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What My Arabic Lessons Are Teaching Me About Coexistence

What My Arabic Lessons Are Teaching Me About Coexistence

Framed artwork that includes Arabic writing on a background of blue, black, and green

For the past six years, during the month of Elul, which precedes Rosh HaShanah, I think about taking on a challenge or setting a goal in the upcoming new year.  I ask myself: Will this be the year I do something for my physical or spiritual well-being? Will my challenge be something connected to study or social action? Will the goal encompass all of the above? One year I decided to become vegan. Another year, I started a multi-year study of a rabbinic midrashic work. Both of those challenges are ongoing.

This year, I decided to commit to studying Arabic to be able to converse with Palestinians whom I meet on various trips to Israel and the West Bank. From both a personal and professional point of view, I view learning some Arabic as important for the caring relationship with Israel I have nurtured my entire life.

I am not sure most American Jews realize that one out of every five Israeli citizens is Arab, which is about 1.4 million people. In addition, 2.7 million Arabs live under various levels of Israeli control in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. That’s about four million Arabs living amongst and next to six million Jews.

Although I don’t live in Israel, the viability of Israel is indelibly linked to my alignment with the historical Jewish people. A defining aspect of that relationship with Israel, one that obviously stems from how I see its progress towards a lasting peace, is that there are two peoples in that space, Jews and Arabs, who are going to need to come up with a workable solution for coexistence in that tense and narrow geography.

While Arab citizens of Israel likely know Hebrew because it is the main language of their state, most Israeli Jews don’t know Arabic – the Jewish educational system gives them only a perfunctory introduction. Because I’m proficient in Hebrew, I don’t feel like a tourist in most of Israel or with Israelis, who often let me know how respected they feel by my efforts to become comfortable in their culture. By learning Arabic, I aspire to make that same respectful gesture to the Arab and Palestinian activists whose work I admire and whose historical presence in that land I acknowledge.

Arabic and Hebrew are like cousins. As a beginner with Arabic, I’m like reunion-planner for estranged relations, favoring one side of the family over the other.  Arabic letters – shapes and names, roots of nouns and verbs, and grammatical structures feel familiar enough to my Hebrew ear, but my Hebrew-trained mouth impedes accurate Arab language production. I want to call the em sound by the Hebrew letter-name mem but in Arabic it is meem. And, as I learn Arabic words that are commonly used in modern Hebrew, I am sure my teacher will have to correct my pronunciation. It may be far down the road, but I aspire to something approaching linguistic coexistence in the part of the brain in which language learning resides.

One of the most challenging aspects of this endeavor is learning to write Arabic. Depending on where it falls within a word – at the beginning, middle, or end – a letter’s shape changes from word to word. Most letters, but not all, can be joined to the letters on either side of them by what a popular YouTube Arabic teacher calls a “helping hand” extended between neighboring letters. I’m having the hardest time remembering these three positional shapes because, while in isolated form it’s easy to differentiate among most letters, their connected forms flatten out the prominent differences for purposes of joining them together. Loops and circles become straight lines, making a bunch of words all look like a series of connected, upside down staples with dotted patterns that separate them into different letters.  

As a rabbi, I am always on the lookout for symbolic lessons in everyday things. Recently, during a private Arabic tutorial, as I was practicing the joining of letters into real words, I had such an insight: Like the joining of Arabic letters into words, co-existence has a lot to with the willingness to join hands and, when needed, to flatten out differences for the sake of meaning-making.

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.  His prior experience in re-thinking Israel engagement comes from work on innovative initiatives in the North American program of the Jewish Agency for Israel.  

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald
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