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Palestinian Women From East Jerusalem Are Gaining Independence by Learning Hebrew

“They speak Hebrew.” This phrase might not mean much to you or me, yet for eight women from East Jerusalem, it has great significance.

Despite the complex cultural and political situation, these eight inhabitants of East Jerusalem, who range in age from 17 to 50, attend a weekly class, to learn advanced Hebrew through a program called “Women Speaking Hebrew” (“Medabrot Ivrit” in Hebrew).

This program started several years ago and currently offers 21 classes divided into four levels of Hebrew. The program is unique in its diversity, embracing women from very different backgrounds and a broad range of ages.

As a volunteer teacher for Women Speaking Hebrew, I decided to write this article to reflect upon the importance of the program and the reasons behind the growing popularity of Hebrew study programs among Arab residents of Jerusalem over the last decade or so.

In the last decade, if not more, there has been an increasing number of programs dedicated to teaching Hebrew to Arabs from East Jerusalem. However, as Talia Vekshtein, CEO of Lissan, the nonprofit organization that operates Women Speaking Hebrew, told The Media Line, Women Speaking Hebrew has a critical social impact on women.

“Men had more opportunities to learn Hebrew through their jobs. Women didn’t have similar opportunities since they were obligated to stay home to take care of the kids,” she said.

“This program was designed to provide a platform for women, especially religious and conservative women, women who are older, to learn Hebrew that is useful and necessary for daily life. They need it in order to be able to move around freely and be self-reliant, without relying on the rest of their family members, who know Hebrew, to be their personal translators,” Vekshtein said.

Abeer Taweel, an ambitious mother and a lawyer in training, also emphasized that one of the most important reasons she enrolled in the program was to gain a certain level of independence. She said it was important to her ability to perform basic daily tasks freely as well as to define and express herself.

“I am tired of relying on my family members to help me shop or go to the doctor. I want to depend on myself since I am very capable,” Taweel told The Media Line. “I am a woman who does not like it when someone speaks on her behalf. I like to speak for myself; I want to express my own feelings using my own words.”

Rifa Jabsheh, an employment coordinator at the Jerusalem Municipality, told The Media Line that “women have greater awareness about the consequences they suffer due to lacking basic knowledge of the language.

“The population I work with is defined as a poor population, and thus the women I work with have a variety of needs that have pushed them to want to learn the language,” she said.

“These women are tired of waiting for people to translate for them. They need Hebrew when going to doctor’s appointments, or making their monthly property tax [arnona] or insurance payments. They also need Hebrew to integrate into the Israeli job market which provides them with better financial opportunities,” Jabsheh said.

The increased demand for Hebrew language instruction for women can also be attributed in part to encouragement from men inside the East Jerusalem community.

As Taweel’s husband told The Media Line, “Hebrew is a very important language and I think it is only normal that women start learning Hebrew. It is not logical that they feel lost when managing their basic daily affairs. From shopping to going to the hospital, the Hebrew language is more important than Arabic now.”

The unemployment rate among Arab women in Jerusalem rose to 9% in 2016, up from 4% the previous year, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research. However this might have been because more women began actively looking for work outside the home, the institute noted. In any case, research performed by Lissan has shown that their biggest barrier to employment is the language.

Vekshtein sees a big difference in women who took the classes.

“Most of the women who finished the program feel more confident when speaking in Hebrew, especially in the offices of public service providers. There are women who were able to find jobs, or who were able to advance in their current positions, or who were even able to enter Israeli institutions of higher education after the program,” she said.

Malak Abu Madi is another success story. She completed the Lissan program and currently works in a COVID-19 testing laboratory in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood. She told The Media Line she was able to advance in her career and her education because she improved her Hebrew through Women Speaking Hebrew.

“I was a student in an advanced Hebrew class in Women Speaking Hebrew while I was still in my second year as a [college] major in biotechnology. The experience helped me to enrich my language, practice speaking with women I met through the program and overcome my fear of making mistakes in Hebrew,” she said.

“I currently work in a company that has the biggest laboratory for COVID-19 test analysis in Jerusalem, and I owe this to my time studying in the program,” Abu Madi said.

For women in East Jerusalem, mastery of Hebrew can be very empowering. It can be an important step on their long journey to self-reliance in a very complex cultural setting.