Borderline Views: Hebrew and the language of science

The extent to which Hebrew is used at universities as a language of research and teaching has become a contentious issue of late.

A woman searches through books 370 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A woman searches through books 370
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In addition to the achievement of establishing an independent home for the Jewish people, the second most remarkable achievement of modern Zionism has been the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken colloquial language.
Those of us who grew up in religious and strongly Zionist households in the Diaspora we knew how to read and write Hebrew even before we were formally taught English. But this was a classic Hebrew from the Bible, studied in Jewish day school. It was only at a later stage that we were taught Hebrew as a modern, spoken, language. When we came to Israel, it took time to bridge the gap between a grammatically correct, but somewhat archaic, Classical Hebrew and the language of the street.
Modern Hebrew has developed its own styles and nuances. Like most other languages, there is a correct and an incorrect – but more common – way of speaking. Radio and TV broadcasters, the Haaretz newspaper, Israeli authors and playwrights, linguistic and literature professors at universities all speak a “higher” form of the language, many of the terminologies and phrases of which are not commonly used by large sections of the population. New words and phrases are constantly authorized by the Academy for Hebrew Language in an attempt to maintain a level of linguistic “purity,” rejecting the growing use of English and other foreign transliterations. In many cases, the new words do not catch on.
One only had to see Yaron London’s excellent 2009 documentary series on Israeli television, in which he explores the way Hebrew is spoken throughout the country, to understand the huge differences that exist between the Hebrew of the elites (politicians, academics, authors) and that of the marketplace and the street – based on the different experiences of immigrant groups, be they from North Africa, Russia or the English speaking world.
The extent to which Hebrew is used at universities as a language of research and teaching has become a contentious issue within the Israel academy of late and has aroused heated debate within my own faculty. As part of the conference organized by the Academy for Hebrew Language, under the auspices of the Prime Ministers Office, held two weeks ago, a special session was dedicated to the implications for the Hebrew language resulting from the growing use, and pressure to use, English as the primary language for research and teaching.
Many senior academics argue that our research findings should be published in English rather than in Hebrew, in the best peer-reviewed scientific journals and publishing houses. This exposes the high quality of Israeli research to an international audience. This school of thought holds that we should not be “wasting” our time publishing in Hebrew and in local, relatively unknown, Israeli publishing houses.
Others argue that as citizens of this country we should, first and foremost, be publishing our research in Hebrew.
The role of academia is, they argue, to preserve and strengthen Hebrew language and culture even in the face of strong globalization trends. For a small country, Israel boasts a relatively large number of Hebrew language publications (journals and books), some of them comparable to the quality of top international publications.
One group of scholars argue that to publish exclusively in Hebrew is provincial and parochial, while the latter argue that the demand to publish in English is a form of academic snobbery which has fallen captive to the processes of globalization.
These contrasting arguments are raised on a weekly basis as the universities seek to evaluate the quality of the research being undertaken by their faculty. Difficult decisions have to be made concerning the recruitment, promotion and tenure of faculty members. The academic promotion process in Israel is one of the most rigorous in the world, and as one moves up the ladder from lecturer to associate professor and finally to full professor status, he/she has to demonstrate that their research has international exposure and recognition.
This is measured in terms of the quality and impact of the scientific publications (what has become known as the Impact Factor and Citation Index), along with the letters of reference which are requested from internationally recognized scholars who have no previous acquaintance with the candidate undergoing the promotion evaluation.
Inevitably there will be someone on a promotion or tenure committee who will argue that the scholar in question only publishes in Hebrew and that therefore their research does not yet have the required international exposure.
And there will be others on the committee who will argue that another candidate has only ever published in English and that therefore their research is insufficiently known or read by Israeli students and contributes little to the local culture of scientific knowledge.
These arguments are all the stronger in areas of study such as Hebrew Language, Hebrew Literature and Jewish Thought and Philosophy, which focus specifically on Hebrew texts and are of interest to an Israeli and Jewish audience. The relevant scientific community within these areas of study is smaller and more intimate. Most know each other, and it is difficult to turn to “neutral” scholars for references and recommendations. Israel’s “almost” successful Oscar film Footnote depicted this situation with regard to the study of Talmud and Jewish Philosophy, where personal hatreds and friendships superseded any in-depth academic analysis of the prize recipients’ scientific record or impact.
Even within the Israel- and Jewish-focused disciplines, the internationalist school will argue that any study of Israeli society and culture must, by definition, tie into the wider scientific theories and corpus of knowledge, in the field of comparative literature, the study of theology and comparative religion, research into the changing dynamics of migration and ethnic groups, or the theories of conflict resolution.
The Israeli case study (as indeed any specific country case study) needs to be presented within a comparative framework, thus contributing to the global understanding of complex human and behavioral processes.
The recent efforts to internationalize our universities has also led to growing pressure for university courses to be taught in English. This has a dual purpose. It is aimed at attracting foreign students to undertake their studies in Israel, thus competing with ongoing trends at top universities throughout the world. It is also seen as a means of forcing Israeli students to study at least part of their degree in English, enabling them to be better prepared to deal with a world within which English has become the lingua franca.
Here too, there are those who strongly oppose such moves, arguing that this only serves to weaken the dissemination and use of the reborn Hebrew culture and language.
It may also frighten away many of the local Israeli students who want to study in their own mother tongue, for whom foreign languages are perceived as a threat and who do not necessarily see themselves as pursuing a career (academic or otherwise) where foreign language skills will be a major priority.
The renaissance of the Hebrew language as a language of everyday life is nothing short of a modern miracle. But for Israel to be part of a global scientific world it must strike the right balance between preserving and strengthening our local culture and language while, at the same time, exposing our research to a wider international audience and competing at the very highest levels for recognition. We must not isolate ourselves from the worldwide academic community if we want the academic Torah emanating from Zion to have a truly global impact.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.