In a letter to the editor of The Jerusalem Post (February 14, 2019), Dr. Samuel Dershowitz wrote: “Historically, the effectiveness of our spokespersons in presenting Israel to the outside world is proportional to their fluency and mastery of the English language.”
The word “historically” triggered my mental processes. Dr. Chaim Weizmann, who walked among British and then world statesmen to the very end of his days in 1949 spoke British English but one heard clearly under it his native Yiddish and Russian. David Ben-Gurion’s English was clearly Polish in its consonants and vowels, plus the Yiddish Brooklyn accent of a hundred years ago. It sounded something like “My vife, Polya, vas a noice,” that is “My wife, Paula, was a nurse.”
B-G had mastery of English. I once submitted a translation of part of a speech he had made in the Knesset. I wrote: “to revive the Jewish people.” In a slashing pen-stroke, he cut through “revive” and wrote above it the word “resuscitate.” (I preferred mine.)
Levi Eshkol, who became prime minister in summer 1963, when B-G resigned, had a specific Russian-Hebrew mixed accent.
His English improved amazingly over the years 1955 until his death. This was the result of practice, self-confidence, and more day-to-day chatting in English with his wife Miriam. If you listen to his speech recorded on June 10,1964 (WNYC archives), you hear a slight problem with some English vowels, and the “R” slightly trilled on the tongue, but you will also hear a vigorous, clear and well-stressed English. Whatever the accent, his breakthrough with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who agreed to supply arms to Israel, was based on his sincerity, charm, and the chemistry between the two farmer-politicians.
Native English-speakers Golda Meir, Abba Eban and the American-educated silver-tongued orator of the East, Benjamin Netanyahu, would never have said what Eshkol did.
The president: “America does not want to be a major supplier of arms to the Middle East [meaning of course Israel].”
The prime minister: “Mr. President, you don’t have to be a major supplier. It’s enough you should be a captain supplier.”
No one who thinks in English could create such a mix of two of the meanings of major: one being “the largest share” and the other, “a military rank” above captain. But Eshkol’s service in the British Army in World War I must have imprinted in his memory the relative English military ranks.
Shimon Peres had a strong Polish accent: a guttural R and a problem with long and short vowels. A good friend of mine, the late Moshe Kohn, was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post
. He hated Peres with all the passion of a dyed-in-the-wool, “never give an inch” right-winger. In one column Moshe made fun of Peres’s pronunciation of the word “peace.” I wrote Moshe that I thought that this was beneath his dignity.
When speaking French, as a mutual friend recounted, Peres often got the definite article wrong. French nouns are either masculine or feminine. The French revolution would therefore be “La révolution française.” Peres always made it masculine: “Le révolution.” The French, usually very touchy about their language and its grammar, never corrected him, as far as I know. Vive la politesse (Long live politeness)! Oh yes, accent and all, who persuaded the French to help speed us on the nuclear path? Peres wasn’t it?
While we are on the subject of French, here is a story told to me by the former chief rabbi of France, René-Samuel Sirat. While studying in Israel, he also worked as an interpreter. In those days, the 1950s, the only heads of state or government who visited Israel were from Africa.
At a state dinner for the president of a French-speaking African state, Sirat translated the visiting president’s speech from French to Hebrew. Then-prime minister Ben-Gurion began his speech that the rabbi was to translate from Hebrew to French. Now I quote the rabbi from memory. “My mind became a blank. I felt faint. I could not understand a word the prime minister was saying…. Then, after a few minutes it became clear. He was speaking French!”
Eshkol also spoke French, in a much better accent. For the opening of the Israeli pavilion at the World’s Fair – Expo 58 – in Brussels, I wrote a four-minute speech in English, Ambassador Emile Najar translated it into French, then a French-speaking radio announcer drilled Eshkol on the correct pronunciation.
Back to accents. The two English speakers, Golda Meir and Abba Eban, were as different from each other as chalk and cheese. Golda Meir had been a school teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and spoke a nasal midwestern American. What she could project was emotion and directness. Take this quote: “To be or not to be is not a question of compromise. Either you be or you don’t be.” My favorite was what Golda said to Henry Kissinger: “Henry, don’t be so humble – you are not that great.”
Moshe Dayan in his cynical way praised her with faint condescension: “Even with her only 400-word vocabulary, Golda is a great speaker.”
