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In Profile: Naomi Mark - a daughter of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam

Friday 24 November 2006, by Joanna Steinhardt

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Serving the country

Naomi Mark, twenty years old, grew up in Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam, where she attended the village’s binational primary school until sixth grade. As a daughter of the village and an alumna of the school system, Naomi personifies how the village and its school can effect change in Israeli society. Her story and insights offer a way forward in thinking about how we can make the NSWAS school system even better. Naomi and I made time during the holiday season to talk about her present work and what she learned at NSWAS. We conducted the interview in English — her third language.

After graduating from high school, like all Jewish Israelis, Naomi faced compulsory enlistment in the Israeli Army. She refused to serve, claiming conscientious objection. In the military committee that reviewed her case, she stated that she objected to the army’s role in the military occupation of the Palestinian Territories. When (as is always the case), the committee refused to admit this as grounds for exemption, she claimed total objection to enlistment as a pacifist. This argument was accepted, and she was exempted as a conscientious objector.

Rather than go right to university, travel, or work during the years she would have been in the army, Naomi chose to do non-military national service. For one year, she worked in southern Israel as a volunteer with the Alon Association. They placed her in a Jewish school in Beer Sheva where students rejected from every other type of educational framework are given a final chance to finish high school. Now, in her second year of voluntary service, Naomi is working at the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). She works on behalf of prisoners, advocating for their access to health services and for humane conditions while they are in custody. Part of her job is to liaise between the organization, the Israeli prison authority, and the families of Palestinian prisoners.

Arabic is essential for her work at the organization. Naomi says that when she first started her job at PHR, her Arabic was “very bad” because she had forgotten so much in the eight years since her graduation from the NSWAS primary school. Still, although it was rusty at first, it came back easily. “It was there. It was easy to go back to it… I had to dust it off, you know.“

Fighting for human rights in Israeli prisons

At PHR, Naomi gathers information on the medical condition of prisoners from their families and lawyers to relay to the doctors working inside the prison. For example, heart problems or diabetes could be life threatening in the over-crowded, difficult conditions inside Israeli jails. They might also require certain kinds of medicine or treatment. She is also responsible for relaying information from the doctors to the families outside. Her job is made more difficult by the fact that the prisons are nearly sealed from outside observation. This means that Naomi is often the only source of information for the families. Unfortunately, her task is not small: as of February 2005, 7,700 out of 17,000 prisoners held by the Israeli government were residents of the Occupied Territories. They are being held in civil jails, police detention centers, and military prisons. Seven hundred and fifty of these prisoners are administrative detainees, which means they are held without charge or trial, indefinitely [1].

Understanding this arcane system of law is difficult even for someone who speaks Hebrew, but for someone who doesn’t know the language, it can be impossible. As Naomi explains,

“It's very, very hard to really understand what's going on inside. And for Palestinians it’s even harder because they don't know the language, they don't know how the system works…. They're in shock sometimes and they don’t trust the doctors after everything they have been through. Sometimes the doctors use their medical information against them. So they don't always tell the doctors the problems they have, even if they need medicine... So the family contacts me and they say, ‘this one is suffering from diabetes and he needs this and this,’ and I have to pass it on to the Prisons Authority so they know.
“Even worse, the prisoners don’t have visitation rights during the first month. So when a Palestinian prisoner is shot during his arrest, for example, and he's in the hospital, no one tells [the family] about his situation. So they can't see him for a week, and they're disturbed. That's a really extreme case but it happens, it happens every week.”

These are the circumstances that Naomi navigates every day, speaking Arabic. Part of her job is speaking to members of the prisoners’ families on the phone. Many of them either don’t speak Hebrew or speak only broken Hebrew, which makes Arabic essential in obtaining this vital information. As for the oddity of a Jewish Israeli who is fluent in Arabic, she told me that often the Palestinian families don’t even know that she’s Jewish, or they “don’t know that it’s so special,” but sometimes “they are really excited.”

To do what she does, Arabic is indispensable. “It’s very, very important to speak the language. I don’t think that anyone could have done this job without speaking Arabic.”

Learning Arabic in a Hebrew-speaking country

Though Naomi is now fluent in Arabic, the language sat dormant for some time – in spite of the fact that she lives in a village that is half Arab and that some of her closest friends are native Arabic-speakers. This illustrates the difficulty of becoming actively bilingual in a society where the dominant language is Hebrew. Even at NSWAS, where the emphasis on parity is so pronounced, it is possible to live and be educated without actually speaking Arabic fluently, even if one understands the language and can get by in the occasional conversation.

As Naomi puts it, “We learned Arabic in the school and I could speak it, but during our daily life we didn’t usually use Arabic, even with my Arab friends.” For example, with Arab friends and their families, “when a Jewish person is around, the language turns into Hebrew.”

Yet it’s clear that she absorbed enough of the language to reach her present level of fluency. Naomi’s fluency can also be traced to her early absorption of the language in nursery school and kindergarten. Though children from the village currently make up about 10% of the total student body of the NSWAS school, they account for about 90% of the strongest Arabic speakers among the Jewish students. At the NSWAS school, as is common in Israel, Arab children are able to pick up the majority language quickly because they live in a Hebrew-speaking society, while Jewish children find it hard to pick up Arabic for the same reason (they live in a Hebrew-speaking – not an Arabic-speaking – society). That means that Arab students regularly study Hebrew at the native level with Jewish students, whereas Jewish students are rarely competent to study Arabic at the native level with Arab students. In these lessons, with few exceptions, the only Jews who join the Arab students are from the village – meaning that, in general, they are graduates of the NSWAS nursery and kindergarten.

