Sobhi Bahloul: I believe that language learning is a tool for strengthening ties between the two peoples and spreading peace.As a Tel Aviv University master’s student specializing in the teaching of English as a foreign language, Sobhi Bahloul has to engage in some mental gymnastics while taking notes in class.

The language of instruction is Hebrew, the subject being taught is English, but Bahloul’s native language is Arabic. Moreover, for Bahloul, there is the added challenge of being the only Palestinian student to attend TAU from the Gaza Strip.

His enrollment in the university’s Constantiner School of Education was made possible due to the dedication of a group of faculty members, and through scholarships granted by the TAU President’s Office and the Dean of Humanities.

Three days a week Bahloul makes the arduous journey from his hometown of Rafiah to Tel Aviv. Even though he has the required permits to enter Israel, arranged for him by the university, the checkpoint crossing can take hours. It all depends on the situation that day, he says.

Bahloul is not complaining, however. He savors every minute of his time studying at TAU. He does not worry what people might say about him either in Gaza or in Israel. Bahloul is a well known Hebrew teacher in Gaza and one of only five authorized notaries in Hebrew in the entire Strip.

“People know me as the ‘Hebrew expert,'” he says. “They recognize my special status as a teacher and educator and respect me for it.”

Bahloul’s enrollment at TAU was initiated by Professors Anat Biletzki and Anat Matar of the Department of Philosophy, well-known peace and human rights activists, as well as Prof. Elana Shohamy of the Constantiner School. Once accepted at the school, it took nearly a year to obtain the required permits from the Israel Defense Forces for him to study in Israel.

Bahloul’s love of foreign languages comes from his home. He began learning English as a young child and has always been curious about foreign cultures and languages. His sister is an English
teacher and one of his five children is studying to become an English teacher at Khan Yunis University in Gaza.

Balhoul first met Biletzki and Matar in the late 1990s when a delegation of students and faculty from TAU and other universities traveled to Gaza to engage in joint encounters. He used to teach the group Arabic.

He is a strong supporter of inter-group dialogue and teaches Arabic and Hebrew at the Ibrahim Center in Gaza – an institution that aims to promote Palestinian-Israeli understanding.

“I believe that language learning is a tool for strengthening ties between the two peoples and spreading peace,” says Bahloul.

Biletzki says the “importance and value of Sobhi’s studies at TAU cannot be overstated – for both partners. He is a teacher, student and a colleague, but more importantly, he is a friend. Such unique friendships and collaborations can only multiply with progress in the peace process.”

Bahloul feels completely at home in Tel Aviv. He fondly remembers bringing his family to Tel Aviv for a three-day holiday by the beach in 1997.

“I am attracted to Israelis and have a lot of friends here. I understand the language, culture and mentality,” he says. “We have much more in common than not.”

Of course switching back and forth between both worlds – Gaza and Israel – is not easy. “I have to constantly make an instant adjustment to two completely different worlds,” he says.

With Israel’s disengagement from Gaza completed, Bahloul is optimistic for the future of Gaza and the peace process. “The situation has calmed down; people are now breathing a sigh of relief on both sides,” he says.

“Whatever happens we will remain economically dependent on Israel so we need to maintain good relations. There must be cooperation. We will need a lot of help to stand on our own feet.”

Bahloul believes that he has a major part to play in the future scheme of things. “Here at the university they call me ‘the Palestinian Ambassador,'” he says.

The label has stuck and even the soldiers at the checkpoint jokingly call him the ‘The Ambassador’ he says. Joking aside, Bahloul’s ambitions for the future include becoming the first Palestinian Ambassador to Israel. Until
then, he is concentrating on finishing his master’s degree and then wants to move straight on to his PhD studies.

(Originally appeared in Tel Aviv University News)