Hebrew is not a foreign language - opinion

Most Jewish schools around the world allocate only a few hours per week to the study of Hebrew – even Jewish subjects are taught in the local language.

 HEBREW BOOK Week is marked in Tel Aviv earlier this year. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
HEBREW BOOK Week is marked in Tel Aviv earlier this year.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)

In 2012, at the initiative of the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli government undertook to improve the status of the Hebrew language in Israel and around the world with Resolution 5234. Nearly a decade has passed and the ever-worsening erosion of Hebrew’s status in Israel and abroad has become all too evident.

That Hebrew is the language of the Jewish people, capable of promoting worldwide connection, is indisputable. More than that, Hebrew places Israel at the center of the world. Hebrew’s status is a national asset that fosters identification and strengthens Jewish and Israeli identity. It is a matter of broad consensus.

Yet, alongside the recognition of Hebrew’s immeasurable importance, we are witnessing a troubling deterioration of its standing in the Diaspora. Hebrew is becoming a foreign language for many Diaspora Jews. In many countries it is no longer being studied as a second language, but as another foreign tongue, less important than more useful languages, such as English and Spanish.

Most Jewish schools around the world allocate only a few hours per week to the study of Hebrew – even Jewish subjects are taught in the local language. Children and teens across the globe learn about Jewish holidays and study the stories of the Bible in their native languages rather than in the language of the Jewish people.

Thirty years ago, quite a few Jewish educational frameworks in the Diaspora taught most subjects in Hebrew, yet the 21st century (an era of innovation) has witnessed a major regression. Nowadays, it is rare to find schools that use the ivrit b’ivrit method. This miracle is still in progress at the Torah Vechinuch school on the island of Djerba, Tunisia, despite the local community’s scarce educational resources.

jewish worshippers pray during a pilgrimage to the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia (credit: ANIS MILI / REUTERS)jewish worshippers pray during a pilgrimage to the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia (credit: ANIS MILI / REUTERS)

Unfortunately, Torah Vechinuch is an exception. In most Jewish schools in the Diaspora, Hebrew is taught as a foreign language of marginal status. A large proportion of Diaspora teens are unable to have a conversation in Hebrew even after 12 years of study in Jewish schools.

As a result, Jewish institutions in the Diaspora are facing a growing shortage of local figures capable of teaching Hebrew in their countries. This bitter reality is causing the absence of a next generation of Hebrew teachers and we must mobilize in order to stop this process.

What’s happening here in Israel, where Hebrew is our native tongue? They study other languages that will help pupils, just as in the Diaspora. The get ahead in life mindset is strongly endorsed so Israeli teens are encouraged to study science and math while Hebrew and language oriented subjects are neglected. The assumption is that pupils will have greater profit from STEM studies.

THIS IS where the role of the government ministries who were involved in Resolution 5234 comes into play. The government must act to highlight the importance of the Hebrew language and to improve its image in Israel. 

There must be an understanding that the cultivation of verbal thinking and expressive skills can broaden pupils’ horizons and that these skills are no less necessary for the development of intellectual, social, and creative abilities more than higher-level matriculation in STEM studies.

The decision to dedicate a recurring date to mark Hebrew Language Day is a worthy one; however, we must promote Hebrew every day, at all times to return it to its proper place in Israel and in the Diaspora.

We need to remember that Hebrew has always been a part of Zionist history and today more than ever the Zionist movement bears responsibility for making it the main language of instruction for our children in Israel and the Diaspora. 

In the words of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, “If we wish our children to be Ivri’im (Hebrews), we must educate them in Hebrew and make it the primary language of their instruction.”

The writer heads the World Zionist Organization’s Department of Hebrew Language and Culture.