Naomi’s experience reflects these numbers. She recalls that in her NSWAS kindergarten, “my teacher in kindergarten was Arab so it was very natural that everything is half Arabic and half Hebrew.” The unavoidable dominance of Hebrew in Israeli society only touched her after she had already absorbed the language without the psychological distance that comes from learning a “minority” language.

Besides Naomi, the list of Jewish kids who grew up in the village and are now fully bilingual is long and inspiring. Several of these alumni have gone on to work in settings where Arabic is an essential and active part of their job. As Naomi explained, for a Jewish kid growing up in an Arab-Jewish community, it is still difficult to turn the language from passive Arabic to active Arabic, yet if the foundation for fluency is laid early on, it can more easily be activated when the child grows up and consciously decides to use the language.

Arabic as a path towards recognition and equality

The question of how to effect structural change in Israeli society is one of the overarching questions of the village and the NSWAS school system. How can we combat expressions of racism in Israeli society? How can we contribute to a more just, equal, and tolerant society? For Naomi, the experience of growing up in an environment where equal relationships with Arabs were taken for granted gave her a perspective that was quite different from the average Jewish Israeli’s.

“Growing up in NSWAS makes things very natural, in the beginning. It’s very natural to have Arab friends, it’s very natural to speak Arabic.

“For me, I didn’t have the feeling that it’s forced … Now, when I’m looking at it, it seems really hard work to make it natural for kids, to have a place with half Jews and half Arabs, and you have Christians and Muslims. You have to really think about everything… But when you’re little, you don’t think about it, it’s very natural.

“Afterwards, when I grew up, I understood that there is a conflict, that there are two sides and there are minorities and a majority, and there’s the Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews and there’s the Palestinian-Israeli conflict… I think the significance of NSWAS is that you understand the conflict after you personally knew the other side in the basic way, in the most pure way, with friendship and learning. And [only] after, that there’s a war, after you love your—I don’t know even whether to say ‘the enemy’…"

Naomi is able to see the other side as people first and foremost. The friendships and communal ties she grew up with at NSWAS provided her with this outlook. At the same time, she sees the language as central to making any lasting change in society.

“You can’t really know a culture and a nation if you’re not speaking their language. But if you want to have a regular Jewish route, you know, high school, army, work, you don’t have to know Arabic. I’m comparing it, for example, to Canada: you can’t get a job in Canada where you can’t get a job from the State – teacher, police officer, everything – if you don’t pass exams in French.
“Twenty percent of Israel is Arab and there are [almost] no Jews that speak Arabic. I think the important thing about knowing the language is to understand that twenty percent that we are putting to the side. We don’t want to know what’s going on with them, with their problems and their poverty. They’re so far away from us, in the Arab villages, you know, everything is like, “okay, that’s [how things are with] the Arabs.”
“It’s impossible to ignore twenty percent of this country. And not to speak their language is to further enlarge the gap, the {abyss}, that’s between us. And if we want some kind of relationship based on equality, then we need {at least} to know [the language], and to know who they are.”

Naomi sees firsthand both how difficult it is to achieve bilingualism in Israel and yet how essential it is if the Israeli system is going to work for all its citizens. Otherwise, the minority group remains outside of the national consciousness, unlikely to receive their fair portion of the country’s resources because they are perennially thought of as only partial citizens. For Jewish Israelis, changing this situation means wanting to learn about the other person, his or her language and culture, and wanting to share power to create a more just society. With her knowledge of the Arabic language and the perspective gained from growing up in an integrated community, Naomi has the conceptual and linguistic tools to bridge the widening gap between Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews.

Learning to want change

How do we learn from Naomi’s success?

Clearly, Naomi learned a lot from the NSWAS school systems. Although she wasn’t fluent in Arabic when she left the school, she had the basis for fluency that would serve her later on. Judging from the other children from the village who have attained high levels of Arabic, this is due to both absorbing the language at an early age and being in an environment that instills the values of equality and justice, inspiring the individual to use the language to create a more open society.

Naomi is critical of the injustice she sees in the world around her and even more so considering the gap between the values she grew up with and those she sees in the wider society. For Naomi one of the most important obstacles in the way of bilingualism is an absence of a sense of the importance of the Arabic language. For Jewish kids, speaking Arabic is fighting an uphill battle in a society that is dominated by Hebrew, but if they really want to learn the language, they can.

One of the important insights Naomi brings up is that although the “naturalness” of her education and upbringing contributed greatly to both her ability to speak Arabic and her understanding of “the other side,” this naturalness was actually quite unnatural in the context of Jewish-Israeli society. The environment of equality and bilingualism is based on countless hours of research, consideration, and preparation. This is the work of the NSWAS school system’s administration, its teachers, and its parents. It is thanks to this planning that Naomi received the education and outlook that she did. At the same time, it is on this level that the NSWAS school can improve by teaching Arabic to the Jewish students at an earlier age, before they realize that they don’t “need” it, and by making the language interesting, fun, and valuable in their eyes. The school system should invest more in its bilingual preschool education in order to make it open to more students. Secondly, the teachers require further training to formulate a consistent curriculum that properly conveys the importance of Arabic and makes the children want to speak the language.

Naomi offers an inspiring example of a NSWAS graduate putting the values of the village and the skills she learned at its school to good use. Her comments reveal the progress that is still necessary in achieving lasting results once our graduates go out into the world.



[1Palestinians are one of the most highly imprisoned populations on earth. For more information, see http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=9674

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