Gilad Sevitt: Mending Relationships Through Language
This story was collected in partnership with New Story Leadership.
Gilad Sevitt, a social entrepreneur from Jerusalem, is the founder and professional director of Madrasa – an organization that offers a unique free platform in Hebrew for learning spoken Arabic, used by tens of thousands of people. Madrasa aims to better the communication between Israelis and Palestinians and to create a society in Israel that can also communicate in Arabic. After spending a few years as an environmental activist, in the age of 23 he started giving free Arabic lessons at home which developed into Madrasa. Gilad holds a B.A in Sociology, Anthropology, Arabic and Buddhism, plays music, has a huge interest in social change, and participates in programs promoting dialog and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
When I speak about my life in Jerusalem, at least until the age of 22 and 23, it was mostly in West Jerusalem, but I wasn’t aware of this division for most of my life. Jerusalem just has very beautiful neighborhoods, some of them have older houses, from before 1948, we call them Inhibobaigt al Ami, which is an Arabic house. I always try to emphasize that I do not come from a rich family because I lived on the poorer side of Bacca. They have the normal Ashkenazi model, of having two boys and a dog, it’s very common. So, two parents, two boys, I have only one brother and a dog.
I dont think I was aware of my identity for a very long time. I didn’t consider myself, ‘I am Aschkanazi, but he is Mizrahi. I am Israeli, he is Palestinan”. I didn’t ask a lot about this, and one thing that was kind centered that I asked a lot of questions about was Judaism. What happens in Judaism, is that there are many sections of Judaism, I come from the secular section. So, I am a Secular Jew, this means that I do not wear the Kipah, I do not go to the Synagogue, although I can. It means that I do not necessarily believe in the power of the Almighty. But I grew up as a Jew, celebrating the Jewish holidays, living in Israel. Also, I don’t need to teach you this bit of identity is what you are but also what you are not. There is a conflict that I heard about between Jews and Arabs. So I’m not an Arab, I’m a Jew, and when I want to promote communication (which is what I do today) between Jews and Arabs, I’m from the Jewish side, whether I define myself from the Jewish side, or not. Not so much by itself, but I am from the Jewish group. I think like many people my age, it is easy to identify myself as a human being. I am a human being, I care about other human beings, I care about Marvel Universal Corporation, that’s it.
I went through a very long journey of learning not only Spanish (which is the language of my family) but also learning Arabic. I learned it over the school, at Fuzhou, and I also learned it in the Army. Even after 9 years of learning, I found out that I’m walking around in Jerusalem, 40% of Jerusalem is Palestinan citizens who live in East Jerusalem. This other side that I was never been exposed to except for going to Homos, in the Elbade Madina, in the old city.
Then I just started to speak with these people, I was bored, and these people are 22% of the population inside Israel, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and 40% of Jerusalem. I learned suddenly [Arabic], which is the language of 5 million Palestinians as well, who lived in the West Bank in Gaza, and 24 countries around Israel. My life completely changes, because I speak a language of so many people, and I also discover that Arabic was super important in the life of Jews for many years in the Middle East.
I see this as a very centered language, so I decided to share this language. I wanted to make this video, so I asked one friend who has a camera if he can come and take a video of me. He said, “Only videos is going to be really boring, let’s do exercises”. So, I asked another friend who knew a little bit of Arabic, to do PDFs, and he wrote PDFs in excel sizes for the four of us. I really wanted to make sure that the Arabic was correct. I didn’t have a lot of political awareness of how important it is to work together, but I did ask my few friends from University, whether they can go through the materials and right for catalog and stuff like that. My Arab friends from West Jerusalem helped me with checking if all the materials are correct and adding content that will be interesting to learn. There were a lot of people who became a part of this.
Of course, maybe the most important people are the people who learned. I think everyone was really supportive because of the need to learn Arabic in Israel since there was no website or youtube lessons that offered it for free. Then, suddenly there’s this thing and people are really learning and sharing their experiences of speaking Arabic for the first time in their life. It became such an exciting thing that my family was supporting, each in their own way.
Again, it’s important to work together, the fact that we were a group, both Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, to take part in it. Also, many Palestinians became interested in it, to become facilitators of the meetups we are running, is something that is very inspirational for many people to see. A group of people working together, teaching a language that promotes communication. If you see a problem in life, whether its a social problem, a political problem, or a personal one, try to refer to it as a challenge, try to think about what you can do.
One last quote: “you can not pave all of the worlds with leather, but you can put shoes on your own feet…if you are vegan, you can put vegan shoes, without leather.” Its a quote by someone from the eighteenth century, but I think it is still relevant. I find it interesting that we cannot really tell others what to do or try to change the whole world around us, but we can definitely choose what we can do with our own feet, where we go, what we think, and how to act.