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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.