The Untold Story of Palestinians Who Learned Hebrew
October 28, 2015

Buried among the roughly six thousand uncatalogued volumes located in the Khalidiyya Library in the Old City of Jerusalem is a hand-written workbook of one of the first Palestinians to study the Hebrew language.

Buried among the roughly six thousand uncatalogued volumes located in the reading room of the Khalidiyya Library in the Old City of Jerusalem is a hand-written workbook of one of the first Palestinians to study the Hebrew language.

The workbook belonged to Ruhi al-Khalidi, who later represented the District of Jerusalem in the Ottoman Parliament in 1908 and also wrote one of the earliest and most detailed studies of Zionism in Arab history.

(Photo Credit: Zachary Foster)
(Photo Credit: Zachary Foster)

Al-Khalidi’s notes tell a story of a young intellectual keenly aware of Hebrew’s great similarity to Arabic. The first three Hebrew words he transcribed into Arabic hardly needed any transcription at all: head (ra’s, rosh), eye (ayn, ayin) and hair (sha‘r, se‘ar) (see above photo).

The next few pages are filled with Hebrew – Arabic cognates and other basic vocabulary. Interestingly, al-Khalidi transcribed everything into the Arabic alphabet, indicating that he was primarily concerned with speaking the language.

Historians today know a great deal about the history of Zionists who learned Arabic, but very little about who and how many Palestinians studied Hebrew before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

al-Khalidi was joined by other prominent Jerusalemite intellectuals of his era to have first been exposed to Hebrew at the Jewish Alliance Israélite Universelle in Jerusalem—founded by French Jews in the mid-late 19th century on a “mission civilisatrice” to advance Middle Eastern Jews (and incidentally Muslims and Christians as well) through French education and culture. The prominent Jerusalemite Sa‘id al-Husayni also attended the school and later became an Ottoman bureaucrat, even working as a censor of the Hebrew press in early 20th century Palestine.

Beginning in 1902, Hebrew also made its way into the curriculum of the Oriental Faculty at the University of Saint Joseph in Beirut (USJ), the premier Maronite institutional of higher learning, founded by French Jesuits in the 1870s.

Motivated by their religious sensibilities, most historians of the late 19th century –both in the Christian West and Arab East – considered the ancient and Biblical world the most important period in history. This meant that it was essential to access the ancient texts themselves, including the Hebrew Bible.

“He is ignorant of the classical languages, including Greek, Syriac and Hebrew,” wrote the French Belgian Orientalist and founder of the USJ Oriental Faculty, Henry Lammens, in a review of the Maronite priest and scholar Fadl Allah Abu Halqa’s 1890 historical geography textbook.

More than a century later USJ students in Beirut continue to study (Biblical) Hebrew, much as do students elsewhere across the Arab world, from the American University of Beirut to Ain Shams University in Cairo.

The Mandate Period (1920-1948)

If Hebrew first came to the Arabic speaking peoples of the 19th and early 20th century Middle East through French missionaries and Biblical studies, interest in modern Hebrew only began to pick up after the British conquered Palestine during the First World War.

Although Jewish and Arab schools, courts and communities were divided during the inter-war period and Palestinian Arabs did not study Hebrew in their own schools, some may well have studied in Jewish ones. The popular Jaffa-based Arabic bi-weekly paper Filastin claimed in 1921 that a number of Arab families from Hebron petitioned to enroll their children in Jewish schools so they could learn the third official language of the country—Hebrew.

There were also sporadic efforts by the Zionist labor union—Histadrut—during the 1920s and 1930s to offer evening Hebrew classes to Palestinian Arab workers.

Others clearly took it upon themselves to learn Hebrew. The prolific Palestinian intellectuals Khalil Totah and Bulus Shihada claimed in their 1920 History of Jerusalem (Tarikh al-Quds) to have made use of two popular Hebrew newspapers of the period, Davar Hayom and Ha’aretz.

(Photo Credit: Zachary Foster)
(Photo Credit: Zachary Foster)

(Photo Credit: Zachary Foster)
(Photo Credit: Zachary Foster)

Some Palestinians also purchased Suleiman Bouzaglo’s (1940) Learn Hebrew without a Teacher (Ta‘llum al-‘Ibriyya dun Mu‘allim) (see above photos). One of the only extant copies in the world can be found in the Hebrew National Library in Jerusalem amidst the so-called “abandoned” books collection – those taken by Zionist forces from the homes of Palestinians during and after the 1948 War.

Soon after the 1948 War, Hebrew entered Arab classrooms as a mandatory part of the curriculum for tens of thousands of school-aged children who remained within the borders of the State of Israel.

But it took nearly two decades before Atallah Mansour—who learned his Hebrew at Kibutz Sha’ar HaAmakim in the 1950s—became the first Palestinian Arab to publish a novel in Hebrew, Be-Or Hadash, (In a New Light), in 1966. Soon enough dozens of Palestinians followed suit, publishing short stories, novels and poems in Hebrew in the aftermath of the 1967 War.

Ironies of History

Today, Jewish and Palestinian youngsters alike must prepare for the Bagrut, a national matriculation exam in Hebrew that tests students in, inter alia, Hebrew literature and Jewish history—especially the First and Second Temple periods.

“I love languages, but Hebrew has always been loaded,” explained Sulafa Zaydani, who grew up in Haifa but now lives in Los Angeles and teaches Hebrew—which she speaks fluently—to American Jewish youth. “In order to teach it I have to make a separation in my head and heart between the language and its connotation.”

Meanwhile, interest in Hebrew has soared in the West Bank and Gaza in the past few years. Dozens of journalists are studying media Hebrew in Ramallah while a 600-student school in al-Bireh has introduced Hebrew classes to the curriculum with the approval and support of parents and families.

Even more surprisingly, Hamas began teaching Hebrew in its own schools in 2012 and thousands of Gazan children are now learning the language. “They are keen to learn. The classes are already oversubscribed,” commented the BBC. But it’s not about building bridges, it’s about “learning the language of the enemy,” explained one Palestinian girl.

Whether to understand the Bible — the enemy – or simply for career advancement – Hebrew has never been as popular among Arabs and Palestinians as it is today.

Language study won’t solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – but it does offer a silver lining amidst today’s descent towards madness, violence and bloodshed.

By Zachary Foster. Foster is Ph.D. student at the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University.

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