The supervisor of Arabic Studies at Israel’s Ministry of Education fervently believes that learning the language of the other can help to build an ever-lasting peace.
“If you know the language of the other, you have the power to break barriers,” says Dr. Shlomo Alon, supervisor of Arabic studies at the Ministry of Education. The retired teacher and active academic was addressing about 60 people at the annual United Religions Initiative MENA (Middle East-North Africa) Region Conference in Jordan, where Hebrew speakers were a clear minority.
Alon delivered his message to the representatives of MENA NGOs – hailing from Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Israel – in fluent Arabic.
A religiously observant Jew, he wore a skullcap as he interpreted the meaning of ‘time’ in Ecclesiastes, mentioning that it is the same scripture on which the ’60s folk band, The Mamas and the Papas based their hit Turn, Turn, Turn. Alon was espousing Judaism’s values of non-violent education.
Alon thinks it’s absurd that so many Western peacemakers active in the Middle East don’t learn Arabic. He also encourages Israelis to learn Arabic, since Hebrew is spoken by so few people in the region.
While Arabic is Israel’s official second language, the use of English on signs for commercial establishments and in casual conversation is far more common.
A choice that touched him to the core
How did the child of Polish immigrants become such a major advocate of studying Arabic? Born in Tel Aviv in 1944, on Alon’s birth certificate his country of birth is listed as Palestine, which was the name of Israel before it received statehood in 1948. His parents came to Tel Aviv in 1938, the only members of his family to survive Nazi Germany. The rest, “were exterminated,” Alon says.
“We were poor. There were five people in one bunk, with toilets outside,” recounts Alon, who grew up in Tel Aviv’s Neve Zedek neighborhood, which has since become a very upscale and trendy area. Today, the building where he lived is a parking lot. His family eventually moved to a two-room house near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.
While he was at the top of the class in his neighborhood school, at age 14, when Alon was accepted to study at a religious high school in North Tel Aviv, his self-confidence was deflated when he realized that in his new class he was no longer the top student. However, he tells ISRAEL21c, his affinity for Arabic led him to excel at the subject and he found a new way to shine.
Alon says that when he heard that Arabic was among his electives, the idea touched his very core. He knew right away that he wanted to study the language. “I was a very good student, even an excellent student, based on the standards of the south [Tel Aviv]. I very quickly lost everything at the new school. But, he [the Arabic teacher] was the only one trying to speak to the children.”
Arabic gave him confidence and purpose
Alon was fascinated by the Jewish teacher who taught Arabic and found himself attracted to the idea of learning the language. “When I came to the school and they offered me Arabic it was like a hit in my face; I knew that this was what I was looking for…this language and culture.”
Teaching six of the 28 Arabic characters in one day, by today’s teaching standards Alon’s teacher might be considered quite radical. But Alon soaked it all up. He says that learning the language of the region also made him curious about the culture of the ‘other.’
Alon continued his studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where 32 years ago he earned an undergraduate degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies and a Masters degree in Arabic. He had a busy life as a teacher and senior lecturer at Hebrew University, and a teacher at other universities, only finding time for his PhD four years ago.
After writing books, textbooks and teaching curricula, in 1986 he was nominated to head the Arabic studies program at the Ministry of Education.
Married and living in Jerusalem Alon has three daughters, one of whom, while she hasn’t learned Arabic, is nevertheless seeking to ‘know the other’ as her father does – she is the coordinator of Arabic activities at the Jewish Arab Community Center in Jaffa.
Breaking barriers for ever-lasting peace
Alon’s love of Arabic compels him to pursue his passion beyond his workday activities. He coordinates an interfaith group called Arabic Speakers Educators that meets in Jerusalem once a month so that its 10 Jewish, Christian and Muslim members can converse in literary Arabic. “We meet in private homes, not in public. It is much more intimate to meet in such a way,” says Alon who is also helping to establish a similar group in the center of the country.
Meanwhile, Alon also continues to dream, in Arabic: “I have a dream that more [Israeli] Arabs will teach in Jewish schools. Today, there are about 120 Arab Israeli teachers, making up only eight to nine percent of the Arabic teaching staff.
“If we are not aware of the other, stereotypes dominate us. And we depend on the media to get our facts. It doesn’t mean that the media isn’t giving us facts or that there aren’t real problems. But when you know the other in a straightforward way, by using the language, the things that are so unclear and foreign – even in a way that you imagine are dangerous to you – well, this breaks.
“Learning Arabic won’t solve big political issues, but it can contribute as a grassroots’ effort to building ever-lasting peace. This barrier of language is a strong one. If you break it you’ll find that the ‘other’ in many new meanings, is more or less the same as you.”