Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.5

November 6, 2003


Arab students learn about Jewish culture in Hebrew class

by Sarah Binder

It may not be what Dr. Menachem Rotstein has in mind when he talks about positive long-term effect of Arab students taking his Hebrew class, but for one student the benefit was immediate and concrete.

Samer Stiban, a Palestinian Catholic who took Rotstein`s introductory Hebrew last winter, used his skill with the language to deal more effectively with Israeli soldiers at checkpoints on a recent visit back to his home just outside Jerusalem.

“Sometimes they don’t want to speak English or Arabic, even though they know how to, so I got to use my Hebrew,” said Stiban.

The 19-year-old film student was one of a small but steady number of Arab or Muslim students who have signed up for Rotstein`s class in recent years. The class has about 30 students, mostly Jews, four to six Arabs or Muslims and a sprinkling of Christians.

The fact that Arabs are among his students “only became a significant issue a year ago because of the tensions on campus,” Rotstein said, referring to confrontations between Concordia students on opposite sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The presence of the Arab students in his class is “testimony to the fact that good will and love of scholarship can help overcome many obstacles,” said Rotstein, who has taught Hebrew for 20 years at Concordia.

Using Israeli newspapers and Hebrew-language Web sites as educational tools, he aims “to get students to appreciate Jewish culture in Hebrew. Arab students who are curious about Israel, Israeli culture, Hebrew language, Jewish traditions - for some reasons they find this course. And they work very hard.”

Rotstein’s is not the only classroom at Concordia where Jews and Arabs learn about each other.

Hashem Fassih, a third-year finance student from Syria, took introductory Hebrew two years ago. Fassih is now taking a course taught by Dana Sajadi on the history of the Middle East way before the creation of Israel.

“I was surprised by the number of Jews taking it –they’re interested in the pre-Islamic period, the caliphates and so on - it’s great,” Fassih said.

Last year, he chose an elective political science course on the Middle East and global conflict, where “there were some very heated debates” between Muslim and Jewish students.

That won’t happen in Rotstein’s beginner’s Hebrew. “I completely avoid bringing those matters in because it’s irrelevant to the teaching,” Rotstein said. The course is not geared to conversation but “if their goal is to be able to read a Hebrew newspaper, we can attain that.”

Which is just fine with students like Stiban and Fassih. They would rather discuss Israeli music, anyways.

Fassih, 21, made two new Jewish friends in Rotstein`s class but, as is the case for Stiban and most of his Jewish friends, they don’t talk about the Israel-Palestine situation because that might jeopardize the friendship.

Stiban, who learned basic Hebrew on the street in Jerusalem, took Rotstein’s class to improve his grammar and syntax. For Fassih, the reasons were multi-layered, including fascination with the language of prayer used by Jewish friends of the family.

Fassih, who has lived in several countries, said Rotstein`s course showed him how alike Arabs and Israelis are, for example, when it comes to traffic chaos or in their fondness for proverbs.

“I thought we were the only people who had so many proverbs and then Mr. Rotstein would come up with two or three proverbs in Hebrew in every class that I would understand before he even explained what they were. “My God, they’re just like us!”