Learning English Under Fire

On Sunday of this week, my colleagues and I at Shalem College in Jerusalem launched a month-long English Immersion Program for our students—who days earlier had completed their initial year of studies with us, in Hebrew. The goal of this initiative, modeled on the summer language institutes at Middlebury College, is to help achieve breakthroughs in students’ abilities to speak, listen, read, and write by immersing them in English as close as possible to 24/7. With the air phase of the war between Israel and Hamas heating up and many of our students having received emergency call-up notices, we felt odd creating this “bubble” of English immersion. Even so, students and faculty plunged into this experiment, the first of its kind that I know of in Israel, with a commitment not only to take part in a variety of courses and workshops in English, but also to converse with one another in that tongue about the fighting, the warnings of incoming missiles throughout the country, and the situation of our classmates, friends, and family members who had been drafted.

The next day, nine members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, including representatives of the right-wing and religious parties that form the core of the governing coalition, submitted a bill that would effectively make it impossible for Shalem College, or any Israeli institution of higher education interested in retaining accreditation, to run programs like this in the future. The proposed law, whose sponsors hail from the Likud, Israel Beitenu, Jewish Home, and Shas parties, would require all colleges and universities to do 90% of their teaching in Hebrew or Arabic, Israel’s official languages. Though its only reference to English is a parenthetical note that exceptions would be made for majors like English literature, the legislative history made it clear that the goal of the proposal—which, I should add, had been developed without reference to Shalem—was to combat the growing use of English throughout Israeli academia.

I am personally sympathetic to the motivation behind the legislation, which is to prevent English, the dominant international language, from displacing Hebrew—the revival of which marks one of the extraordinary, even miraculous, achievements of Zionism. I confess to being frustrated when, in conversation with my children’s Hebrew-speaking friends, I use the term shmartafut—a beautiful, Biblically inspired modern locution combining the words for guard (shomer) and young child (taf)—only to be laughed at for my “archaic” language and informed that the correct term is “la’asot babysitter.” When interviewees at Shalem proclaim their motivation by telling me, “Yesh li et ha-drive l’hatzliach,” I am turned off and have to force myself to remember that this is how almost all their contemporaries talk.

Even so, the latest effort to limit the study of English strikes me not only as ill-advised, impractical, and unlikely to succeed, but also anachronistic and, in practice though not intent, a violation of the spirit of Zionism. For reasons I shall explain below, the accelerating war, which last night entered its more intense phase when Israeli ground troops entered Gaza, actually provides much of the basis for this claim.  Not surprisingly, the advocates of this legislation have sought to paint it in Zionist terms, identifying themselves with the epic struggle that took place in 1913 when the Jewish community in Palestine was divided over whether the technical school being established in Haifa, which later became the Technion, should teach in German, the language of most of the teachers and funders, and the one in which the relevant vocabulary was most developed; or in Hebrew, which was championed as being able to provide common ground for Jews from dozens of Diaspora communities who were then settling the land. The latter prevailed and this battle, known as “the conflict of the tongues,” is considered a turning point in which the patriots of Hebrew overcame the advocates of cosmopolitanism. It is no surprise that supporters of restrictions on teaching in English referred to this milestone in a Knesset discussion earlier this year, warning that a failure to accept their position would turn the clock back a century and undermine the hard-earned place of Hebrew within Israel.

In my view, however, the status of Hebrew, the use by young Israelis of words like babysitter and drive notwithstanding, has been secured in spectacular fashion. Hebrew is the language of virtually everyone growing up in Israel (including my children) as well as the vast majority of those (like my wife and me) who moved here. Israel boasts a thriving publishing industry overwhelmingly based on Hebrew, Israeli cinema is growing at breathtaking speed, and the language itself is adapting to modern circumstances, while preserving its Biblical and Mishnaic roots. Those concerned about the dangers to Hebrew are, like the proverbial generals fighting the last war, engaged in the wrong struggle.

Indeed, the war being waged between Israel and Hamas demonstrates that a sustained effort to become proficient in English is in keeping with the most essential needs of Israel, and therefore is a Zionist imperative. Israelis, whether officials representing the country or citizens connecting with those abroad in person, in writing, or in cyberspace, must be able to explain Israel’s actions to a world that is inclined to be unsympathetic; for that they need to know English, the lingua franca of today, far better than most of them currently do. We also need to be able to understand and, when relevant, learn from the perspectives of others outside Israel, and those that are most important to us are generally expressed in English or Arabic. (On the latter, which we also teach intensively at Shalem, I will write in the future.)

Moreover, the way Israel has protected its civilians during the current conflict (especially through the Iron Dome system) while simultaneously seeking to refrain from harming Palestinian non-combatants (via electronically gathered intelligence and precision bombing) has depended largely on our technological capabilities—which in turn rely on the ability of Israelis to conduct cutting-edge research and work with counterparts from abroad, both of which necessitate the use of English. At the same time, the war has been costly in economic terms and will become more so in the coming days, and Israel can sustain such military efforts only on the strength of a robust, growing economy. Israel has been up to such challenges largely on the strength of its burgeoning high-tech sector and of more traditional realms like tourism, and English is essential in both of these.

The bill to restrict the study of English reflects, in my view, a parochial understanding of Zionism, and it is symbolically important that it was proposed during wartime, when Israelis are most likely to revert to an us-against-the-world mentality. Advocates of such a view frequently quote the Biblical depiction of the Israelites that was read in synagogues two weeks ago, “a nation that dwells alone.” In contrast, Zionism today needs to adapt itself to a situation in which, on top of our own very deep cultural foundations, we can learn from the wisdom of others, seek diplomatic allies and partners for commerce, and make our case in the international marketplace of ideas. For these, learning English is not just valuable, but imperative.

As the war with Hamas deepens, there is something surreal about redoubling efforts to learn English—or studying any language or discipline not directly connected to the war effort. Those who are called up for army service or who can contribute substantially as volunteers are surely in the forefront of addressing the most pressing, significant needs. Yet for those who are not at the front, it is incumbent, as I wrote a week ago, to continue their normal lives as best they can, as this quiet heroism is a part of the secret of Israel’s long-term success. By investing time in ways that will redound to the benefit of the nation after the war ends, they are acting in the best Israeli tradition. If they are spending that time learning English, then their doing so, the efforts of well-meaning legislators notwithstanding, is a profoundly Zionist act.

About the Author
Dr. Daniel Polisar is executive vice president of Shalem College, the first liberal arts college in Israel. He researches and writes on Zionist history and thought, Middle Eastern politics, and higher education. Since October 8, he has been leading an effort to provide essential gear for IDF soldiers, and is now spearheading a drive to raise $3 million to give high-quality protective glasses to all IDF soldiers in Gaza. He can be reached at