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segunda-feira, 22 de dezembro de 2008

Hebrew renaissance

Haaretz, em 20/11/2008 - By Aviva Lori

Ask any of us what we would rather study, and we'll tell you we prefer Hebrew language over Arabic," says Mohammed Yezbak, almost 21, from Nazareth. "All you people want to do is work the keyboard and forget about your mother tongue. That's not right, if you ask me. People make money, sure, but the way I figure it, everyone will probably make it big abroad instead of in Israel, and that's not right, either."

The keyboard holds no attractions for Yezbak. Instead, he is now enrolled in the Department of Hebrew Language at Haifa University. And he is not the only one. Haifa-born Suzanne Shaar, who now lives in the village of Yafiya, west of Nazareth, completed her master's thesis in the department two years ago on "connective clauses in spoken Hebrew discourse." Hadil Abu Fares-Kamal, from the Druze village of Daliat al-Carmel, is about to complete her thesis on "predicative complements." Hiasham Abu Ria, 24, from Sakhnin, took two years of Hebrew language and behavioral sciences at Ahva Academic College in the south of the country and last year completed his degree studies at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva. "Sometimes, when I see how people write or speak Hebrew - Jews, I mean - I correct them," Abu Ria says.

Hebrew is alive and well. At least in the Arab and Druze communities. For students from those sectors, the Hebrew language has become the new business administration - a social and professional catapult to get ahead and succeed in life. The sticklers add Hebrew literature, too. It's a triumph of practicality over ideology. The traditional attitude that language is part of national identity and that to study Hebrew is to cross the line, has given way to the quiet conquest of the Hebrew Language Department - at the University of Haifa by Arabs from the north and at Ben-Gurion University by Bedouin from the south. The graduates are almost always assured of a teaching job, which brings with it a livelihood, honor and prestige, relatively speaking. Hebrew is obligatory in every Arab and Bedouin elementary and high school, and good teachers are in high demand.

"To be a high-school teacher is fine, respectable work," says Ta'ir Kizel, from Maghar, a Druze-Muslim-Christian village in Galilee. "To the credit of the patriarchal society, it still retains a little glory for teachers. Some people found my choice strange. 'What will you do with Hebrew language?' they asked. Today, in retrospect, I can say that I succeeded and that many of my students want to follow in my footsteps and study Hebrew language at the university. But my ambition is to continue in academe and do a PhD in Hebrew language."

The universities are having trouble digesting the new clients of Hebrew-language studies. "This image is extremely harmful to us," says Haifa University rector Prof. Yossi Ben-Artzi, a former dean of the Faculty of Humanities. "The public thinks we are an Arab university. Our student body is only 20 percent Arab, and it is an honor for us to elevate the level and education of the Arab population, but a lot of people are deterred by it, and it also deters donors, deters parents from sending their children and deters [other] students."

A matter of survival

At all the country's universities, Hebrew studies are in decline. "The humanities are in a bad way," says Prof. Chaim Cohen, head of the Hebrew Language Department at Ben-Gurion University, "and the departments of Bible studies and Hebrew language are at the top of the list." But it's the same at all the country's universities. These departments are rapidly shrinking, with enrollment standing at less than 1 percent of all humanities students, at most, as in Haifa. They are surviving as best they can.

Tel Aviv University, for example, rescued the Hebrew Language Department from its death throes by making it into a section within the Department of Hebrew Culture Studies, together with Bible, Semitic linguistics, Talmud and ancient literature - all former departments from which students had been staying away in droves. At first, the university's senior faculty objected to the forced merger. But four years later, some faculty members are beginning to see the light.

"Even if it comes out of necessity, the result is better," says Dr. Tamar Sovran, the head of the Hebrew language section. "It led to interdisciplinary enrichment for both students and faculty."

