Hebrew Lessons: A Palestinian Growth Market

When the 34-year-old Palestinian teacher effortlessly switched from Arabic to Hebrew, none of his students showed any hint of mistrust. Instead, the classroom buzzed in admiration for his deep commitment to the Palestinian cause.

This teacher was no traitor, but a Palestinian who had spent 12 years in an Israeli prison. Having learned Hebrew from prison guards, his proficiency in the language was a patriotic display of the sacrifices he had made for Palestine.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas has added Hebrew to the curriculum in both elementary and high schools. Yet, government schools in the West Bank offer no such opportunities. Now, private language centers across the West Bank are seeing increasing demand for Hebrew classes. Many of the teachers they employ are former detainees.

Students have various motives for learning Hebrew. Some seek to be able to decipher Israeli media, hope to facilitate communication at checkpoints, or simply want to be able to read the packaging on the goods that flood the market. But for others, the real incentives are economic.

With 89 percent of exports from the West Bank going to Israel, proficiency in Hebrew is a boon for Palestinian businesspeople. Nearly a third of young West Bankers are unemployed, and they are increasingly looking to Israel for employment. Since 2013, the proportion of West Bank Palestinian workers employed in Israel or in Israeli settlements has exceeded 15 percent each year. Politics can wait, because money talks—often in Hebrew.

This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.