J Street’s “Our Israel” project spotlights the amazing Israeli groups who share our progressive vision for Israel, and who are helping build a society underpinned by the founding values of democracy, self-determination and equality which are enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
As I sat in Hebrew class a few weeks ago, I saw a word I’d never seen before. כיבוש – pronounced kee-boosh.
I found myself surprised, as it was far from the first Hebrew lesson I’ve had. I grew up spending my summers in Israel with my Safta (Hebrew for grandma) who only spoke Hebrew. My dad, who is Israeli, used to tell me the same bedtime story in Hebrew every night about his childhood, and the orange trees outside his parents house that he and his friends used to climb and pick fruit from. I went to Jewish Day School from pre-k to my senior year of high school. Yet there I was having to ask what a simple sounding word meant – and I learned that it means occupation.
I wondered to myself; how did I spend so long studying the language, and so long involved in pro-peace advocacy, and not know the word for occupation? Yet this is not outside the norm – most Hebrew lessons leave out vocabulary that provides real-world context, despite the fact that you cannot fix something that you don’t have the language to talk about. The Israeli language and advocacy cooperative, ‘This is not an Ulpan’, was founded in 2012 to fix precisely this issue.
While ‘This is Not an Ulpan’ is, by definition, not an Ulpan, what is an Ulpan?
Ulpans are institutes or schools for intensive study of Hebrew, especially by immigrants to Israel. The Israeli government created the concept of the ulpan soon after the creation of the state in 1948. Faced with a massive influx of new immigrants from all parts of the world, the government saw their languages and cultures vary widely.
“Ulpans are one of the most powerful tools in transmitting societal norms,” says Devon Spitzer, who serves as the Marketing Manager and International Outreach Coordinator at ‘This is not an Ulpan’. “You have people coming here either making Aliyah or travelers. And we asked, ‘What information are they getting when they leave ulpan?’”
‘This is not an Ulpan’, which works in both Israel and the Palestinian territory, was founded in the wake of the 2011 Israeli social justice protests which saw thousands rallying against social and economic inequality. Catalyzed by the continuing rise in the cost of living and the deterioration of public services in Israel, a familiar rallying cry of the protests was, “The people demand social justice.”
Built Upon Justice
Language courses run by the group have titles you won’t see in traditional Ulpans.
Upcoming courses next semester include “Queer your Hebrew,” “the Televised Revolution,” and “Israelization of AlQuds.”
In my advanced “Gender Games” class, we studied sexual education, an all-female Israeli settlement, and women joining – and not joining – the IDF. Spitzer, who took the same course, says, “We were sitting in a Jerusalem language course discussing bodily autonomy and whether it’s feminist to join the army. Where else does that happen?”
“We are using language to free people from this ideology that you have to learn in a certain way,” explains Sophie Shannir, the organization’s Community Manager. Being born out of the protests of 2011, justice is a founding principle that drives their work. In their classrooms, they use the subject matter as a vehicle for second language teaching and learning and rely on the use of authentic language.
In practice, this looks like having conversations within classrooms about real issues and diving into tough subjects. Their goal is to equip students with the language they need to build a more just society.
It’s not just Hebrew the group teaches, they also make teaching Arabic is a key priority. For Shannir, it’s about equality.
“To teach Arabic and Hebrew in the same place works towards the same goal of creating an equal system within an ulpan,” Shannir tells J Street. “We’re saying – one does not have to come at the price of the other. We are disconnecting the Hebrew language from the burden of being a conqueror.”.
For 70 years, Arabic was an official language of Israel. But in 2018, the Nation-State Law erased its status as an official language. Many decried the law as nothing more than racism, positioned to degrade Arabs and further classify them as second-class citizens.
‘This is not an Ulpan’ believes that their teaching of Arabic is essential in disassembling this power structure, meant to position Hebrew as a more important language. They aim to create spaces in which all people can use both languages, and there is no hierarchy. “We believe that language and education are critical tools in changing various and unequal status quos here,” explains Spitzer.
The tension and potential for the conflict to ignite at any moment makes this all the more important to them. In March, they held an event with street vendors from all over the country, in which they fostered an environment for people to be speaking Hebrew, Arabic, and English.
“It was comfortable not only because there were people from all over. We don’t have an agenda to simply bring Arabs and Jews together. We just recognize that we are all people existing within a system that we are trying to change,” Shannir tells me. “One doesn’t have to be at the price of the other. You can listen to Arabic without being scared, and you can use Hebrew without viewing it as the language of your conqueror.”
Questioning Structures of Power and Oppression
‘This is not an Ulpan’ believe that classrooms are a microcosm of society, and they want their students to challenge power structures in their everyday lives. They encourage students to be the teachers in a way and push back if something in the classroom does not feel right to them. In this way, they can mirror society and equip students with the tools they need to question the status quo.
It’s part of their goal of teaching language through critical pedagogy – a teaching philosophy that invites educators to encourage students to critique structures of power and oppression. It involves becoming aware of and questioning the societal status quo. “This is how you can educate people to make the world better,” says Shannir.
“One of our pillars is getting students involved with society. They have to start doing that in the classroom with the language they’re going to need to use,” says Spitzer.
As they bring together a community – whether in the classroom, on their active Instagram, or with partner organizations, they continue to work to disassemble power structures through language across Israel, the Palestinian Territory, and the world.