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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When the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology ­— prepared to open in Haifia 1913, it had planned to operate in German because its leaders said that Hebrew simply didn’t have the words to teach science. But the school, caving to pressure from ideologically driven students and Zionist leaders, adopted Hebrew as its language of study.

Today, though, postgraduate courses at Technion are most commonly taught in English. The Forward contacted all seven Israeli universities for this article and all confirmed that they had classes taught and coursework assessed in English.

Although the trend toward English is mostly at the postgraduate level and primarily in the natural, physical and computer sciences, English is also being used more widely in undergraduate studies and in humanities courses at all levels. In most institutions, there is an unwritten understanding that lectures, classes and seminars switch to English when there is a presence of one or more non-Israelis, though the natural sciences faculty at Ben-Gurion recently formalized this rule.

At Tel Aviv University seven humanities undergraduate programs — including archaeology, Jewish history and East Asian studies — include courses and related assignments in English. And the Hebrew University of Jerusalem recommends that students complete at least one course taught and assessed in English. The school’s rector, Sarah Stroumsa, told the Forward that she would like to see the recommendation changed to a requirement.

In the so-called “Language War” of the early 20th century, some prominent scientists were among the campaigners for Hebrew-only. But a century later, the scientific community is almost unanimously against this approach. Should the Education Ministry demand that scientific institutions and university programs scale back on English, a clash between government and academia is likely to ensue.

“I’m unabashedly Zionist and believe in Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and all that that entails with symbols and language,” said Moshe Koppel, a Likud party member, and a computer scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. “But since all the [computer science] publications are in English and we expect students to publish their theses, it would be double the work for them to write it in Hebrew and translate to English.”

As far as the AHL is concerned, the gains of a century ago are simply being lost. “In those days you could understand them [the Technion board in 1913], as it really was the beginning of Hebrew’s revival and many words were lacking, but they managed,” the Academy’s Birenbaum, said. “But today, when Hebrew is much richer, we have this deterioration toward English.”

He insisted that the AHL is “not against English,” but believes that its use must be limited to “maintain respect for our own language.”

Moshe Vigdor, director-general of the Council for Higher Education, which is looking into the subject for the education minister, told the Forward that his organization aimed to find a “real pragmatic balance.” He indicated that the council may be leaning toward some limitations on English. “We want to see that master’s degrees [theses] will be in Hebrew and with [some] English or translation to English, if necessary,” he said.

Ben-Gurion’s Band dismisses the idea that the increased use of English has put in danger the gains made in 1913. “In the early 1900s, the language was not established in the country,” he said. Today, Hebrew is the language of the country. There’s no question about that, and our decisions are not going to change that.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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