Studying Arabic in Wartime Israel

[The following is an invited post by Arpan Roy. Arpan is a student of anthropology and currently an instructor of English and linguistics at An-Najah National University in Nablus. His research interests are activism and dual narratives in Israel/Palestine.]


Although I was instantly moved by the Palestinian narrative from the moment I learned of it, it would be years before I knew any Palestinians. Nor did I know any Israelis. Yet, in the bohemian subcultures of urban America, you could say that I, in the ironic words of Najla Said, ‘grew up as a Jew.’ Jews were friends, ex-girlfriends, band mates, co-workers, classmates, bosses, and professors. Some broke from the dominant Zionist narrative, while others did not. Usually we didn’t talk about it. There was enough going on with my own coming of age to get into world politics. Somehow I missed the second intifada.

Soon I’d have more to say. Once, in San Francisco, a band I was playing in broke up when the harmonium player stormed out of practice after I debuted a new song about Palestine. A few months later, in 2006, I was traveling in South America when the Second Lebanon War broke out. I was surrounded by herds of Israeli backpackers fresh out of the military. It was difficult for me not to separate the scenes of destruction I read in the news from the aloof and giddy young ex-soldiers let loose on the streets of Cuzco and La Paz. More than a few conversations went late into those nights.


As fate would have it, the Israel/Palestine conflict has since taken a central position in my life. I’ve been living on and off in the region for the past two years, doing ethnographic research with anti-Zionist Jewish Israeli activists, and here again I was initiated into the land through Jewish voices, a nuanced minority though they may be. My research subjects, some of them now close friends, often tease me for ‘having become a Jew.’ How did I get in so deep? Could it be Bourdieu’s concept of illusio, in which the self is autonomous in investing in what makes life meaningful, both emotionally and libidinally?

While conducting my research, I lived in Ramallah in the West Bank and traveled regularly to Tel Aviv, where most of my subjects lived. This was perhaps an impractical arrangement, but I did it mostly for ideological reasons, believing that integrity counts for something. Ramallah is the charming de facto capital of Palestine, soon to be on par with other Arab centers of culture, but living there I quickly hit a wall in developing a repertoire in Arabic beyond the by now scripted dialogues in showering pleasantries, exchanges in restaurants and markets, and answering basic questions about my Indian heritage. Btahab al-flim hindi? ‘Do you like Indian films?’ Palestinians love to ask. My Arabic was still embarrassingly limited for a burgeoning anthropologist, so when I chose to enroll in an Arabic course, the question was not at which level – I chose to start over – but at which kind of institution: Israeli or Palestinian? I chose Israeli.

It’s hardly surprising that my initiation into the Arabic language was no less through Jewish eyes, or, in this case, tongue. I enrolled in an intensive summer course in Arabic at an Israeli institution, mostly for having heard positive things about the program, but also owing to Israel’s overall reputation for having developed a masterful pedagogy for language learning. After all, it was Zionist pedagogy that successfully transformed bodies of native Russian, Farsi, Amharic, Yiddish, French, and – yes, Arabic – speakers into a nation of Hebrews. If I was going to be a Jew, I hoped at least the Israelis could make me an Arab Jew.

I was aware, of course, that studying at an Israeli institution would place me in a precarious and politically minority position. I anticipated sharing a classroom with young American Jews with close family ties to Israel, and perhaps non-Jews interested in learning Arabic for an advantage in military/intelligence careers. I was correct in both assumptions.

The atmosphere in Israel was already tense when the course began. The kidnapping of the three yeshiva students from a West Bank settlement had unleashed the Israeli military’s wrath, leading to over 400 arrests and 9 deaths in a violent and highly sensationalized pogrom in the name of searching for the perpetrators. In regards to this, in an orientation ceremony at the university, we were discouraged by the administrative staff from entering the West Bank, to proceed with caution if visiting the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City – one of the world’s premier tourist destinations – and to generally avoid Palestinian areas of the city in which we were studying. I had never before taken a language course where the prospect of speaking to native speakers was considered anything less than ideal. Nor was I exactly surprised to discover that in our team of five instructors, four would be Jewish Israelis. A few of them mastered Arabic from having studied it in the military. The Hebrew voiceless uvular fricative was to be a recurring phoneme in my Arabic summer.


