Judy Halper
Left is not a dirty word
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Gender matters

While the government demands male-only language in official documents, a new non-gendered Hebrew may be the solution
Brukhim Habaim/Brukhot Habaot: The Gezer Regional Council adopted a bi-gendered alphabet for the entrance to their offices. Image: Gezer Regional Council.
Brukhim Habaim/Brukhot Habaot: The Gezer Regional Council adopted a bi-gendered alphabet for the entrance to their offices. Image: Gezer Regional Council.

This week, it was reported that Israeli universities were unhappy with the civil service directive to use the masculine form, solely, in their documents, undermining recent efforts to write in a more inclusive style. Bezalel Academy promptly decided to issue all documents for the coming month using the feminine gender, alone.

* * *

The Hebrew writer Shimon Adaf, in his alternate-future novel, Shadrach, proposes a solution to our conundrum: He invents rules for speaking (and writing) non-gendered Hebrew. The speaker of this made-up version of Hebrew is Nahardauu, a being from a Moon colony where humans have evolved past gender constructs.

Adaf’s rules are simple and yet, because Hebrew is a gendered language (that is, every noun, verb and adjective is assigned a gender or comes in both male and female forms), Nahardauu’s sentences make for slow reading (at least for a non-native reader, like me). Adaf, by giving this language to a being from the far future, suggests he understands we Earth-bound, human Hebrew-speakers are not yet ready to adopt so radical a change in our language.

Universities, then, are stuck writing in a sort of s/he Hebrew that is clunky and full of periods in the middle of words. They’ve made a conscious decision to sacrifice a bit of smooth reading for a principle – to refuse to bundle half the population into a grammatical form that is not really “one sex fits all.”

Insisting on using the masculine for everyone seems like a small change, in light of the political ruckus over the judicial reform. It is, in any case, the way everyone learned to speak and read Hebrew, whether in school or in immigrants’ ulpan classes. It would be a tiny step backwards that would not really take away my right to study in a university, only my right to be addressed in female-gendered language by that body.

But there are several reasons the universities are right to resist this directive. Firstly, they refuse to accept the message that comes attached, like a hand grenade tied with pink ribbon to a birthday present: equality is no longer a goal toward which we should strive.

I know, I know. That message is already getting printed out on Tu B’Av (Hebrew Valentine’s day) cards and handed out to Palestinians, women of all colors, and residents of North Tel Aviv, kibbutzim and moshavim inside the green line.

Slicing into our freedom and identity

But the directive takes on more significance if we look at it in light of plans to move jurisdiction that affects women and families to the rabbinical courts, as well as the plan to coopt the national authority for advancing gender equality. If the “salami” method is not working out so well for Bibi and his coalition with the judicial reform legislation, it is clearly slicing away here. Slice: take a knife to the edge of our freedom and pass the chunks to courts that are, by definition, patriarchal. Slice: take up a pen knife to lightly chip away at the face of our identity. Slice: use the tip of the butter knife to slide us onto the cutting board of a political body that has no interest in keeping the genders equal.

If we have learned anything from the salami tactics of our government, it is that worse changes to our status are on their way to the law books. If we want to prevent them from telling us how to dress, separating us from men on the sidewalks or in classrooms, letting municipalities host male-only events or keep them from regulating our bodies, we need to stop them at the first slice, not wait until we’re left with the moldy dry end smelling up the national kitchen.

From telling us what to write to telling us what to think

Or we might look at the masculine-only directive in conjunction with plans to “reorganize” the media. It was not enough to create a third channel that caters just to the right wing of this super-right government. Bibi wants to clamp down on the government-owned channel that turned out to be too independent, as well as on the more popular semi-commercial channel, with its self-censored, extended new reports, inoffensive talk shows and sensationalist “reality” programming.

The media takeover is intended not just to control the national narrative; it is intended to keep information from us and, Bibi hopes, tell us what to think. So too, taking us back to a language in which gender equals either male or female, and the feminine is merely a subset of the masculine, forces our thinking into the conservative box we were only beginning to shed. It negates an evolved future in which we are all, first of all, human beings, and equality is something we strive to attain.

About the Author
Judy Halper is a member of a kibbutz in the center of the country. She has worked as a dairywoman, plumber and veggie cook, and as a science writer. Today she volunteers in Na'am Arab Women in the Center and works part time for Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom.
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