Hassan Kaabia (left) and Din Binness teaching Hebrew in the Foreign Ministry clip. Photo: Screenshot.
As part of its “soft public diplomacy” efforts, the Israeli Foreign Ministry embarked this week on a new program to teach Hebrew to the Arab world.
To this end, the ministry’s digital diplomacy department on Tuesday uploaded a video clip to its Arabic-language Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages, in which two staffers offer a lesson in simple words, such as, “Yes,” “Thanks” and “Hello.”
The two “teachers” are Din Binness and Hassan Kaabia — an Israeli Jewish woman and an Israeli Arab man.
According to a report by Israel’s Channel 2, more than 300,000 people in the Arab world have been exposed to the clip, which many surfers have lauded — even using the new words they learned in the video. “Shalom and thank you very much,” wrote one user.
Another praised the initiative, saying, “If you don’t know a language, you cannot communicate with the people who speak it.”
Responses were not all positive, however, the report said, pointing to the opportunity some followers took to express anti-Israel sentiment.
For example, one person commented, “Can you translate for me the sentence: ‘Zionist entity, I hope you go to hell and stay there’?”
Yonatan Gonen, head of the ministry’s Arabic-language digital diplomacy department, told Channel 2 that the launch of the first clip came about as a result of growing interest among social media followers, and “out of the thought to highlight the similarity between the two Semitic languages in a modern format.’
‘From other pilots we launched in the past, we learned that there was great interest among many Arabic-speaking followers to learn more and more about the Hebrew language, which is so close to Arabic,” he said.
Gonen explained the interest as part of “an obsession in the Arab world with Israel, which gets disproportionate, mainly negative, coverage in the Arab press; meanwhile, average citizens want to understand why this phenomenon called Israel is so successful and able to flourish in such a volatile region. This is not only a function of curiosity, but envy.”
Beyond that, said Gonen, some Arabs “miss the Jewish communities that were forced to leave their countries, and their thirst to learn Hebrew is like a longing for long-lost Jewish friends no longer among them.”
He said that Binness, the IDC Herzliya student who speaks Hebrew in the clip, became an overnight star in Arabic media outlets that covered it, with one Egyptian new site calling her facial expressions “light and fun.”
Binness said she was surprised by the amount of positive feedback the clip received. “Sitting in front of a camera and talking to people that only digital platforms enable reaching was a wonderful experience,” she stated. “Part of the enjoyment was, of course, working with Hassan Kaabia, a top diplomat in the Foreign Ministry. I definitely believe that such a project provides the opportunity to make room for Arab-Jewish dialogue, and hope that it contributes to rapprochement.”
Kaabia, the Arabic-speaker in the clip, joined the Foreign Ministry after serving as an officer in the IDF, and works as its Arabic media spokesman.
The Foreign Ministry’s Arabic-language Facebook page — called “Israel Speaks Arabic” — daily posts content about Israel, to counteract negative stereotypes by presenting the country’s positive side. Over the past year, the page garnered some 120 million views.
Gonen said that the current clip was the first in a series of Hebrew lessons to be uploaded to the Internet.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."