This is Not an Ulpan

While I deeply love learning Hebrew, ulpan often hurts my heart. I can’t help but bristle at prejudicial Israeli attitudes that go against the anti-oppression work that bring many of us there. Be they prejudices against Arabs, Jewish religion, President Obama or anything else, most of ulpan classmates take on those prejudices without question. Sadly, even enthusiastically.

Truthfully, the successful Hebrew ulpan model began under the need to assimilate huge numbers of immigrants and forge collective identity. Its very purpose was to be doctrinaire. But today, it’s apparent that parts of this model are inappropriate for the needs of some. American Jewry especially has the highest failed emigration rate, due in part to the values and worldview gap between how Israelis and Americans see society. Better dialogue between Israelis and American Jewry is crucial these days, so why would we want to enter a learning environment aimed at assimilation and affinity-building instead of engagement and equal exchange?

That is why this past year a group of American and Canadian learners banded together in Tel Aviv to launch This is Not an Ulpan, the first explicitly lefty Hebrew learning community. Started by Karen Isaacs, Itamar Manoff, David Kandel, Linda Leder, and Daniel Roth, the endeavor explains of itself, “The root of the word ‘Ulpan’ is the Aramaic word for bull, and denotes a place of taming…This is NOT an Ulpan.” And it’s attracted an award, a Haaretz mention, and nearly 100 students in two semesters.

Classes are offered through the framework of nonviolence and anti-oppression, such as beginners “When Chomsky Met Ben Yehuda,” intermediate “Army and Society” and “Feminism,” and advanced “How Do You Say Nakba in Hebrew?” This summer they’ve offered expanded classes on Israeli film and politics. Films and guest speakers introduced the plight of African asylum seekers and modern-day kibbutz models. The participants were all looking for a complementary critical angle on Israel — certainly not your typical aliyah or study abroad bunch.

Daniel Roth explained more at length for the blog Waging Nonviolence, “Too often, language programs expect learners to act as depositories for information about what is right and wrong, good or bad, done and never done in Israeli society. But our program model is built around the idea that it is imperative that we rethink this training-method of language study, and this goal of absorption into a society, and replace it with dialogue instead. Participants are asked to think about how to fix the problems in the society rather than learn to accept them.”

I asked Roth what they’ve all learned as they enter their third semester: “This is truly needed. Hebrew language is something we are seeking and critical analysis of our society, language and culture and politics is deeply desired. That’s what we are building and what we hope to make available through this way of engaging in education.”

Convening weeknights as it does, the program may not totally stand in place of a regular ulpan. But as a more thoughtful immersion in the reality of Israel and a community of fellow Hebrew students who care about social justice, it’s a breath of fresh air. And quite possibly, this Hebrew learning environment will help progressives engage with Israelis about the issues they’d rather ignore.

Filed under Education, Israel

4 Responses to “This is Not an Ulpan”

  1. Interesting. I suppose everyone has different experiences.
    In my ulpan the student body was pretty right-leaning but the teacher was a centrist who had no problem standing her ground and critisizing right-wing policies and politicians as fascist and anti-democratic etc. For the most part, we’d have our heated arguements and laugh together 5 minutes later about a non-political topic.


    Avraham · August 16th, 2013 at 3:33 am
  2. American Jewry especially has the highest failed emigration rate, due in part to the values and worldview gap between how Israelis and Americans see society.

    …and…

    this Hebrew learning environment will help progressives engage with Israelis about the issues they’d rather ignore

    How can American Jewish progressives engage with Israelis, with whom they have such gaps in worldview and society, if they’re in their own progressive ghetto that is not communicating with the rest of Israeli society? This seems more like an attempt to shield American Jews from actual engagement with actual Israelis.

    The very point of ulpan is to bring together disparate people, and in the process of learning a language and culture, together, they shape and mold a common identity, together.

    This program resembles more a progressive safe haven, a refuge from the rest of the Israeli mainstream, where participants are nourished on their own ideologies and teachings, all fully within their own comfort zone.

    This place is a shelter for intellectually battered American Jewish progressives to retreat to, after a long day of exposure to a very different reality… which is really sad, I think. This is self-marginalization. If American Jewish progressives want to influence Israeli society, they must engage with it, not hide from it.

    This is not the old, proud, confident left. That left would have gone to a regular ulpan, like everyone else, because it wanted to be the mainstream, it felt it was the mainstream, or that it should be. If there were bigots, racists, fascists, it would call them out and challenge them to a different vision of the world. The old left had enough confidence in its own ideas and values, in its own SOLUTIONS, that it had no problem engaging in debate. It didn’t feel that debate was frightening and corrosive, but that the lack of debate was frightening and corrosive.

    This is a PTSD left, afraid of its own shadow, whimpering in a corner and hanging a “do not disturb” sign around its neck.

    It’s just sad. Sad!


    Victor · August 16th, 2013 at 9:10 am
  3. What This is Not an Ulpan is doing is not meant to replace ulpan. It doesn’t do the same thing, but it may be more useful in certain ways such as speaking, understanding, staying engaged and dealing critically with society. It does aim to change the very nature of Hebrew learning and what TINAU does better is engage in critical dialogue in democratic learning spaces. That’s what is being built here and, far from hiding, all are encouraged to join in (visitors, new arrivals, fluent speakers), TINAU is opening in Haifa and other locations now, and indeed many from a wide variety of language and political backgrounds show up.

    The left that is embodied in TINAU is the Left that saw societal ills and built institutions to face them and placed those institutions in the forefront of the struggles that worked (and work still) for justice, peace and equality. Through movement building those institutions become the norm. Organizing is the key.

    TINAU doesn’t aim to sit on the sidelines. It’s building an institution to do nothing less than change the world and changing the world requires long term commitment and collective building. This is a project that aims to change the very nature of Ulpan through its success… That’s what TINAU is doing right in the center of the country.


    Daniel · August 28th, 2013 at 5:39 pm
  4. I find most of what goes on in Ulpan to be fairly neutral (as a veteran of four classes so far, two Ulpan Alef and two Ulpan Bet). It seems to depend more on the teacher’s viewpoint than on anything institutional, in my opinion. For instance, in Ulpan Bet last night, we discussed the death of Ariel Sharon, his hopes for peace, his attempts to compromise, and why he’s hated by many Israelis. I felt the discussion was very neutral. The teacher did recall with sadness for the students the media images of Israeli soldiers kicking Jewish Israelis out of their homes. One of the students’ husbands is a police officer who helped clear Jews out of Gaza and she did mention that he felt / feels like a Nazi for having done it. Generally, the teacher allowed the discussion to go in its own natural direction and left lots of room for dissent and debate among the students.


    Tzivia · January 13th, 2014 at 3:10 am

Leave a Reply

If your comment does not immediately appear, do not freak out and repost your message a dozen times. Please note that all new visitors must have their first comment approved by the editor, and you must provide a legitimate e-mail address and use the same username for the system to "remember" you. The editor maintains the right to refuse comments deemed inappropriate or unhelpful. Users who repeatedly delve into ad hominem attacks or other troll-like behavior will be banned.

Trackback (Right-click & 'Copy Link...') | Comments RSS

"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik