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Hebrew U. Embraces English

A vote to officially allow English at the Jerusalem institution is part of a longer history of Zionist concessions

Liora R. Halperin
January 18, 2013
The recording room at Hebrew University Library, c. 1930.(Library of Congress)
The recording room at Hebrew University Library, c. 1930.(Library of Congress)

Early on Wednesday, the senate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem voted to allow Ph.D. students to submit their dissertations in English, raising the hackles of the Hebrew Language Academy—Israel’s homegrown equivalent of the Académie Française. The substance of the academy’s protests implies that the pure Hebrew of bygone days is being sullied by a new linguistic permissiveness that can only end with Israeli students speaking English in their classrooms—which many already do. The defense by university administrators, in turn, suggests that Israeli students and scholars facing the pressures of the new global economy need to be able to write and work in the global lingua franca. While up to half of Hebrew University’s Ph.D.s have requested and received individual permission to submit their final work in English, the shift from de facto tolerance of English to de jure policy that “Doctorates are to be submitted in Hebrew or English” seems to Hebrew’s defenders a deeply symbolic blow to the primary status of the language.

In his letter of protest to the Hebrew University, the academy’s head Moshe Bar-Asher invoked “the Hebrew University’s founders—giants among men—who were keen promoters and defenders of the Hebrew language, and taught in it, and demanded that all papers be submitted in Hebrew.” Through the new decision, he wrote, “the status of Hebrew has been devalued.”

The language debate itself is hardly new. Since its first incarnation in 1890, the Hebrew Language Academy has advocated the development and promotion of Hebrew as a language capable of serving all functions, including the highest levels of academic discourse. In 1913, Hebrew teachers and educators successfully protested the initial proposal that a new technical university in Haifa—later to become the Technion—would teach scientific subjects in German. The following year, the governing body of the university reversed its decision and enshrined Hebrew as the sole language of instruction.

The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, inaugurated in a festive ceremony on Mount Scopus on April 1, 1925, was to be the jewel in the crown of the reborn language—a site for the secular consecration of the Hebrew linguistic and literary tradition that had existed since the days of the Hebrew prophets. When, two years later, a Yiddish newspaper editor in New York offered a sum of money to found a chair in Yiddish at the university, zealous defenders of Hebrew distributed fliers calling a Yiddish chair an “idol in the sanctuary.” The proposal was shelved.

Yet alongside the drive to establish Hebrew as the exclusive language of the Jewish people in their homeland, the Jewish community in Palestine, and later Israel, has been embedded in local, regional, and global relations that compelled and rewarded the use of other languages. Though German was the lingua franca of both the early Zionist movement and Western academia, English emerged during the interwar period as the predominant Western language. English was the language of British Mandatory government in Palestine. Though it recognized Arabic and Hebrew as official languages, the government privileged and was more adept at processing correspondence in its native tongue. Jewish educators were aware of and discussed English’s rise to dominance, though the programs they created at primary and secondary schools often imparted a low level of proficiency.

Nonetheless, the arguments in favor of English learning were persistent. Leon Roth, a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University and a writer on issues of language pedagogy, wrote in 1943 that English learning was necessary for a host of practical reasons: for understanding the words present on road signs, packaging, and advertisements; for reading textbooks and manuals in fields from agriculture to commerce; and for comprehending the many English words that have made their way into Hebrew newspapers and radio broadcasts.

The usefulness of English went beyond the merely utilitarian: It could help in the intellectual development of an otherwise parochial community. In 1939 Ben-Zion Dinaburg (Dinur), head of the Jewish Teachers Training College in Jerusalem and professor of history at the Hebrew University, called English “the chief conduit of European influence” in the Jewish community of Palestine, saying that studying it would help Jews escape what he considered the degenerative effects of the East and establish a functioning European society. A report from the Jewish National Council in 1941 on the teaching of English insisted that the secondary-school curriculum focus not only on English literature, but also on English life. A connection with modern people would transmit a set of modern values to the Yishuv, for “the study of modern English thought and institutions can provoke useful discussion and help to correct provincial tendencies.”

English, it was becoming clear even before the State of Israel was founded, would remain important as a bridge between a numerically insignificant language community and the wider world of ideas—at least for the country’s elite. Yisrael Belkind, a leader of the first wave of Zionist immigration to Palestine, stated that “children in the cities need to learn other languages, too … because who knows where they will go when they finish their schooling” while children in the agricultural settlements needed to learn only “the love of the soil in the field and in the garden. Thus it is unnecessary to learn foreign languages in the agricultural colonies.” Such a divide persists: Language knowledge—usually of English—is the mark of elite status and Western connections while Hebrew monolingualism is the province of the lower classes.

Until relatively recently, the recognition of English’s usefulness did not lead to concrete proposals to use it formally as a language of instruction or composition. But the same principles that justified English study in the first place—the proliferation of scholarship and professional manuals in English, the usefulness of English in the world marketplace, the association between English knowledge and worldliness—has led to a string of decisions to teach in, and allow written work in, English. Celebrating and promoting the international connections of Israeli academics or hi-tech professionals, while simultaneously restricting their ability to produce potentially publishable manuscripts as part of their university degrees, has come to strike university administrators as inconsistent and illogical. As a result, universities throughout Israel have integrated English-language instruction into their programs, particularly graduate programs. Tel Aviv University already allows the submission of theses in English. In 2008, the Technion, the university that became a symbol of the fight for Hebrew just before World War II, declared that it would now be teaching its M.B.A. program exclusively in English. “We came to the conclusion,” said Prof. Boaz Golani to Haaretz,“that if we continue to prepare our graduates in Hebrew alone, they will start in an inferior position in the conditions of global competition.”

The decision of the Hebrew University senate is consistent with these larger trends, trends that trouble the Hebrew Language Academy. But symbolism aside, the vote to officially allow English at Hebrew University is less a radical shift than a new development within a longer history of Zionist concessions to languages other than Hebrew. “The new initiative does not make Hebrew University non-Hebrew,” said David Aviner, who teaches at Hebrew University. What it does do is affirm officially that the Hebrew University need not be Hebrew-only. A small national entity shaped by relations with Western powers does not dwell alone; in elevating the English language in its universities, it is acting to preserve its global relevance, by helping to prepare its children to participate in conversations that transcend the confines of the state.


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Liora R. Halperin is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her book, Babel in Zion: Jews, Nationalism, and Language Diversity in Palestine, 1920-1948, was just published by Yale University Press.

Liora R. Halperin is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her book, Babel in Zion: Jews, Nationalism, and Language Diversity in Palestine, 1920-1948, was just published by Yale University Press.