Hebrew teaching to be expanded in the Gaza Strip

Hamas say Gazans should "better know their enemy".

“Know Thine Enemy” wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War. Children in classrooms across the Gaza strip will soon be putting this theory to practice by learning Hebrew, according to Hamas.

Teaching of the language will be expanded in government schools - around half the schools in Gaza. A faculty of Hebrew studies is being set up at the pro-Hamas Islamic University. Arabic is already compulsory in Israeli schools.

Soumaya al-Nakhala, a senior Hamas education ministry official, told Reuters: "Expanding [Hebrew] teaching comes as a result of our plan and meeting greater demand by students to learn Hebrew. They want to learn the language of their enemy so they can avoid their tricks and evil.”

Many of the 1.5 million Gazans used to speak the language of Israel, as they were labourers there. Since 1994, when Israel started preventing Gazans from crossing its borders, this number fell dramatically. Today only around 50,000 Gazans speak some Hebrew - often picked up from their experience as prisoners in Israel.  

“That question about language is very important. One can ask of the Israelis who learn Arabic. Language is a window to another person's/groups' point of view, and may promote peace as well as understanding the enemy,” commented Camelia Suleiman, author of “Language and Identity in the Israel-Palestine Conflict.”

Hamas may be realising the importance of languages in the “war of information” with Israel. During Netanyahu’s recent bombardment of Gaza, an Israeli social media campaign tweeted videos and statements on the conflict in many languages, including Arabic. Recently arrived migrants to Israel were recruited to spread support of the war in their own languages through the media. The Israeli Foreign Ministry already has a YouTube channel in Arabic. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has even started tweeting in Arabic.

“There is no doubt that one of the most salient elements of the recent changes in the Middle East has been the role of communications technology,” Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry Spokesman Gal Ilan told The Algemeiner in December. “We believe that public diplomacy initiatives – by virtue of internet and social media – have the power to reveal Israel’s true face and reach people’s hearts and minds and to effect Israel’s image among the Arab communities.”

Ofir Gendelman, the Israeli foreign ministry's spokesman to the Arab media, talks about the ceasefire with Hamas

It seems Hamas agrees with Ilan. Teaching Hebrew is a foothold in shaping the narrative of Israeli media. Even the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing, now tweet in the "language of the enemy."

As for individual Gazans, hopefully they will have more of a chance to tell their own stories and engage with Israelis on an equal linguistic footing. At the very least, Gazan children toiling over Hebrew verb tables can take comfort that  their learning is easier than it was for its first student. Itamar Ben-Avi, the language’s first native speaker, was taught only modern Hebrew as a child in the late 19th century - a language his father had only just formulated. Unable to communicate with or understand other children, a dog was his only companion.

Palestinian students do their homework. Photograph: Getty Images
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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood