uprisings learned it from fellow inmates.

Before the most recent uprising, Khatib said, hundreds of Palestinians were enrolled in his three-month Hebrew courses. "Now," he said, "you can count them on one hand."

On the eve of that uprising, which began in September 2000, the Israeli government allowed 100,000 Palestinians from the West Bank to work and trade in Israel. Now that number is 50,000, among them a satellite dish salesman, two cut-stone merchants and a traveling toy vendor studying in Abu Shamsiya's second-floor classroom in Hebron.

A female medical student fields Abu Shamsiya's questions, hoping Hebrew will help her secure a gynecology residency at Jerusalem's prestigious Hadassah Hospital. Then there is Hanadi Tahaboub, a 32-year-old homemaker wearing a pink head scarf.

"When I am at checkpoints and I hear Israeli soldiers talking among themselves, I feel like an illiterate," Tahaboub said. "Now at least I will know what they are saying."

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.