The Past and Future of Hebrew in Israel and Beyond


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September 24, 2014 10:17 EDT

There is a growing linguistic, social and political divide between Israelis and Jews in the diaspora.

Hebrew, an ancient language of various dialects, has seen many influences on its development, including Aramaic and Akkadian spoken by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Later came Greek and Persian dialects, and in modern times considerable word borrowing, grammatical influences and slang from Arabic, German, Yiddish and English. The Academy of the Hebrew Language describes Hebrew as “the thread that has bound the Jewish people together for millennia, both in liturgy and literature, and, in ancient times, as a spoken language.”

In the context of modern Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel, an important achievement was the revival of Hebrew and the formation of what is now known as Modern Hebrew. Crucial in this endeavor was the work of journalist and scholar Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is often referred to as the father of Modern Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is one of two official languages in Israel, with Arabic being the other one.

Due to large migration waves to Israel, many unofficial languages are spoken in the country, including Yiddish and German; Russian, the most widely spoken unofficial language, has semi-official status in some areas. Some estimates put the number of Hebrew speakers at 9 million worldwide. However, not all of Israel’s inhabitants — this does not only apply to parts of the Arab population — are proficient in Modern Hebrew.

To discuss the past and future role of Hebrew in Israel and beyond, Fair Observer’s Manuel Langendorf speaks to Dr. Norman Berdichevsky, author of the new book Modern Hebrew. The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language. Berdichevsky is a professional translator and the author of several books. Langendorf and Berdichevsky talk about the importance of Hebrew for the Jewish diaspora, the influence of English in Israel and the role of language in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Manuel Langendorf: Classical Hebrew has roots going back as far as the 10th century BCE and in its various dialects is the language of the Torah/Hebrew Bible. After immigration to what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories started, there were concerted efforts to revive the Hebrew language and form a modern language for all Jewish migrants to the to-be founded state. Could you talk a little bit about the process of the formation of modern Hebrew? What is the connection between Hebrew and Zionism?

Norman Berdichevsky: The first Zionist Congress was held in 1897 and lagged two decades behind the modern Zionist settlement in Palestine. Theodor Herzl started his career in journalism as many other professional and assimilated Jews hoping for a gradual evolution of civil rights and equality for all minority ethnic groups in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was shocked by the Dreyfus trial and the realization that only a radical territorial solution that would return Jews to the world’s political stage was the answer for those individuals who did not wish to be assimilated or would ultimately be rejected in their efforts to do so. He envisioned a cosmopolitan state not tied to religion and bringing progress and enlightenment to the Near East. His vision of the future language of a Jewish State did not imagine that Hebrew could be revived or made fit for the 20th century.

Hebrew’s eventual success was the result of a combination of factors and unique circumstances that other nations were unable to duplicate. Jews migrating to Palestine had no other common language and no other argument could so successfully verify the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel. Countless everyday documents, scrolls, archives, letters, tombstones, and monuments from past millennia written and carved on stone, wood, clay, papyrus and paper have been uncovered, all of which “speak Hebrew,” confirming the Jewish attachment to the land.

As Hillel Halkin put it so succinctly: “Any alternative to Hebrew would have meant the loss of Zionism’s historical content, the political consequences of which would have been to degrade the movement into the mere colonizing enterprise its enemies always viewed it as being and so doom it in advance.”

Langendorf: How important was — and still is — language for Israel’s identity ? In broader terms, what can we learn from Hebrew’s revival process?

Berdichevsky: It was and remains paramount. There is no other Hebrew-speaking nation — comparable to other single nation languages Basque, Hungarian, Estonian or Armenian. These nations are immediately recognized as culturally unique. Many of the students I teach in introductory courses enter the class not even knowing that “Ivrit” ( עברית ) is the Hebrew word for Hebrew! This indicates a serious deficiency in education and ethnic identification with Israel that would simply be unimaginable in the case of Finnish-Americans not knowing what Suomi is, or Hungarian-Americans, Magyar.

Within Israel, Hebrew monoglots, no matter how sophisticated, literate and educated, are becoming an “underclass,” something unthinkable in France, Spain, Italy, Russia, Germany or Argentina for example, where few university graduates are really conversant in English or able to use it effectively in their research or career.

