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Hebrew 101: conversational resistance

I am a member of a group of Tel Aviv-based educators that has come together to explore and practice new ways of engaging in Hebrew language study — known as ulpan in Hebrew — with the aim of creating a space for critical discussion on the politics and society in which we have found ourselves. I am a co-founder of This Is Not an Ulpan as well as a learner in it.

Too often, language programs expect learners to act as depositories for information about what is right and wrong, good or bad, done and never done in Israeli society. But our program model is built around the idea that it is imperative that we rethink this training-method of language study, and this goal of absorption into a society, and replace it with dialogue instead. Participants are asked to think about how to fix the problems in the society rather than learn to accept them.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on our program today:

The program, called “This Is Not nn Ulpan,” was started by a group of immigrants from North America who were disappointed with their own ulpan experiences and decided to create a space where they could engage in substantive, political discussions with their peers while also improving their language skills. “It’s answering a need that people have to learn Hebrew in a way that is exciting and perhaps more importantly that is empowering, that makes you feel like you can express yourself and interact with the world in a meaningful way,” said Karen Isaacs, one of the founders of the program and a native of Toronto.

In developing an atmosphere that encourages critical thought at the center of the program, the facilitators create curricula that investigate Israeli society, gender, the occupation and language study itself from top to bottom. The Haaretz article goes on:

As part of this mission, This Is Not an Ulpan recently organized a tour of Hebron that was led by a member of Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who speak out against the occupation of the West Bank. [A. Daniel] Roth, who wrote on his personal blog that he moved to Israel last year from Toronto in part “to end the occupation,” said that This Is Not an Ulpan is “deeply rooted in leftist ideals” but noted that the army class is taught by a soldier and that anyone who has an open mind should feel welcome.

“We hope we can invite people of all backgrounds and political ideologies to have a conversation and learn together,” he said. “But one thing we don’t compromise on is the critical view of society.”

In a recent post on my blog about the background of this project, I wrote:

It demands that teachers and students view each other as valuable members of a community, not as one who has all the knowledge and one who has none. It demands that teachers encourage students to feel embarrassed, because speaking in new accents and with new words, in new ways is embarrassing and no one ever prepares you for that.

As well, the content of the ulpan has to shift. It is very hard to stay engaged when we practice new words and tenses using sentences such as “I would like to order the pasta” or “The cow belongs in the barn.” When the content matters to the people in the room, the people in the room will be engaged. That goes for teachers and students.

But the need to engage with relevant content extends beyond just thinking about more useful scenarios. The ulpan as it exists today tends to paint a rosy and uncritical picture of life in Israel. It is, to say the least, insufficient preparation for the reality at hand.

This Is Not an Ulpan is building a framework for learning Hebrew that empowers learners to work for real change in Israeli society. The aim is to learn about this society in Hebrew so we can build and strengthen identities as members of Israeli society who feel responsible for it. That sense of responsibility is essential to taking an active role in shaping a future of justice and peace.