I came across an article in ElectronicIntifada.net (2013) by a Palestinian-American born in Washington and educated in the States, who was amazed and appalled to “find Hebrew everywhere” in Gaza. This is what happens when a “journalist” decides to write an article without bothering to do any research!
In 1990 I was studying Hebrew at a language school near Natanya, Israel, called Ulpan Akiva. There they teach intensive courses in Hebrew and Arabic. Among the students there were a whole unit of young Israeli women soldiers learning to be teachers of Arabic, and a number of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza on Hebrew courses. One of the Palestinian men was there to improve his Hebrew because he worked for Bezek in Hebron, which is in fact an Israeli telephone company, like BT, (although the paper “France’s Liberation”, has now placed Bezek on Israel’s map upgraded to the status of a town!)
There were two Palestinian women, one from Hebron, and the other from Gaza, and I made a point of saying “Salaam” to them whenever I passed them. After a day or two, after we said “Salaam”, they stopped to make conversation, and invited me to their room for coffee, and we became friends.
The main point I want to make here is this (in response to the article I’m referring to): both women were teachers of Hebrew: Nawal in Hebron, and Rana in Gaza. I asked, with incredulity, “Do people in Gaza want to learn Hebrew?” and was surprised at Rana’s emphatic reply: “Very much! Very much!” There was nothing in the British media that could have prepared me for that information. So yes – there has been Hebrew in Gaza for a long time, and not because it’s been colonially imposed on the people as this self-designated journalist would have it, but because at least in 1990 – and presumably for a greater time span than that – a sector of Gazan society have chosen to learn it. Which indicates that they saw it as being useful for their future in terms of links with Israel. Which indicates that they were not thinking along the lines of obliterating Israel and Israeli Jews from the map!
Nawal, a married woman with children, told me about, and urged me to come to the Thursday night disco, where she sat in her long dress and hijab, “anthropologically” taking in scenes she would not be likely to come across again in Hebron, while repeatedly urging me to dance! She told me I resembled her son, and had the same colouring, closely observing my reaction, and seemed satisfied when she saw that I was delighted. (What she didn’t realise was one of the reasons why I was pleased. While in Britain, Jews were at one time the dark imposters who didn’t belong here, we had now become the fair imposters who didn’t belong in the Middle East, designated so by some colour-obsessed projecting Brits! I had even been (mis-) informed by a highly ignorant and arrogant postgrad in the anthropology library at Oxford University, that the whole conflict was about colour, in terms of what he described as the Ashkenazis being light (he hadn’t seen my father or my uncle!), the Sephardi Jews being dark, and the Arabs being darker still! So here was Nawal basically and appropriately rubbishing this kind of theorising!) Nawal also noticed that I played music, and told me that she and her family also played musical instruments. When I felt cold, Rana lent me her hand-knitted sweater, and a couple of the Palestinian men noticed that I was wearing her sweater and looked pleased. (Speaking of hand-knitting, it was a local Arab woman who taught my Israeli mother [Palestinian at birth] to knit when she was a child. So it seems I have her partly to thank for the scratchy salmon-coloured number my mother knitted for me and made me wear at the age of 8. [My sister had an identical outfit in tangerine!] Although I can’t in all fairness blame this kind Arab lady for my mother’s dress-sense and its imposition on me as a child!) (As for who taught my mother to swear in Arabic – the only language she swore in – that I don’t know, but it must have come rather later!)
Just before the first Gulf War started, I found that Rana and Nawal had suddenly returned home, and I hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. It was a time that was rife with Palestinians murdering other Palestinians under the pretext that they were “collaborators”, and I was worried about trying to contact them in case it endangered them. Even now, I am not comfortable about revealing their names, and therefore I have used false names in this article. (I hope I’ve chosen names appropriate for their generation and characters, and not the equivalents of, for example, “Ethel” and “Gertrude”! Because they are definitely not “Ethel” or “Gertrude”. Nor are they “Saffron” and “Sophie”! In terms of generation!)
There are of course, other reasons why Hebrew exists in signs and graffiti in Gaza – there have been Jewish communities living there – before 1948, for example, during the Turkish occupation, during the British Mandate period, and before.
The arrogant student I mention above interjected his theorising into a conversation I was having with an Indonesian Muslim student. (He [the former] then proceeded with an angry protest against people in the Third World acquiring fridges on the grounds that it was a threat to the ozone layer. Whereas, it seems, only those of us in the First World should be allowed to deplete the ozone layer with our fridges!) There are too many people who, like him, are divisive: whose object is to stir things up between us, as if we needed it! They can’t tolerate that there are some people across the communities who want to talk to each other and who actually like each other. It is as if the “dividers” are yearning for the spectator blood sports of old. They want the war in an arena on their doorstep, so that they can not just watch in a a rocket-proof, knife-proof, bomb-proof area to keep their own physical persons safe, but also goad on the combatants.
Then, by contrast, there are a few people who take responsibility for promoting peace and healing among the communities. One of these people is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk: Thich Nhat Hanh based in France. See the video below of his Israeli/Palestinian retreat at Plum Village in which it is easy to see that he is overflowing with compassion.
As the Dalai Lama states in his Foreword to Thich Nhat Hanh’s book: Peace Is Every Step, “Peace must first be developed within the individual. And I believe that love, compassion, and altruism are the fundamental basis for peace. Once these qualities are developed within an individual, he or she is then able to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony. This atmosphere can be expanded and extended from the individual to his family, from the family to the community and eventually to the whole world.”
Another person who takes responsibility is the courageous and admirable Canadian Muslim: Irshad Manji.