Hurting Hebrew

While nowadays rooted solidly in Israel, it's nevertheless vulnerable.

hebrew alphabet 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
hebrew alphabet 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
UNESCO announced last week that it will honor Hebrew's prime reviver, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, by adding his name to the organization's list of venerables who have exerted the greatest influence on world culture. The decision comes in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of Ben-Yehuda's birth. Ben-Yehuda supremely deserves this tribute. The inventory of his truly remarkable innovations is too long to detail. But perhaps the most domestic is the most significant. He brought up his children exclusively in Hebrew, tenaciously shielding them from outside influences. He thus not only reared his own native Hebrew-speakers, but showed everybody else that it could be done, that Hebrew can suffice and function as a language of daily life in the modern era. Ben-Yehuda's parental experiment paved the way for thousands of pioneers who could now resort to the unifying linguistic vehicle common to all Jews and made accessible by Ben-Yehuda. UNESCO's honoree was not Hebrew's sole restorer and modernizer, of course, but he was the trailblazer. And by honoring him, UNESCO also honors the unique revitalization of the language he judged as indispensable to the Zionist endeavor. That language, while nowadays rooted solidly in Israeli society, is nevertheless continuously vulnerable. Though rich, ever-evolving, fully adjusted to the 21st century and the idiom of laudable literary and other output, it is nonetheless spoken by a relatively small population and must withstand the ceaseless bombardment of popular foreign colloquialisms from the globalized mass media. The bulwark which buttresses Hebrew nowadays and directly continues what Ben-Yehuda initiated is the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Yet this quiet reserve of scholarship and applied research, which shuns the limelight, has now become the latest - and highly undeserving - victim of budgetary manipulations mandated by crass political expediencies. The Academy is funded by Culture Ministry allocations. The Culture portfolio is now entrusted to Israel's first Arab minister, Ghaleb Majadle, who announced upon being sworn in that he intends to turn over much of his resources to Arab causes, in what he portrayed as "affirmative action." Majadle has been as good as his word and, for the 2008 budget, has doubled outlays to Arab institutions as compared to 2007 (tripled in relation to 2005). Majadle, moreover, has pressed for the establishment of a parallel Academy for the Arabic Language and pushed his proposal through the Knesset. The Arabic Academy, which is due to begin its life on January 1, has already bitten off NIS 3 million of the already much-diminished culture budget. Concomitantly, the inadequate funding meted out to the Hebrew Academy is due to shrink from NIS 7.5m. in 2007 to NIS 5m. in 2008. In effect, the establishment of the Arab Academy is gnawing into the meager ration of the Hebrew Academy. With all due respect to the integrity of Arabic, and to its rightful place as one of Israel's official languages, this is plainly a case of wrongheaded allocation of limited resources. Hebrew is the dominant language of just one tiny nation. Arabic is spoken by hundreds of millions in the region, some of whose countries are thriving financially and can allocate all the funds possibly needed to safeguard and develop a language that is also spreading daily via the Islamization of increasing stretches of Asia and Africa. This state and its language are part and parcel of the same historical revolution. The remarkable revival of Hebrew is an expression of Zionism and vice versa. Arabic, on the other hand, can be explored and modified in at least 23 Arab countries and its preservation is not intrinsically the business of the Jewish state. Israel's Arab citizens are free to avail themselves of all the innovations and scholarship beyond our borders. The Israeli taxpayer need not be required to underpin what should be undertaken in so many Arab countries and especially not at the expense of Hebrew, which has Israel alone to look after it. The Hebrew Academy was founded by the Knesset in 1953 to function as the supreme Hebrew linguistic institute, charged with prescribing contemporary grammatical standards, updating the Hebrew lexicon, orthography, transliteration and even punctuation - all based on Hebrew's historical progression. Arabic, never endangered and never needing revival, requires none of the above attention here. To thoughtlessly injure Hebrew's unique institution, and fund a superfluous academy at its expense, is to strike a heavy and gratuitous blow at Israel's Zionist foundation - an ill-conceived, government-mandated blow that further undermines Israel's inherent Jewish character and that should be reversed.