What I did not expect, however, was that Operation Protective Edge would break out about two weeks into the program. Suddenly politics were unavoidable in conversations with the other students. Suddenly the racism was salient: Muslims don’t value life like Jews/Americans/Westerners do, They’re so backwards, Look at how they treat their women. I left the university daily wondering how these students, all very bright and some from top American universities, were reconciling the Arabic language, as a concept, with themselves. I thought of Amiel Alcalay, the wonderful literary critic whose life’s work has been excavating the integral Arabic component of Jewish history and culture. Judeo-Arabic, Alcalay has pointed out, has a larger literary body than any other Jewish language, including Hebrew and Yiddish, owing mostly to the great Jewish poets of Arab Spain. As recently as the 1950s, Iraqi and Yemenite immigrants to Israel carried on the tradition of Arabic as a Jewish literary language. This tradition, sadly, has become extinct. Shimon Ballas, the Baghdad-born Hebrew novelist once said, ‘I came from the Arab environment and I remain in constant colloquy with the Arab environment.’ But at my Israeli institution, Arabic is confined to the same Otherness as in North America. It is the language of terrorism, misogyny, and religious myopia. It is a language of problems that must be eradicated, but perhaps first understood. In short, it is a language that must be colonized.

On the first day of the operation, as President Netanyahu instructed the military to ‘take their gloves off’ against Hamas, the university called its international students to an emergency security meeting. This was a thinly disguised propaganda session convened to convince us why the bombing of Gaza was necessary, with instructions of what to do in case of a Hamas rocket attack being only a small procedural detail. The same dubious claims regarding Gaza that dominate American media coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict were reiterated here. Again, it was the usual clichés: Hamas is theologically opposed to Israel, Hamas uses human shields, etc. Regardless of however one may view Hamas, most of these claims have been refuted by non-state sources like UNRWA, the Goldstone report, and the hundreds of witness testimonies by Gazans on the blogosphere. For instance, there still remains not a shred of evidence that Hamas has ever used human shields at any point in its history, rendering Israel’s 80% civilian casualty rate in Operation Protective Edge a mystifying and truly grotesque figure. The sole source for Israel’s claims remains the office of the Israeli military spokesperson itself. Why was the university reiterating claims that are, at best, unverified?

A few days later we were invited to a special guest lecture on the operation in Gaza by a former high-ranking official in the Mossad, the notorious national intelligence agency of Israel that is directly involved and invested in state interests. The choice was astounding. Meanwhile, we were receiving daily security emails from the university reassuring us that we were ‘safe,’ and again we were urged not to visit the West Bank or the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City; only this time it was written in the imperative. As someone who has lived in the West Bank, I am deeply saddened whenever I encounter this vilification of Palestinians. Hate crimes against foreigners are unheard of in the Palestinian territories. As an old roommate in Ramallah used to say, the only such crime Palestinians are capable of is ‘kidnapping’ foreigners and then feeding them delicious sweets, pilafs, and coffee. She is an American Jewish woman who has been living in the city for four years. But in Israel and in the Israeli institution where I was studying, Palestinians were fearsome and not to be trusted. They were hazy representations in the mise-en-scène of the Jewish Israeli experience.


By now socializing with my classmates was unbearable. Wait, why did you come to Israel? Why not go study in Egypt or Syria? The death toll had already passed a thousand. Soon the fundraisers to aid Israeli troops fighting in the operation began. I think I noticed the donation boxes on campus the morning after the Shujaiyah massacre, in which over seventy Palestinian civilians were killed in a single operation. Not a word about this was mentioned on campus or in the emails. Flags were everywhere. Patriotic fervor had gripped Israel. I heard from a friend that another Israeli institution, where she studies, sent an email to students expressing the university’s solidarity with the operation, promising a tuition discount to reserve soldiers serving in Gaza for the following academic year, and condemning students who voice ‘extreme opinions’ regarding the operation on social media. This ambiguous reference to extremity, in Israel, is not exactly ambiguous.

