My Word: The battle over Hebrew

The landmark Hebrew University water tower (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The landmark Hebrew University water tower
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It was a passionate but polite exchange of words – Hebrew words – as you might expect from those involved. Representatives of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and The Academy of the Hebrew Language, located on the university’s pleasant Edmond J. Safra campus at Givat Ram, took to the airwaves last week in their battle over proposed changes to the university’s language of instruction – from Hebrew to English – starting with postgraduate studies at the Agriculture Faculty but likely to be implemented later in other science subjects.
The fight was ignited by an article by Yehuda Yifrah in Makor Rishon earlier this month. The debate really took off after Kan Radio’s morning program hosted by Asaf Lieberman and Kalman Liebeskind devoted time to it. I was fascinated by the discussion-cum-argument.
When I studied for a BA in international relations at the Hebrew University in the early 1980s, English-speaking students liked to quip that classmates could be divided into two categories: those who understood the lectures (in Hebrew) and those who understood the bibliography (in English). Friendships developed based on mutual help around that configuration.
The radio debate had been postponed by a few days due to the start of Operation Northern Shield – there are after all still more important wars to fight than language wars – but nonetheless it was clear that subject had touched a nerve.
Prof. Moshe Bar Asher, president of the Hebrew Language Academy, told the interviewers: “I am not fighting English. Who could oppose the writing of research papers in English? We live within the wide world and our contact with it is important. What I am talking about is the language of instruction.”
Bar Asher noted that many of the original staff of the Hebrew University, whose cornerstone was laid in 1918 and which was inaugurated in 1925, were immigrants from Germany and elsewhere who gritted their teeth and struggled to teach in Hebrew.
He also pointed out that despite being taught in Hebrew, alumni had gone on to win prestigious awards (including Nobel Prizes).
While Bar Asher said he didn’t mind doctoral dissertations being written in English, he feared it would herald a trend that would end up with masters’ theses and eventually bachelors’ degree papers being written in English, rather than Hebrew.
“Afterwards, high schools and then elementary schools, in order to prepare pupils for university studies, will start teaching in English.”
Hebrew succeeded only because it was adopted by the elite, claimed Bar Asher. Had the Technion and the Hebrew University taught in a different language, “Hebrew would have become solely the language of the layman.”
Noting that the problem was not restricted to Israel alone, Prof. Barak Medina, rector of the Hebrew University, countered: “We live in a changing reality... There is a clash between the need to preserve the national traditions and specific culture within a community and globalization. It’s clear that on the one hand being closed and teaching only in Hebrew without being able to attract foreign students and international researchers will contribute greatly to the preservation of the Hebrew language, but we will pay a heavy price when it comes to our academic excellence, international standing and rating, and furthering research. It’s a dilemma.”
Medina said the university was considering a compromise under which all bachelors’ degrees would remain in Hebrew while masters’ would differentiate between those subjects in which Hebrew as the local language is an essential component – including humanities, social sciences, law and social work – but transferring to English in sciences such as agriculture, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and biomedical engineering. “It’s critical to attract international students in these subjects; there are not enough local students in these subjects, and the number of international researchers joining the Hebrew University staff is growing,” Medina said.
He agreed with Bar Asher that the university has a supreme role in preserving Hebrew culture – “not only language but also Jewish history” – but wondered rhetorically, “If we remain an institution cut off from the world, what will become of us? We can’t afford to remain behind. We can’t remain isolated with a language which is sadly spoken by too few. We must enable our students to be able to get to know the outside world.”
The activities of the “Start-up Nation,” Medina said, using the English term whose Hebrew equivalent does not trip off Israeli tongues, take place almost entirely in English.
THIS STRUGGLE was pale by comparison to what would become known as “The War of Languages” in 1913 when the Technion, the first institute of higher learning in pre-state Israel, announced its intention to teach in German. The topic led to mass protests and student strikes and ultimately the Technion was forced to back down – probably fortunately for them: One wonders where they would be today had they stuck with German.
On the other hand, an early love of Hebrew literally left its mark at Yale University where in 1777 the Holy Tongue was a required course for freshmen. Today the words “Urim and Thummim” remain in Hebrew in the Yale emblem, along with the Latin words “Lux et Veritas” – light and truth.
In truth, my high-school Latin lessons have not been much use in day-to-day life, whereas my love of Hebrew has literally made me feel at home. I consider the revival of Hebrew as an everyday language no less a miracle than Israel’s ingathering of the exiles and economic success. A good knowledge of Hebrew also made it easier to later learn Arabic.
It is interesting to note that while members of the Hebrew Language Academy fear instruction in English will eventually become the norm for Israeli schoolchildren, Hebrew Charter Schools in the US pride themselves on teaching “Modern Hebrew to children of all backgrounds” to prepare them “to be successful global citizens.”
Supporters of the English instruction idea enthuse that it will open more opportunities especially since Silicon Valleys are part of the territory in the global village. Opponents fear that more than words will be lost in translation.
In an opinion piece in Haaretz titled “The un-Hebrew University of Jerusalem,” Prof. Yuval Elbashan, a social activist and dean of the law faculty at Ono Academic College, wrote, “It’s hard to exaggerate the seriousness of the decision. Abandoning Hebrew will further remove academe from the society in which it lives and which it is meant to serve. It’s true that all academia has a local and an international component. It was that way too, incidentally, a hundred years ago.... It’s a question of dosage....
“Abandoning Hebrew as the language of instruction will also have an effect on the student population. For the children of professors, who spent sabbatical years abroad and are at ease in English, it might not make a difference, but for students from disadvantaged populations it could present an insurmountable obstacle. In this way, academe will go back to being the playground of only one group within Israeli society, and that in itself is dangerous.”
At a time when there are not enough local positions available for postdoctorate staff, there could also be a problem in giving preference to foreign candidates whose English is fluent.
A possible solution is to significantly raise the level of English taught in schools and at all local universities, while strengthening the Hebrew of those who choose to come to study or teach here, the same way that foreign students in many universities around the world are required to learn in the local lingo. (I know veterinarians who studied abroad in Danish and Italian in the days before the Hebrew University established the country’s only veterinary school.)
Another possibility is to establish a system for simultaneous translation where necessary.
As Amos Oz has pointed out, more people speak Hebrew (some nine million) than have Danish as their mother tongue. And the language is particularly important for Jewish students as the number of Jews in the Diaspora is shrinking while the number of Jews in Israel continues to grow. Hebrew will become ever more significant as a common language of communication and cultural heritage.
The passion inflamed by the debate speaks for itself, in any language.
The last word on the subject has yet to be heard. It’s evidently not academic.
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