During the pre-statehood period, Jews in the diaspora sympathetic to Zionism regarded Hebrew as the most productive part of the new and dynamic largely secular culture being created by the generations of pioneers. The outstanding success of the revival of Hebrew as a national language and modern idiom was hailed as a model to follow by oppressed minorities yearning to reestablish their independence and national cultures. At first glance it may seem a poor cousin of the classical biblical tongue with only a few scattered terms such as “kibbutz,” “Knesset” (Israel’s parliament), “ulpan” (language studio) and “uzi” (Israel’s compact sub machine-gun), as universally recognized words. But it has actually played a major role in establishing a sense of unity for millions of Jewish immigrants from diverse cultural backgrounds and creating a truly national language. Many Jews in the diaspora are not familiar with the great achievements of Modern Hebrew as an inspirational role model for the revival of Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Catalan, New Norwegian, Basque and Maltese that deserves to be widely known.

Langendorf: This is another point that you talk about in your book. Moving away from Israel geographically, what role does Hebrew play in Jewish diaspora communities and what impact does this have, for example, on the relationship between the diaspora and Israel proper?

Berdichevsky: In spite of all the oceans of ink spilt over “Jewish solidarity” and that the Jews are one people, the reality is that there is a growing cultural gap in which language plays a major role. This is the key point of departure of my book which touches not only on cultural issues, but also on the growing social and political divide between Israelis and Jews in the diaspora, especially in the United States; an important theme in my book, but one that is often ignored by Jews who call themselves Zionists yet balk at coming to grips with the language barrier.

Let’s take an example here. Arik Einstein was an Israeli cultural icon. Until his death in November 2013, he was certainly regarded by the Israeli public as its most beloved singer in the modern era of popular Hebrew song. Yet, he was largely unknown among Jews abroad who are unfamiliar with Modern Hebrew language and culture. Why is such a personality so prominent in Israel’s cultural life such an unknown quantity in the diaspora?

Langendorf: What do you see as the future of Hebrew in the diaspora? Are there major differences in this regard between major diaspora communities?

Berdichevsky: In the more liberal democratic states in the Baltics and in Czechoslovakia and even in autocratic, Catholic and ultra-nationalist Poland, the presence of the Zionist political and Hebrew cultural alliance created a true “Jewish-Palestinian Diaspora,” demanding respect and acknowledgment from the authorities of a genuine modern nationalist-Jewish minority committed to a Zionist cultural transformation, a modern Hebrew educational system and emigration to Palestine. In his semi-autobiographical work, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Israeli author Amos Oz recounts the close connections his family maintained with relatives in Europe. He also talks about the sense of wonder, confidence, creativity and inspiration that infused the Zionist-Hebrew alliance among young Jews in eastern Europe between the two world wars and enabled them to cope with the prevailing sense of apprehension, depression and fear that increasingly paralyzed Jewish communities throughout eastern Europe due to the rise of Nazism.

The United States lagged far behind these developments as many new immigrants were busy learning English. A few similar schools continue to exist today, but they are few in number and a pale reflection of the prewar movement with its largely secular outlook. Today, an attempt to recapture the essence of the Tarbut schools is underway in Hebrew language charter schools in the United States and the UK.

Langendorf: Relatedly, not all Jewish migrants to Israel speak Hebrew and there are communities with large numbers of English speakers. How does this affect Hebrew and is there a competition with other languages, such as English?

Berdichevsky: Observers outside Israel tend to have an inflated impression of the number and influence of English speakers in Israel due to the media’s preference to seek out fluent English speakers for interviews. The impression is even more exaggerated due to the American background of such leaders as Golda Meir, Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennet. Of course, the demands to master and publish in English in Israeli academic circles are critical. In spite of many successes, there is a growing concern that the use of Hebrew as the language of instruction and as a research tool is under assault in both Israel and the diaspora. On January 16, 2013, as a “sign of the times,” the Senate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem voted to permit PhD students to submit their dissertations in English, provoking a protest and public outcry from many Israeli educators as well as The Hebrew Academy. The arguments used to justify the measure have been used in many other places, namely that the new global economy has increased pressure to be literate in English, the most important language in international use.

