This past Tuesday was the 156th anniversary of the birth of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda,
who was born on the 21st of the month of Tevet, 5618. Ben-Yehuda is the
personality identified with the resurrection of the Hebrew language as a spoken
Most notable is the Ben-Yehuda dictionary, with its 16 volumes,
which was finished only in 1959 by Naftali Herz Tour Sinai. Ben-Yehuda used the
Bible as the basis for his imaginative extensions of the Hebrew language,
bringing it up to date with the contemporary needs of his
Ben-Yehuda did not have an easy time. He was criticized severely by
many, including Bialik, Ahad Ha’am and other Zionist luminaries, who thought
that some of his linguistic inventions went too far. The idea that one could
resurrect a language was ridiculed by professional linguists. The fact is that
Zamenhof’s Esperanto failed where Ben-Yehuda’s Hebrew succeeded.
not achieved easily. He had to struggle to convince the Technion that they
should not use German as the official language, but Hebrew. He established a
Hebrew newspaper – Hazvi. As reported in Wikipedia, Ben-Yehuda contributed only
a few hundred modern words, but it was his life’s ambition to educate people to
speak the Hebrew language. This was his great contribution to the Zionist
movement and the re-establishment of the modern State of Israel.
government decided last year that the 21st of Tevet would be the Hebrew language
day in Israel. On this day, the government would distribute the Prime Minister’s
Prize, named after Ben-Yehuda for special contributions to the usage of the
A special conference dedicated to the Hebrew language
would take place. Medals would be issued to honor personalities who facilitated
the usage of the Hebrew language or who excelled in its research. The education
ministry would undertake special events within the education system; the same
would be done within the IDF.
Part of Israel’s media also commemorated
Ben-Yehuda’s birthday. The army radio station Galatz dedicated a full day of
broadcasting to his memory, revolving about the task of educating the young
generation to speak Hebrew correctly. The National Academy for the Hebrew
Language held a special symposium on the processes by which Hebrew should be
passed on to the next generation.
Realistically, though, these actions
are not much more than lip service. One can only imagine that today, Ben-Yehuda
must be turning in his grave. The Hebrew language is in crisis, but few people
are willing to admit this or do something about it.
The annual budget of
the Academy for the Hebrew Language is less than NIS 1 million. Even if the
Academy were carrying out its job properly, providing the necessary words and
concepts for the immense advances of our time, it simply does not have the
funding needed to bring the new words to the public.
The only way the
public will get to using modernized Hebrew words is if it hears them
sufficiently frequently. This can be done with good will by especially the
public media. But the latter, too often adhering to a post-Zionist ethos, much
prefer the English language.
A sampling of the English words used in
various advertisements on Kol Israel’s Reshet Bet radio station includes:
“carnival,” “attractivi,” “sale,” “gift card,” “bulletinim,” “what you see is
what you get” and sadly, much more. The most egregious part of all this is that
the IBA did not hesitate to also use the English word “comeback” in a promo of
its own TV program.
In response to a complaint, the Hebrew language
advisor of the IBA, Ms. Ruth Almagor-Ramon, claimed that she was also unhappy
about this usage but that she could not find an appropriate Hebrew word! Almagor
did not even realize how ludicrous her answer was; the IBA should use Hebrew,
and if there is a problem with a word, replace it.
The law defining the
IBA’s objectives states specifically that the IBA should “foster knowledge of
the Hebrew language, promote its use, among others by taking into consideration
the decisions of the Hebrew Language Academy.”
In fact, Almagor has
consistently supported the usage of English in advertisements. All our
entreaties to her to take the position that the advertisements lead to
corruption of the Hebrew language have not led anywhere.
In the IBA,
income from advertising stands above the spirit of the law.
situation is not universal. The army radio station is much more sensitive to the
issue. Dr. Avshalom Kor, the language expert of the station, has substantially
more impact on the correct usage of the Hebrew language.
the complaints commissioner of Galatz, is also much more receptive than his
counterpart at the IBA. The latter does nothing but pass on complaints to
But Elyakim takes an active stand. A complaint on the usage of
the word “hobby” by a reporter last September led to an apology and explanation
of the special circumstances, noting that the reporter was also unhappy that the
word had been used. This reaction is typical. Elyakim takes active steps to
assure that Galatz’s employees use “good Hebrew.” Arguably, the worst offenders
in the broadcast media are TV channels 2 and 10. Here, there isn’t even an
attempt to cover up the systematic destruction of the Hebrew
The law is fine. It states that “a concessionaire shall not
broadcast a commercial which is not in Hebrew or Arabic, the language used
should be according to the accepted standard.” There are exceptions to the rule,
but anyone following the ads on our commercial TV must be aware that Hebrew is
The issue is not only commercials. TV programs are given
their English titles (for example “The Voice,” “Extreme Makeover”), with no
attempt to provide (as done for example in France, where the French pride
themselves with their language) a Hebrew version.
Regev, the complaints commissioner, having made the major
effort to respond to complaints, claims that this is legitimate. It is then not
surprising that English is also used within news programs and more. A random
check of TV Channel 10 news on September 29 shows the anchor using the words
“campaign,” “arsenal,” “blitz” and more. But who cares? Our written media is not
much better. Even the papers which consider themselves Zionist or very Israeli
don’t seem to care. Israel Hayom
’s weekly magazine had this past weekend 90
words in English, including for example “virtually,” “smartphone,” “simulator,”
“motto,” “philanthropim,” “verbalit,” “mentor,” “exit.”
Makor Rishon also
couldn’t care less. Previous requests to the publisher Shlomo Ben-Zvi to adhere
to Hebrew terminology remained unanswered. This past weekend, their Mozash
magazine was found to contain 147 English words in its 66 pages. Yediot Aharonot
is not much better.
On the bright side is the establishment of a new
Knesset forum for advancement of the Hebrew language by Likud MK Shimon Ohayon.
If this forum has the power to convince Israel’s most important advertisers,
such as Mifal Hapayis, the Electric Company, Lotto, Totto and Bezek, to use only
Hebrew in their advertisements, then perhaps Ben-Yehuda will be able to start
He deserves to have a happier birthday next
year.The author is chairman of Israel’s Media Watch