Beyond Words - Language Blog

Learning Hebrew in the Gaza Strip

A newly-instated elective course for high school students in the Gaza Strip may have an unpredictable effect on Israeli-Hamas relations. Beginning this fall, Hebrew will be added as an elective for ninth-graders in a handful of Gaza schools. If deemed successful, the program may spread to other schools in the area.

Israeli youths have been studying Arabic for many years, with over 350,000 middle school students enrolled in compulsory classes, according to the Education Ministry. The reasons, stated and unstated, for the popularity of Arabic courses are many, including the desire to promote awareness and tolerance and to incorporate the Arab and Arabic-speaking citizens of Israel into the socio-political community. While many Gaza residents view Hebrew as the language of the enemy, the Hamas Ministry of Education touts the new measure as a way to introduce students to as many foreign languages as possible, fostering travel and work. Many Gaza residents already possess some conversational Hebrew, acquired while working in Israel in previous decades.

Along with about a dozen other languages that share over 270 million speakers between them, Hebrew and Arabic belong to the Afro-Asiatic branch of the Semitic language family, which dates back to the third millennium BC. The two languages share about 40 percent of their grammar, syntax, and roots, and are both written and read from right to left. One of the most distinctive features of these languages is the prevalence of nonconcatenative morphology. Whereas most Western languages rely on prefixes and suffixes to manipulate root words, speakers of Semitic languages insert vowels into roots to change their meanings. To illustrate, an English variation of this morphology is found in the transformation of the singular “foot” to the plural “feet” or the irregular verb “bear”, which turns into “bore” in the past tense.

These linguistic similarities will, no doubt, aid Gaza’s school-age residents in their Hebrew studies. While the language program will become compulsory in only 10-20 schools this fall, it may expand to the area’s 180 high schools in time, according to the Ministry of Education.

Photograph “Gaza City” by Olly L