Eban was just the opposite; he had a vast vocabulary. He spoke Cantabrigian English, having taken a double first in Classics and Oriental languages, and his Cambridge accent permeated the other nine languages he spoke. He was a linguistic perfectionist in all of these languages, as was his one-time boss and predecessor as foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, who spoke only six or seven languages.
Sharett had a pleasant Russian-Israeli barely discernible underlay in his speech in all those languages.
Back to Eban. Henry Kissinger, in his heavy German-tinged English lauded his oratorical skills, although there is a bit of a (jealous?) needle hidden in his words, as follows: “I have never encountered anyone who matched his command of the English language. Sentences poured forth in mellifluous constructions complicated enough to test the listener’s intelligence and simultaneously leave him transfixed by the speaker’s virtuosity.”
Golda and Abba Eban were the exceptions, as native (Golda was actually almost native because she was born in Russia and was brought to Milwaukee at age eight) English-speakers. When Yitzhak Rabin became Israel’s Ambassador to the United States in 1968, I heard him speak to a large audience in New York. I too suffered from the English language fallacy at the time. His accent was thick, very thick, and I thought this would be detrimental to his new role. Of course, I was wrong.
The point is clear. People with a track record, who have earned prestige for their accomplishments and command respect because of their wisdom, experience, and integrity need not be hindered by an accent. In some cases it even enhances their unique strengths.
In a phone conversation with Dr. Samuel Dershowitz, who comes across as a witty, humorous individual, he countered my examples by saying “then was then;” but in today’s media, clarity of speech and oratorical ability are needed more than ever. That is true, but I would apply it to the level of spokespersons in ministries or embassies. Leaders today need to speak clearly, but with whatever accent they may have, and use talented speechwriters to help articulate their thoughts in the best possible way. But it is their words that determine policy or express it with the highest authority.
From Dr. Samuel I learned that the American professor of law, and famous advocate, Alan Dershowitz, is a second cousin once removed.
I will refer to him as Profץ Dershowitz to distinguish him from his Israeli cousin. I think that he is suffering from the American fallacy that projects American reality onto other nations. In his case he is projecting his civil libertarianism approach to the American legal and political system onto Israel’s vastly different legal and political reality.
He has publicly defended President Trump against the Mueller investigation by claiming that the investigation is politically motivated. He begins with the thesis that normal civil rights standards as applied to the average citizen should apply to all, including the President. The President is not above the law, but the law should be applied to him as it would be to any other American. Therefore the Mueller investigation is “political.”
The professor also wrote an article claiming the Netanyahu investigation was “political.” Sorry, sir. Israel has used the “Bouzaglo [average citizen] criterion” that the law should be applied equally to all, from the average citizen up to and including cases involving ministers, prime ministers, a chief rabbi and a president. No special prosecutor was appointed.
The investigation of the prime minister was a normal police investigation. Israel does not create special prosecutors.
Furthermore Israeli law or civil service ordinances forbid public servants from receiving gifts and – obviously – making quid pro quo deals. In one of his articles, Dershowitz wrote about the cigar and champagne case 1000 that Israeli law does not define what constitutes a gift or determine how much is too much.
Dershowitz is a good Jew as well as an outstanding lawyer. We would therefore expect him to apply the sechel or common sense criterion. One case of champagne and a box of cigars from a personal friend might – I think should – pass the test, but gifts of drinks, smokes and some jewelry estimated at about $200,000?
In addition to law, there is the general consensus that underlies societal norms.
In Israel’s case, Jewish values influence us all, including jurists, or even especially jurists. “Let the money of your neighbor be as precious to you as your own,” and “the righteous person is judged [if he strays] by the breadth of a hair.” These Talmudic expressions apply to all, and especially to anyone who is a role model.
I respect the professor’s profound experience and deep knowledge. However, neither he nor I could have seen the full catalogue of alleged crimes that led the Attorney General to issue the indictment. And, without offense, I often personally prejudge a case by seeing which lawyers the accused chooses.
I wonder whether Dr. Samuel would agree with my view of cousin Alan, as I relate this tale of two Dershowitzes.
Avraham Avi-hai has held senior positions in the Prime Minister’s Offices of David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, and has served as World Chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
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