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Teaching Arabic to Israeli Cops Requires Its Own Kind of Policing

About a dozen Israelis sit hunched over their desks in a picturesque beachfront setting, haltingly trying out their first sentences in Arabic.

“I live in Jerusalem and I work at the university,” one says.

“My name is Shuka and I live with my family in Tel Aviv,” says another.

They speak slowly, stringing together words they’ve learned in the first week of an intensive Arabic-language beginner’s course.

A short distance away, another Arabic course for beginners is getting under way. The students in this class, however, are learning sentences of a different nature.

“Sit on this bench! You’ve got several options here and you’d better not make things difficult for us,” one student reads from the text in his instructional booklet.

“These people are tied to drug-running,” reads another, stumbling over the unfamiliar Arabic cadences.

The students in the second class are Israeli police officers, taking a special course for police working in Arab towns and neighborhoods in Israel.

The police course is one of many specialized Arabic courses at Ulpan Akiva, the Netanya-based institute for Hebrew language and culture.

Among the institute’s other Arabic programs are language courses for Israel’s navy, staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, officials in the Interior Ministry and, of course, Israel’s military intelligence services.

This summer’s course is the institute’s first for regular police.

“There are cops here from all over who have contact with the Arab community,” one police officer in the class says. “We try to connect to the Arab mentality. There are things you can say to a Jew that are offensive to Arabs,” he says — such as refusing to drink coffee with an Arab, which is considered an insult. “This course helps me with that.

“I won’t leave here speaking fluent Arabic, but I’ll have a foundation,” the policeman says.

The officer, like most in the class, wouldn’t disclose his name. Some of the police are members of special undercover units, and their identities require protection.

“The police are taught the appropriate vocabulary for their work — if it’s a conversation at a checkpoint, if it’s a greeting, if it’s about customs and respecting the locals,” says Salman Amer, director of the ulpan’s Arabic language program.

Knowing the language is key to building positive relationships with Israel’s Arabs, Amer says.

“When a police officer stops me and he doesn’t know my language and just says, ‘Open the trunk,’ it can seem like an act of violence,” Amer says. “But when you know how to speak politely and say, ‘Good morning. Please let me look inside your trunk,’ you treat a person like a human being.”

Tensions between police and Israeli Arabs reached the breaking point in October 2000 when, just days after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, 12 Israeli Arabs were shot dead when Israeli police opened fire on rioters.

“In October 2000 a certain rupture took place,” Amer says. “Until then, there had been no notion of community policing. Police realized after October 2000 that they can’t just do security. Today in most of the big villages there is community policing. They help out with drug busts, prevent theft.”

Most Arabs who teach the language to Jews aren’t comfortable about publicizing that fact. The ulpan’s lone Arab Muslim teacher — who asked that his name not be used — says he asks his parents not to tell anybody in his village that he teaches here.

“When someone teaches Arabic for Jews, people right away think you’re a traitor, or teaching the Mukhabarat,” the teacher says, alluding to Israel’s intelligence services. “It’s not like that.”

“Teaching is an honorable profession, but I prefer that people not know what I do,” he says.

This past year, when the Muslim teacher helped organize a coexistence project in a school in his Arab village in northern Israel, many of his neighbors discovered from teachers that he works at Ulpan Akiva.

“Some people in my village started treating me differently, and it hurts me,” he says.

The other two Arabic teachers on staff are Israeli Druse, both veterans of the Israel Defense Forces. Though native Arabic speakers, Druse do not consider themselves Arabs.

There used to be many Arabs at Ulpan Akiva, most of them Palestinians studying Hebrew. But that ended with the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000.

“Ulpan Akiva’s motto is, ‘Language is a bridge to a relationship,’ ” says Esther Perron, the institute’s executive director. “But the last group of Palestinians we had here left on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in 2000, and we haven’t seen them since.”

When Palestinians did come to the ulpan, they would mingle in the evenings with the scores of foreigners and Israelis on campus, some of whom lived on campus and some of whom stayed behind in the evenings to socialize with other students.

Conversations in English, Hebrew and Arabic would last late into the night.

“Everyone used to sit together at night and talk,” the Arab Muslim teacher recalls. “But the political situation changed everything.”

Nowadays, the only Arabs at the ulpan are at the front of the classroom, where the task of teaching is not always easy — especially when your students are unruly and armed.

“When you teach soldiers in intelligence units, they sit there and listen and do their homework diligently,” says Saleh Dery, one of the Druse instructors. “But these cops need a break every 15 or 20 minutes. They don’t have a very long attention span.”

After lunch, the police — all of them male — sit on the front steps of the classroom building, smoking cigarettes and chatting loudly. Their pants hang low on their bottoms, exposing the handguns they wear on their hips.

Class was supposed to begin 15 minutes ago, but the police ignore Dery’s entreaties to return to their desks until an administrator appears carrying an official attendance sheet. Then they trudge back to the classroom, where three of their colleagues are sprawled across several chairs, sleeping.

When class finally begins, the policemen practice reading a text about a drug-related arrest. There isn’t much decorum in the classroom, and control shifts between the teacher and the gun-toting students.

“When I taught a class to the border police, I used to ask them to leave their weapons in the closet,” the Arab Muslim teacher says.

Nevertheless, he says he generally is able to maintain a good rapport with his students.

“I feel like I’m an ambassador here for Israeli Arabs. Many students who learn here come with stereotypes, and when they see how their Arabic teacher treats them and teaches, they leave with a different feeling than when they came,” the Arab Muslim teacher says. “This is good for both sides, for coexistence.”

One police officer in the course, Ovadiya Brumi, works at a small police station in an Arab community in northern Israel. He says the police chose Ulpan Akiva because it is the only institution in the country that teaches spoken rather than literary Arabic.

The police learn the basics of the language, but their course focuses on practical usage. While the Arabic course for civilians starts with the present tense, the course for police begins with the imperative tense — or, as the teachers refer to it, the “occupation” tense — so “Open the door!” is taught before “I am opening the door.”

The ulpan’s director says there has been a recent rise in interest in Arabic courses, perhaps a sign of better times to come. But she is guarded in her optimism, and she’s still waiting for the Arab students to return to the school.

“My heart says it will happen, but my head says it will take a few more years,” Perron says. “The special atmosphere that we had — we really feel it is missing.”

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