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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

Hebrew III

Galilee Diary #226
March 27, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

Over the years of our history as a minority, often persecuted, language was an important symbol and support of our identity. Hebrew was our bridge to our past and to our fellow Jews throughout the world. Hebrew kept us apart, kept us “other” relative to the peoples among whom we lived. At the same time we created hybrid languages like Yiddish, Ladino and Judaeo-Arabic that expressed our hyphenated identities, partaking of our own – and the surrounding – cultures. Zionism aimed to eliminate hyphenation, to create one place in the world where our language and the language of our cultural surroundings would be one and the same – Hebrew.

But as in so many areas, our fantasy ran up against the reality of the presence of others in the land. Eretz Yisrael was ruled by the Turks – and later by the British – both of whose languages left an imprint on the land; and many of the Jews who had been living here from pre-Zionist times spoke Yiddish, or Ladino, or Arabic. The vast majority of the inhabitants of the land, of course, spoke the language of the region – of the surrounding lands – Arabic. Many of the Jewish immigrants – from the 1880s until the present – were attached to the cultures in which they had grown up, and would have been happy to continue speaking Russian, English, French, Arabic, etc. Indeed, there certainly have been thousands of such immigrants, from every land and every historical period, who never mastered Hebrew, and functioned to a large extent within self-contained immigrant communities, in their native languages.

Nevertheless, Hebrew did become and does remain the national language, the dominant language, of everyday speech, of advertising, of serious scholarship and mass entertainment. At the same time, our ambivalence regarding other languages crops up everywhere. Most immigrant languages – even Russian which is spoken by such a large community today – seem clearly to be waning, as the younger generation, in a natural process, loses its knowledge of Amharic, Russian, Spanish, etc., and assimilates. English, on the other hand, while not the language of a large immigrant group, permeates the culture on every level; e.g., slang, scholarship, advertising, pop music. Every local community center runs an English day camp. Every family with middle class aspirations worries about their children’s matriculation exam scores in English.

And what about Arabic, the second official language of Israel? On the one hand, Israel operates an entire public education system in Arabic for the 20% of its citizens whose mother tongue is Arabic, in which Hebrew is the second language. On the other hand, public culture, from road signs to movie subtitles to bureaucratic documents, is highly inconsistent in recognizing the cultural needs of Israeli Arabs. A high profile example from recent months was the discovery, when the multimillion dollar new airport was opened, that the designers had forgotten to add Arabic to the Hebrew and English signs throughout the terminal. Arabic is generally required in Jewish schools for a few years in the middle school grades, but in most places it is not taken seriously, and most Jewish Israelis’ knowledge of the language is minimal at best.

I understand, of course, that majority culture is majority culture, and that’s life. Yet sometimes I wonder: we complain that the middle east rejects our presence here – yet in a way, the rejection seems to be two-sided; maybe deep-down, culturally, we would really rather be elsewhere.

At the national Independence Day ceremony in 1990, the banner behind the stage proclaimed the verse, “The whole land was one language…” [Genesis 11:1], in celebration of the revival of the Hebrew language. However, there is an irony in the choice of this verse: this is the opening of the story of the tower of Babel; in other words, it describes the situation in which all mankind speaks one language, leading to a degree of unity and human arrogance that God finds unacceptable. He scatters the people and “confounds” their language, leading to the variegated linguistic reality that seems to characterize human existence. The verse implies not such a happy ending to the effort to have all the land speak one language. Indeed, maybe it implies the very reality we are living in Israel today.

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