I moved to Israel last year with two missions in mind: Learn Hebrew and work to end the occupation, which is, in my opinion, essential to both Jewish and Palestinian Liberation in Israel and Palestine.
With these goals in mind, and others, a group of language learners and teachers have come together to create a Hebrew learning space called “This is Not an Ulpan”.
I have spent a cumulative 16 months in various Ulpan (Hebrew language study) programs during my (some would say) short life. I’ve successfully completed Ulpan Aleph and Bet on Kibbutzim and (some would say) successfully completed another Bet and a Gimmel in Tel Aviv Ulpan programs. It’s safe to say that I know Ulpan.
I have spent so much time (and I will continue to do so) learning Hebrew because it is at the core of my Socialist-Zionist, Jewish identity. It is one of the most important ways that I engage with my culture and my people. Language and culture affect each other and I want to participate in that process in Israel, with the Jewish people, in our language: Hebrew.
I have known for some time that I have not really enjoyed learning in the Ulpan spaces that I have experienced, but for years I thought it was just a result of the often uninspired lessons, which view the learner, as Paulo Freire would put it, a bank account ready for a knowledge deposit. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Plenty of great teachers work in the Ulpan system. In the last few months it has dawned on me that it's both the form and content of that system that doesn't sit right with me.
A linguist friend of mine recently informed me that the word “Ulpan” is actually derived from an ancient connection that the letter Aleph (א), the first letter in the word Ulpan, has to Bulls. Yes, the animal. The term, as it is used in Modern Hebrew, refers to breaking down of the students in order to retrain them; like you might retrain a bull. So that's the root of the word, and the starting point that has led Ulpan down a problematic path. For me and a growing number of people who I have spoken to over the last few months the top down, formal and frontal teaching methods that mark the average Ulpan experience are no longer succeeding at breaking down and building up learners.
Either the culture of learning has been changing over the last hundred years of modern Hebrew learning or else there has always been a great many disgruntled students of Hebrew.
It stands to reason that in teaching the art of conversation and dialogue, one would use conversation and dialogue in the lessons, but forced conversation based on out of touch text book excerpts won't cut it. What's needed is space for learners and teachers to engage in important conversations about politics, art, culture, dreams and fears.
That demands that lessons be participatory and inclusive. 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.
In Ulpan we learn about the Israel that is full of life, culture, art, history, innovation and potential. Unfortunately, and to the surprise of many who move to Israel without much prior experience on the ground here, we are engaged in the military occupation of another people. There is a deep and troubling trend toward racism in the streets and in the Knesset. Work is hard to find and the cost of living is high. Poverty, racism, and militaristic violence are more and more the norm.
Ulpan can prepare new comers for those realities, so that we can critically engage with Israeli society and move to join the many already out here who are working to build a better society.
It is vital that Ulpan teach dialogue through dialogical means. It is time for Ulpan to tell the truth about Israel. It is time for students and teachers of the Hebrew language and Hebrew culture to demand a higher level of critical thought from each other so that we can hit the ground running when we get here and engage in the betterment of this society on equal footing (at least linguistically).
Equality, after all, is the goal that we ought to hold for each and every human being in our midst whether they be Palestinian, Israeli, seeking asylum, or just visiting. In order for that equality to rise up on the streets of Israel and the halls of power, that equality also needs to exist in the Ulpan.
“This is not an Ulpan” is currently in its pilot semester. We have three groups that meet weekly, each a different style/level in Tel Aviv. You can see our educational principles below and you can get the latest information here.
Principles of “This is Not an Ulpan":
1) We don't learn Hebrew, we learn in Hebrew: Each course deals with a different subject - our goal isn't to learn grammar or spelling, it's to acquire the tools necessary to understand our surroundings and to participate in what’s going on around us. Language is a priority, but not the only one.
2) We don't hide the tough realities of this place. Instead, we actively and critically engage with those realities in Hebrew: Critical education doesn’t accept things as they are. In this forum we question the reality around us and through understanding the process that brought us to the present, we build an understanding of the alternatives that are out there. In short, we engage the real politics and culture of Israel in order to close the gap between the real and ideal.
3) Every student is a teacher and every teacher is a student. This means that each course has a facilitator, who works according to the principles of critical pedagogy and participants who do the same. Everyone is actively involved in shaping the learning process together, with guidance from the facilitator.
4) We're all human - everyone needs community. Newcomers - Olim Chadashim, Migrant Workers, Refugees, Travelers, Students - have a lot to learn from, and teach to one another. Even though the classes are loosely split into levels, we believe that education must reflect the reality that all levels are mixed. Some are good at reading and not so great at speaking. Some can write a page of letters, but will have no idea what they mean. That’s part of the reason that we are here together. We are building a community made up of Hebrew speakers at many different levels so that we can learn from, and teach to, each other.
5) There is no purpose for grading here; the only test is whether you are learning the language.
6) Learning a language always makes you look and talk funny. We know it and you know it too. Together we will accept that fact and be proud of the progress we make together. Confidence is key to progress and we will build it together.