The situation in Jerusalem is equally gloomy. In recent years, enrollment in the Hebrew Language Department has been 12 to 20 students. This year, just before studies began, the university announced cuts in the humanities, "and our department was hurt," says Prof. Steven (Shmuel) Fassberg, the head of the department. "We had to cut back on electives." The reason for this development, Prof. Fassberg says, is the mushrooming of colleges and the general disdain for humanities in Israeli society. "People who once took humanities because they were not admitted to law or business administration are now taking those subjects in the colleges and forsaking humanities completely," he says. It's a process that occurred in the United States and reached us late. The difference is that medicine or law are graduate studies there, and people have to take something to get an undergraduate degree, so quite a few take English literature, for example, in order to improve their ability to express themselves verbally and in writing."

A society without humanities is a society void of content, Prof. Ben-Artzi says. "Every civilized society has grasped that. Germany prepared special task forces and opened hundreds of new units in the humanities. New York University established a whole organization to engage in brainstorming and reached the conclusion that a society loses its essence without the humanities, so they created hundreds of new positions."

Ben-Gurion University this year recorded a slight increase in undergraduate enrollment in Hebrew-language studies. Of the 30 new students, half are Bedouin. Prof. Cohen is aware that no insurance company will sell him a policy against closure of the department. "For the time being, I have an explicit promise from the dean, Prof. Moshe Justman - we pray together every Shabbat in the same synagogue - that closure is not in the offing. But if things get worse, there is no knowing what will happen."

How few students would it take to get the university to close the department?
"Everyone wants biotechnology, business administration and economics, and this is something new. But I cannot imagine that a department of Hebrew language or Bible will be shut down. It is inconceivable that people should complete a first degree in Israel without knowing anything about their heritage. The dean's dream is to oblige every undergraduate student, as part of his general studies, to take something in the heritage departments. If we had done that before, we would have far more students."

Dynamics of life

But until that happens, the Jewish heritage will be studied, and without self-righteousness, by Arab students, or, as they are referred to in universities that uphold political correctness, non-speakers of Hebrew. "Suddenly the Arabs discovered that you don't have to be a Zionist in order to take Land of Israel studies or Hebrew language," Prof. Ben-Artzi notes. "And their main reason for doing it is that it gives them a profession." Shirin Elago, a 24-year-old student from Ramle, who will this year complete her undergraduate studies at Ahva College, remembers that in her first year there were 20 students in her class, only five of them Jews, the others Arabs and Bedouin.

At Haifa University, 25 new students enroll in the Hebrew Language Department every year. There were some years in which 75 percent or more of the first-year students were non-Jews. In recent years, the department head, Prof. Michal Efrat, has raised the admissions bar. The result: a significant drop in the number of Arab students admitted to the department. "Anyone who did not graduate from a high school in which the language of instruction and of the matriculation exams was Hebrew, has to pass a test in Hebrew proficiency," Efrat explains. "That requirement exists at every university, and each university decides on the passing grade. At first our passing grade was 115, now it is 120, which is higher than in the other universities. We have also raised the mark needed in the psychometric exam."

In recent years Arab students constituted 75 percent of the first-year students in the department, and now they are about 40 percent, Prof. Efrat explains. "I cannot lower the level and be flexible, because we are not a Hebrew ulpan [referring to intensive courses taken by new immigrants]. If I see students who do not meet the standards, I call them in for a personal interview, and if I am persuaded that they are not capable, then the answer is no. This creates terrible tension with the university, because if I admit fewer students, then obviously there will be fewer graduates."

The number of graduates is important because that is the criterion by which the state budgets each university. Statistically, then, it is in each department's interest to admit as many students as possible who will complete their studies - a factor that is hard to predict. Suzanne Shaar, a 29-year-old Christian Arab, started her love affair with Hebrew in high school, inspired by her teacher. "We studied Hebrew language and literature in a special program for Arabs," she says. "I took five [matriculation] units. I was drawn to the thorough way the teacher taught Hebrew language. When I completed twelfth grade I knew that I was going to study Hebrew at university." Shaar obtained a BA and an MA, did research on grammatical phenomena in Hebrew discourse, attended a teachers college and is now teaching Hebrew literature, language and expression in two private schools in Nazareth, while mulling the possibility of doing a Ph.D.

How does your society accept the fact that you are an expert in Hebrew language?

