Should Israeli Science Speak Hebrew?

Clash Looming Over Widespread Use of English in Academia

Say What? A dispute is raging in Israel over the use of English in academic research. Some would prefer to see only Hebrew used.
nathan jeffay
Say What? A dispute is raging in Israel over the use of English in academic research. Some would prefer to see only Hebrew used.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published April 13, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
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Israeli scholarship is widely cited the world over. But if state linguists have their way, much of that research will become a whole lot less accessible to those who don’t speak Hebrew.

The Academy of the Hebrew Language is asking the Education Ministry to require universities to use less English — the language in which many graduate-level courses are taught, and in which much of Israel’s scientific research is conducted.

“We would like to see a situation where teaching must be in Hebrew for all courses, with only very particular exceptions,” such as those for foreign students, Gabriel Birenbaum, a senior researcher at the Academy, told the Forward.

Much like France’s famed Académie Française, the Academy of the Hebrew Language, is in charge of developing the language and encouraging its correct use. What makes Israel’s Academy, the AHL, unusual is that it is essentially the same body that brought English into use.

In 1890 Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the key architect of Modern Hebrew, established the Hebrew Language Committee to oversee the revival of the ancient tongue. After Israel became a state, the government transformed the committee into the AHL. The government-funded body’s 23 members and 15 advisers are scholars, writers, poets and translators.

Education Minister Gideon Saar, who chairs the Council for Higher Education, which is in charge of the country’s universities, has asked the council to come up with a position statement on language use in universities.

And this has many academics worried.

“Hebrew is the language of the Jewish People, but if you write your thesis in Hebrew, it is buried,” said Yehuda Band, who heads the chemistry department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Last fall, Band had informed postgraduate students that English was to be the default language for written work.

He added that pushing students to write in English not only helps them to get their theses read and published, but also benefits their career trajectory. “A student who can’t write in English is severely limited — it’s the language of science,” Band said.

The new battle is essentially round two of a war fought a century ago. In the early 20th century, when the Hebrew language was newly revived, leaders of the Zionist community campaigned to get all educational establishments in what is now Israel using it.

When the Zionist movement was established in the late 19th century, it was not immediately clear that Hebrew would be the language of Jews in Palestine. Theodor Herzl, the movement’s leader, initially thought it would be German. When pioneers arrived, many just spoke only the language they brought with them — often Yiddish — and it was not until the second aliyah, between 1904 and 1914, that Hebrew started to become dominant.


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