When it assessed the rivalry between English and Hebrew in Israeli academia, The Jewish Daily Forward contacted all seven Israeli universities for its article “Should Israeli Science Speak English?”. All seven confirmed that they had classes taught and coursework assessed in English. This recent trend, recognizing the value of English in academia, has built-in dangers because it reinforces the growing influence of Anglo-American dominance in the worlds of entertainment, finance, diplomacy, science as well as culture through books and films. Within Israel, Hebrew monoglots, no matter how sophisticated, literate and educated, are becoming an “underclass,” something unthinkable in France, Spain, Italy, Russia, Germany or Argentina for example, where few university graduates are really conversant in English or able to use it effectively in their research or career.

In Egypt more than 20,000 students are currently studying Modern Hebrew — more than in the United States!

An English language preference by an Israeli university is more than a practical measure to enable students to “compete” on the world market. It tells the Russian immigrant community in Israel that is deeply attached to their culture and language and greatly outnumbers English-speaking immigrants by a ratio of probably 15:1, that their language enjoys a low priority. A huge majority of the recent Russian immigrants to Israel who now strongly identify with the state and its Hebrew culture as the most visible sign of their Jewish distinctiveness are not religious. Spanish-speaking Jews in Israel, who emigrated from Latin America also number close to half a million immigrants and like the Russians, regard the Technion’s decision as “Anglo-favoritism” and a sign of downgrading Hebrew.

Langendorf: Looking at the language issue from the perspective of relations between Israelis and Palestinians and Israeli Arabs/the Israel-Palestine conflict, what role does language play in this regard, thinking about in- and exclusion in society? How do Palestinians see Hebrew?

Berdichevsky: Israel, like Finland or Belgium or Canada, is bilingual, but the relationship between the majority and minority is much more problematic and emotional. No matter how sympathetic Jews in the diaspora may be towards the “Jewish state,” the majority do not define themselves as sharing the same “nationality.” Also, the overwhelming majority are unable to experience the reality of Israel first-hand, even if they have been there a number of times. They are thus missing out on a considerable content of jokes, word-plays, popular songs and literature. On the other hand, Arabs in Israel have greatly increased their knowledge and use of Hebrew over the past few decades and Israeli Arab students have made significant progress in gaining admission to Israeli universities and utilizing Hebrew to obtain professional degrees.

Hebrew idioms and words have penetrated the speech of many Israeli Arabs. Among the Druze and Circassians it is often the preferred speech. The language issue should not be underestimated for precisely the reason that in the Arabic speaking world, there is a catastrophic deficiency of translations from other languages that would make the fruit of other civilizations comprehensible. The Greeks or Swedes — with a population each of just over ten million people — have more literature and news, economic, political, cultural and scientific information reports translated into their “minor languages” than almost 300 million Arabs. In most Arab countries, there is a huge percentage of illiterate women, and regional dialectical differences make the standard literary Arabic learned in schools (fusha), an artificial medium so that even among the diverse Arab peoples, there is little intercommunication.

The obvious signs of brutality and the violation of human rights in Gaza by Hamas, in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen where the Arab Spring triumphed and the growing instability in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan have not been lost on Israel’s Arab population, which has begun to critically rethink their role in the country following a near collapse of Arab nationalism.

The latter has given way to the vision in some quarters of radical Sunni communities of a triumphal Islamism and the stated goal of restoring the caliphate; a view certainly not embraced by many Christian Arab, Druze and Circassian segments of the population who understand that cooperation and coexistence in Israel is an essential and inevitable part of any desirable future peaceful scenario. In Egypt more than 20,000 students are currently studying Modern Hebrew — more than in the United States!

Successful Arab authors writing in Hebrew, such as Anton Shammas, Atallah Mansour, Emile Habiby, and Sayed Kashua, deserve to be regarded as at the forefront of modern Israeli literature and journalism, but are non-entities and register a blank stare among many observers in the diaspora. Even when these authors have been critical of Israeli state policies, they have nevertheless been attacked by most Muslims and Arabs outside of Israel as traitors — the equivalent of Benedict Arnold. The late Emile Habiby, a Christian Arab and a long- term communist member of the Knesset, was awarded Israel’s highest literary prize in 1992, as well as being the first Israeli Arab memorialized on an Israeli postage stamp; a move denounced by some Israeli Jews and many Arabs abroad. His novel, The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, written in Arabic and translated into Hebrew by Anton Shammas, presented a sophisticated and highly literate Israeli Hebrew reading audience for the first time with the full extent of the frustrations and daily compromises of the Arab minority in Israel.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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