"I come from a family of coexistence. I lived in the Ein Hayam [neighborhood], with Jews. I always got positive responses from my parents. They imparted to me values of accepting the other, not life with racism. During periods of war, we were for peace."

Hadil Abu Fares-Kamal, a Druze woman of 26, was born in Isfiya and since getting married has lived in Daliat al-Carmel. She teaches Hebrew language in the junior high of the prestigious Reali school in Haifa. She herself graduated cum laude from high school ("I always had a strong love for languages") and then took Hebrew language and literature at the University of Haifa. There too she was a top student and received a scholarship for MA studies. At the time, Arab students were the majority in the department, and tense relations prevailed with them. "I am a Druze and I love the country," she says. "I do not feel that the Jews are my enemy. It was actually the Arabs I couldn't get close to, because of their views. They viewed the Druze as collaborators. Someone once said to me, 'You are traitors,' and I replied that I had come to study, not to get involved in politics. I had more Jewish girlfriends than Arabs. I am studious, like the Jewish women - the Arabs are a lot less so. They are more shy and not very serious. They come to idle away the time. I don't see how they will be teachers. In the teachers certificate track that I am now completing at the University of Haifa, there was an Arab professor and some of the students asked him to speak in Arabic, because the whole class was composed of Arabs. But I didn't agree, because I had gotten used to writing in Hebrew, and it would have been hard for me to start writing in Arabic."

What does your social environment say about your focus on Hebrew?

"When I enrolled, the girls from my high-school class said, 'You were such a good student, and you chose to study Hebrew, of all things?' I told them that it doesn't matter what one studies, the main thing is to get ahead in life. With us, teaching is the usual thing, and the Druze do not have this viewpoint that if you hate the Jews you also hate the language. Those around me serve in the security forces - my brother and my father, too - and we identify with the state."

Hiasham Abu Ria, 24, from Sakhnin, says he decided to enroll in Hebrew language studies "because when I was a little boy I used to watch my siblings writing Hebrew and I would copy them, scribbling Hebrew letters without understanding what I was writing. We are 14 brothers and sisters. I heard my father, who was a contractor, speaking Hebrew with my brothers and I always asked them what they were saying. When I visited my friends, we would try to hold a dialogue in Hebrew based on what we learned at school, and I tried to show off by using words I heard from my siblings and my father, as though to show them that I knew more words."

After high school, Abu Ria turned the Hebrew words he had collected to practical use and entered the Hebrew Language Department at Ahva College. "I did it both out of ideology and a love of the language," he says. "I live in a Jewish democratic country, I have no other country, and the language is part of it. I want to give my country what it deserves."

Beyond abstract ideology, Hebrew is an instrument for integrating into the society that lies beyond the village and the tradition. It was, though, not an easy road. "I was the first and only Arab at Ahva College," says Abu Ria. "It is a college attended by many religious Jews. In the first months I tried just to observe things from the outside and figure out who was against whom. But I had a hard time with the Hebrew and I even considered leaving. However, after I started to study phonetics, Hebrew script pointing and Aramaic, I found it very interesting. I also discovered that the Jews themselves don't know their language. That gave me the challenge to go on. After that I started to get into things. Afterward there was a mandatory course in Arabic, and the Jews asked me to help them, and they helped me with the Hebrew. So, slowly but surely I started to draw close to them; the teachers helped, too - they fed me the material slowly, without pressure. In the end I got high grades."

In the dynamics of life, Abu Ria says, from the viewpoint of a modern young Arab, Hebrew has inched its way into the daily routine naturally and almost without anyone noticing. "We integrate Hebrew words into the family and societal discourse," he says. "The language has already taken us over. For example, it's hard for me to write numbers in Arabic, and we are all like that. One day this week, my brothers-in-law and I met and decided not to use Hebrew words anymore - but we couldn't do it. You want to say something in Arabic but you have forgotten the word, and instead you use a Hebrew word. It's the dynamics of life. On the other hand, I know people who do not allow their children to speak Hebrew. I was visiting someone, and he shouted at his son, 'Don't speak Hebrew in my house.' It really is a little like sleeping with the enemy."

And what do you say to them?

"I tell them that we live in a democracy and that without Hebrew we would not be able to get along in life. If you go abroad and don't know English, you can't get along, so understand that here it's the same, I tell them. And besides, this is your country, where you live, so give it the language, at least, and respect it. This is our country and our language." Abu Ria has gone very far in terms of his respect for the country as a Muslim Arab. Two years ago he volunteered for army service and took an officers course. He is currently a mobilization officer in the Bedouin sector. "I am very pleased with my job. In another six months I will enter the career army, and I see myself having a military career," he says.

What do people in Sakhnin think about all this?

"It's [a matter of] their politics, their understanding. Some are in favor, others against, everyone according to the movement he belongs to. I go to those people and talk to them personally. I will give a million shekels to any of them who will move to an Arab state, and if he lasts five days there I will join him."

Ta'ir Kizel, from Maghar, took advantage of his ethnic origins to write a thesis on translations of the Bible from Arabic written in Hebrew script. "I examined ancient texts from the Cairo Geniza, which were brought from Oxford," he says. He decided to pursue Hebrew-language studies because he loves the language, particularly biblical language. "I go into it far deeper than the academic level. I read translations, love the stories and love the linguistic aspect and the poetic aspect. The more research I do, the more I see that I don't know enough." Kizel teaches Hebrew and Bible in two high schools, one in the village , the other a regional institution for gifted children - a school for sciences and cultivating leadership - and he is working on a Ph.D. proposal.

Language of the majority

Dr. Amal Jamal, from the village of Yarka, head of the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University, is well aware of the change taking place in Arab society. But he refuses to be bowled over by the new love Arab youngsters are showing for Hebrew. "It is purely instrumental," he says. "It is to enter the society and find a job. In the more prestigious professions the Arabs are shunted aside by the Jews, whereas the educational system provides extraordinary employment. Teachers are in demand, the birthrate remains high, there are many children in the schools, so it is a good source of livelihood. Beyond this, the Arabs are developing a bilingual consciousness, so that they can integrate into the labor market, including fields that are not related to education, such as the communications industry. There are many jobs to be had in the media and not enough representation [of Arabs] - the excuse is always that there are not enough good speakers of Hebrew among the country's Arabs."

But language is also national identity, and if Hebrew is penetrating the Arab discourse, maybe in another generation or two it will completely dominate the Arab street.

"That is unlikely to happen. Hebrew is the language of the majority and of the strong, and there is always a tendency to imitate those who have power. It is a type of false consciousness, a case of internalizing the suppression: people identify themselves with the strong side in order to achieve self-empowerment. Besides that, among the young generation, Hebrew is identified with modernity, it is part of being 'in.' There is a trend of speaking Hebrew slang, but that does not mean they have adopted the Hebrew culture in the deep sense. The average Arab does not read Hebrew novels - who among them has read Amos Oz or A.B. Yehoshua? A tiny fraction of the elite. The majority identify with the Arab culture that is beyond the country's borders, not with Hebrew culture. They watch the Lebanese version of 'American Idol.' The Arab world media resolved the language problem for the Arabs. What you see is that the 'in' trend of speaking Hebrew has now spawned a counter-trend. There are a few organizations that are out to preserve Arabic, and they are fighting those who integrate Hebrew words, and fining them."

Mohammed Yezbak is not deterred. He makes his living as a worker in Oranim Bakery, located in Kibbutz Kfar Hahoresh, in Lower Galilee. He enrolled in the Hebrew Language Department because he thought it would be easier than Arabic. "Even in high school I preferred eight hours of Hebrew language to half an hour of Arabic. Arabic grammar is far more difficult, and I always felt very comfortable with Hebrew." Yezbak wants to teach, and he has many friends who, like him, are studying Hebrew language or will do so. "Not all of them necessarily do it from love of the subject," he says. "Some have no choice - they don't do so well on the psychometric exam - but most of the guys I know who opted for Hebrew language did so from love of the language."

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