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A Milestone in the Teaching of Arabic

Martin Plessner’s Hebrew Version of the German Approach to Arabic Grammar


In 1933, Dr. Martin Plessner (1900–1973), a promising German-Jewish scholar of Oriental studies, was appointed as teacher of Arabic at the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa. This was shortly after his immigration from Germany in the context of the rise of the Nazi regime. In contrast to Salim Al-Daoudi and Eliyahuo Habouba, the two previous teachers of Arabic at the Reali School, Plessner’s mother tongue was German, not Arabic. Yet it was Plessner’s extensive knowledge of Semitic languages, including his exceptionalism in the study of Arabic grammar, that caught the attention of Dr. Arthur Biram, the principal of the Reali School, who offered him the position.

Biram was familiar with Plessner’s academic abilities, who was truly a polymath. No less importantly, Biram was aware that both men shared a common academic background and pedagogically oriented points of view and axioms. This was not only due to their common German origins, but was largely because of their common academic heritage – Oriental education as it was conducted in Germany in the Orientalistik departments, of which the central component was philology, its uniqueness, and the special importance of studying Arabic grammar and the general idea of grammar studies, as Ursula Wokoeck highlighted, »were seen to have an additional educational value, a disciplinary and acculturating effect on the mind.«

Martin Plessner’s textbook »The Theory of Arabic Grammar. A Guidebook for Hebrew-Language Schools« was published in 1935 by the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa. © Yonatan Mendel.
Martin Plessner’s textbook »The Theory of Arabic Grammar. A Guidebook for Hebrew-Language Schools« was published in 1935 by the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa. © Yonatan Mendel.

This common approach of the two men led Plessner to focus on writing a textbook on Arabic grammar, which was to have a great influence on the perception of Arabic teaching in the Hebrew education system. In 1935, Plessner completed his textbook, which was published by the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa and titled The Theory of Arabic Grammar. A Guidebook for Hebrew-Language Schools (Heb.: Torat ha-Diḳduḳ ha-ʿAravi. Sefer ʿEzrah le-Vatei Sefer ʿIvriyyim; Arab.: Kitāb Taʿlīm Qawāʿid al-Lugha al-ʿArabiyya. Li-iʿānat al-Asātidha wa-l-talāmidha fī al-Madāris al-ʿibrāniyya). The textbook was a clear representation in Hebrew of the German approach to the teaching of Arabic grammar. As examples, one need merely refer to the book’s moving dedication (to Plessner’s advisor, Prof. Gotthelf Bergstraesser, 1886–1933, one of the most renowned German Semitic linguists of the twentieth century) and to its bibliography – that is, the books on which Plessner based his writings – which heavily referenced the works of German Orientalists in the field of Arabic grammar.

In the introduction, while explaining its principles, Plessner acknowledged that this project of creating a grammar textbook was indeed crucial for Principal Biram, who, as mentioned, shared Plessner’s academic tradition. Plessner’s central emphasis in the introduction was on the book’s rationale, which emphasized German philological logics. Plessner accentuated the fact that his was an unprecedented work – the creation of a textbook on Arabic studies for Jewish schoolchildren. As he wrote:

»This book is one of a kind. The author requests that all his readers and critics take into account that it has no precursor. The author’s intention is to provide the students with sufficient tables and charts to enable them to memorize the conjugations and declensions; together with the tables in the theoretical section, these make up more than a quarter of the book.«

Plessner then underscored his attempt to emphasize the importance for Hebrew-speaking students of studying Arabic grammar, both in the context of improving their mastery of Hebrew and of creating a grammatical intellectual »umbrella« meaningful for the Hebrew student. Plessner stated:

»The great precision with which the Arabs construct their sentences makes the Arabic language a special instrument that can accustom the Hebrew student to logical thinking. It was this that propelled us to explain syntactical issues – in contrast to the customary methods of the Arabs – from a logical point of view, based on the scholarly studies undertaken in Europe over the past century.«

As a matter of fact, every page of this grammar book – the wording, the dedication, the rationale, the tables, the bibliography, and even the vocalization of every single word in Arabic in the book’s title – makes it clear that this work, written in Hebrew and intended for Jewish students in Palestine, serves as one of the clearest examples of migration of knowledge from Germany to Mandatory Palestine, as it was based on the German philological approach that reverberated with the attitude of European Orientalists and Hebraists. An example of this is its description of grammatical and syntactical issues and its disregard for Arabic approaches, which were described as illogical.

The very publication of Plessner’s book was, on the one hand, a remarkable achievement, introducing leading European academic traditions, based on the research of renowned linguists, and bringing the study of Arabic grammar into the Hebrew language and the Hebrew school. On the other hand, there was an element of exclusion and strangeness; it introduced the classical approach to the teaching of Arabic as a classical, »dead language« to a Jewish society located in a region with an Arab majority possessing a vibrant language and culture.  Interestingly, this duality of Arabic in the Jewish community in Palestine/Israel as a language with historical and classical importance on paper, but as one lacking integrative everyday connections in reality, would continue to resonate in the field of Arabic instruction for many decades to come.

Yonatan Mendel is a senior lecturer in the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His main research interests are the position, status, and teaching of Arabic in Israel, as well as Jewish-Arab relations as reflected in attitudes to and use of Arabic. During his postdoctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center and Da’at Hamakom: Center for the Study of Cultures of Place in the Modern Jewish World), he was supervised by Yfaat Weiss, who introduced him to the possibilities of exploring the German-Jewish history of Arabic teaching in Israel | mendely@bgu.ac.il.

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