I began finding it difficult to go to class. I holed myself up for days in a friend’s apartment. We were two miserable peas in a miserable pod: He, a Jewish Israeli heartbroken by his own society’s madness, and me, an anthropologist for whom the field is increasingly becoming home. The war had exhausted us. Three days before finishing the course and taking the final exam, I couldn’t bring myself to continue. I dropped out.


All of this brings me to the topic of academic boycott of Israel. While I obviously do not conceal my positionality regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict, I am nonetheless ambivalent about endorsing the academic boycott for a number of reasons. Why arbitrarily punish one of the few social spheres in Israel where an individual critique of Zionism is at all possible? Why encourage the few professors sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative to leave Israel and seek positions in Europe and North America, thus risking faculties at Israeli universities being fully transformed into a state propaganda arm?

I remain ambivalent about the boycott, but witnessing the response to the Gaza operation by Israeli universities, I can’t say that singling out the academy is arbitrary. It’s true that many professors in Israeli universities divert from the national narrative on an individual basis, but the Israeli academy, as an institution, has made no attempt to distance itself from the Gaza massacres. My experience confirms this. I have been following the debate in anthropology circles in North America regarding the academic boycott, and the issue was also raised this past week at the European Association of Social Anthropology’s biennial meeting in Tallinn, where a motion to condemn the Israeli operation in Gaza narrowly failed. This discourse usually revolves around the appropriateness of academics engaging politically with our peers, as if we should be careful about flouting some chivalrous sacrament of the discipline.

I acknowledge that my experience of wartime Israel might be seen as an exceptional circumstance, but I suspect that it isn’t. Social tendencies do not develop in moments of conflict; they merely surface. The traumatic kernel was always there. The daily propaganda emails, the implicit vilification of Palestinians, the transparently biased choice of speakers invited to explain the situation to the international students, the expressly stated support for the Gaza operation, and the coercive censorship of anti-state perspectives on social media, in my view, should be enough to shift the dialogue regarding the boycott away from questions of appropriateness to questions of complicity. Ilan Pappé has long maintained that Israeli academia ‘deserves to be boycotted,’ referring to shoddy work done by early Israeli historians to appease state interests. Similarly, Nadia Abu El-Haj has famously exposed the ethically questionable practices of Israeli archaeology in her excellent book on the subject. When I was considering studying for a graduate degree in Israel, I was surprised to find that Middle East/Islamic Studies departments at Israeli institutions are overwhelmingly staffed by professors with military/intelligence backgrounds. I advocate that there should be a debate on the academic boycott of Israel, but there is no debating that Israeli academia is a colonial institution.


As a student of anthropology with area interest in Israel/Palestine, I see the need for an Israeli anthropology as critical. By this I don’t mean anthropologists from Israeli institutions researching Israel/Palestine, but anthropologists from everywhere, including Israel, researching Israel/Palestine. For this we need collaboration and support from anthropology departments in Israeli universities. We should also see Israeli anthropologists as potential though as yet unrealized allies in the fight against apartheid and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. One lesson I’ve learned doing fieldwork in Israel is that no one is fully immune from the irrationality of political emotion, but possibilities are always present. Is a boycott really the best way to engage with possibility? I don’t have an answer, but a dialogue of engagement/disengagement is crucially missing from the current discourse. I am ambivalent about the academic boycott not because it’s inappropriate, antisemitic, or heavy-handed – it’s none of these – but rather because a more effective strategy might be possible.

I am not so naïve as to believe that anthropologists can reform Israeli academia, the inextricability of which with state interests should be evident from my experience, but I do see anthropologists as occupying a special role within academia. We, along with a handful of others, are the Davids against the Goliaths of medicine, finance, engineering, law, etc. In many ways, we are the dispossessed of the academy. We should, as Ghassan Hage has argued, via Bourdieu, ‘through a process of affective homology, show solidarity with the dominated and oppressed peoples of the world.’ Our support for the Palestinian people should be urgent and uncompromised. How to show it, and with whom, is another matter.

One thought on “Studying Arabic in Wartime Israel

  1. Really enjoyed reading your reflections. We think they are very important. Thanks for sharing your insights!

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