While Hebrew is the official language of Israel, Arabic is the mother tongue for 20 percent of the population. In Jordan, Israel’s next-door geographic neighbor, most residents speak Levantine Arabic. In a surprising effort to bridge this language barrier, Jordanians are now promoting the study of Hebrew.
In an unprecedented move among Arab nations, Jordan established The Center for Israel Studies in Jordan (CIS) in 2014. The institution offers lectures, courses, and workshops on Israeli politics, society, economy, and military.
While Jordan has never recognized the State of Israel’s right to exist, the former King Hussein had the foresight to maintain peaceful relations with the Jewish State in the interest of geographic, economic, and political interests. Israel is recognized as the most stable country in the region and the only gateway allowing full access to social, technological, and medical advances from the Western World.
At the end of December 2016, The Center for Israel Studies in Jordan (CIS) hosted a workshop in Amman to promote the study of the Hebrew language among Arab students everywhere, due to the center’s belief that the best way to understand another country’s society and culture is to learn the country’s language and thus be able to explore literature, media, and scholarly publications.
Professors, students, and journalists from Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia attended the conference alongside their Jordanian counterparts. Roni Segal, the academic adviser for eTeacher, an online language academy, was impressed by Jordan’s initiative in hosting the workshop. “By learning Hebrew, Israel’s Arab neighbors will perhaps have a better chance of understanding and thereby appreciating the Jewish Democracy in their midst.”
There are not enough up to date learning materials for proper Hebrew studies in Jordan, or almost anywhere in the Arab world. The Hebrew language is constantly evolving, and it is difficult to obtain modern teaching materials, or even Hebrew books and newspapers, when there is no free travel or mail service between Arab countries and Israel.
Due to these difficulties, the number of Jordanian university students alone majoring in Hebrew has dropped from 600 in 2002 to just 100 at present. A workshop attendee said, “We need to focus more on translation and applicable skills. We need laboratories (audio, video, listening, and speaking equipment). We need to make massive modifications on the curriculums. We need Hebrew-related jobs, we need Masters program, research opportunities.”
In a 2016 interview, the director of the CIS – Abdalla Sawallha – said about Jordanian-Israeli relations, “Both countries have a mutual interest and common threats so we have to develop these relations…If you are talking about the environment, energy or agriculture, these problems don’t recognize borders. We need to find a new approach and we have a peace treaty, but as you see, people in Jordan still think Israel is our enemy.”
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