Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked was born, raised and educated in Tel Aviv. Her parents are Israeli-born. She never spent long periods living in an English-speaking country. She speaks English well, though with an accent.
Judging from reactions on social media to her appearance last week at The Jerusalem Post conference, where she gave a 13-minute interview to the Post’s Gil Hoffman and Walla’s Tal Shalev, some folks want to humiliate her because of it.
Because she speaks English with a distinct Israeli accent, and she asked for help with one word – l’ha’arich (to appreciate). Who among those who speak more than one language has never been temporarily stumped by a word, and turned to someone nearby to ask how to say it in a language not their own? It happens all the time.
The mocking of Shaked took place – where else? – on social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook.
Topaz Luk, who handled the social media accounts for Benjamin Netanyahu when he was prime minister, placed 17 seconds of the 13-minute interview – the 17 seconds of Shaked’s speech where she paused, said “umm” a couple of times, and grappled with the words “appreciate” and “politicians” – on his Twitter feed and wrote sarcastically: “Ayelet Shaked at the Jerusalem lite talk conference.”
איילת שקד בוועידת ״ג׳רוזלם לייט טוק״ pic.twitter.com/ENRHOjlSs8— Topaz Luk (@TopazLuk) October 12, 2021
As if Luk has never struggled in English. His mean-spirited tweet garnered 1,471 likes and hundreds of nasty comments.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair also joined the “fun,” placing the clip on his Facebook page and writing: “Ayelet Shaked demonstrates Shakespearean English. Imagine what the propaganda channels would have done with something like this if instead of the Leftist Shaked, this would have happened to a right-wing minister.” His post garnered 5,000 views.
And that was nothing compared to two other Facebook posts that interspersed what she said with a clip from the 1975 cult comedy film Hagiga Basnuker of a woman speaking ridiculously bad English, and another clip of an Israeli soccer player doing nearly the same in an interview he gave. Combined, nearly a quarter of a million people viewed those mocking clips.
So many people saw these posts that the hosts of the popular morning radio show on Reshet Bet – “Kalman Lieberman” – opened their show Sunday with a discussion about whether someone without the Queen’s English should agree to be interviewed in English, or just pass on the opportunity; or whether it is no big deal if someone’s English is not perfect.
First of all, anyone who watched Shaked’s entire interview, and she has been interviewed numerous times in English in the past, must admit that she was fully understood. She was asked challenging questions about her role in the current government, her future plans and was able to let the audience know where she stood.
DOES SHE speak with an Israeli accent? Yes, but so what?
Not everyone, like Netanyahu, spent his formative years in US schools and speaks flawless English. Not everyone, Like Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has native English-speaking parents. Not every Israeli politician will be able to speak English without an accent. But that is not something to hold against them or mock them for.
Especially in this country, a country of immigrants where at least a third of the people speak Hebrew with some kind of accent: be it with a Moroccan accent, Arabic accent, French accent, Amharic, Russian, Yemenite or an American one.
If we would adopt the position that people should not speak in public here unless they speak the language perfectly and with only a slight accent, then a good part of the country would be forced into self-imposed silence. If these were the country’s standards, then Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Abba Eban, Moshe Arens and numerous other political luminaries from the past should never have been able to speak to a crowd, let alone give an interview.
What gives Israel much of its charm, even its beauty, is that this is the place of an ingathering of exiles, where people have come together from a myriad of different countries speaking a Tower of Babel of different languages, each bringing their own inflection to the way they speak Hebrew.
Israelis, more than others, should have patience for accents because chances are that they, or their parents, or their grandparents, spoke with an accent and were self-conscious about it.
That same patience and tolerance toward accented Hebrew should also be shown to those Israelis speaking accented English. That this shaming of Shaked came during Aliyah Week adds insult to injury – as if we have learned nothing from the millions who have come here speaking Hebrew in various accents.
In a world in which multilingualism is more and more the norm, accents are more and more a part of everyone’s daily lives. It is not the accent that is important, obviously, but rather the content – at least as long as the speaker can be understood. After all, even Moses spoke with an impediment.
Shaked definitely made herself understood at the Post conference, and was able to communicate her ideas – she just sounded like a native Hebrew speaker while doing so. But that’s okay, she’s entitled because that’s what she is – a native Hebrew speaker for whom English is a second language. And that is something she need not be ashamed of, nor something for which she should be ridiculed.