Students at Hebrew University.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
In 1913, the Yishuv – the pre-state Jewish population in the Land of Israel – became embroiled in fierce controversy over a decision by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Israel’s oldest university, to mandate German as its language of instruction instead of Hebrew.
The episode, known as the “War of Languages,” galvanized thousands of residents of the nascent Yishuv who, led by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, organized large strikes and protests against the Technion’s decision.
The university eventually capitulated to the protests and proceeded to teach in Hebrew, which symbolized a watershed moment in the history of the Yishuv and the Hebrew language.
Last week, the “War of Languages” was reignited after reports surfaced that the renowned Hebrew University of Jerusalem intends to mandate English as the language of instruction for its graduate and doctoral degrees.
The move, whose glaring irony is evidently lost on the leadership of Hebrew University, is the latest in a series of actions taken by the current administration that demonstrates its lack of understanding of the university’s historic mission.
Opened in 1925, Hebrew University was the realization of the Zionist dream that envisioned the revival and prosperity of the Jewish people and the Hebrew language in the Land of Israel. In his speech at the university’s dedication, famed poet Chaim Nahman Bialik remarked, “We all know and feel that in this moment, the people of Israel lit, on Mount Scopus, the first candle of the revival of its spiritual life.”
But over the years, the university leadership has deemed this spiritual life anachronistic, and it is now repeating the same mistakes committed in 1913 by the heads of the Technion, which “despite” teaching in Hebrew, is currently one of the world’s premier universities.
Rather than working to cultivate the Zionist vision, the university is more interested in promoting “progressive” values and appealing to international audiences.
This was glaringly evident this past October, when the university joined the judicial battle against the government’s decision to bar Israel boycott supporter and Students for Justice in Palestine activist Lara Alqasem from entering the country.
The unfortunate reality is that for the leadership of Hebrew University, the Zionist vision is obsolete and its symbols archaic.
That is precisely why last year the university’s Faculty of Humanities decided not to play Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, at its graduation ceremony so as to not offend the Arab students.
This dismissive view of Zionism allows anti-Israel activity to fester on Hebrew University’s campus, where Israeli-Arab students freely hold inciting protests, faculties organize highly biased and politicized conferences against Israel, and professors spew anti-Israel propaganda with impunity.
There is no denying that English is an important tool and should be encouraged in academia. However, this should not be done at the exclusive expense of the Israeli student.
The very notion of mandating English as the language of instruction at the university named for the Hebrew language is laughable. It will not only discourage Israeli students from pursuing their advanced degrees at Hebrew University and harm the status of the Hebrew language, but will increase the growing disconnect between Israeli academia and the Israeli public.
As a native English-speaking immigrant who completed two academic degrees in Hebrew, I can confidently say that studying in Hebrew is also crucial for the integration of new immigrants and non-native Hebrew-speaking minorities into Israeli society – a central tenet of Zionism.
The claim made by Hebrew University president Asher Cohen that mandatory English instruction is required in today’s international world, makes one wonder how Hebrew University has consistently managed to rank as one of the world’s top universities while teaching in Hebrew?
Hebrew University is at a crossroads. It can either continue down its current path or return to the roots envisioned and outlined in its constitution of embodying the “Zionist aspiration of the Jewish people.”
For the sake of the Jewish state and Israeli academia, let us hope that the university chooses the latter.
The writer is director of external relations and development for Im Tirtzu.