The Language War. Again?

In 1913 in Palestine, the renowned Haifa Technion (Haifa Institute of Technology) began class instructions and lectures in the German language, probably to appease the German Zionists who funded the institution.

But the Zionists among the student body vigorously protested and even boycotted classes. It was a real war…. a language war…. but in the end the Hebrew language was victorious. German out. Hebrew in.

Now, Israel’s premier university, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has declared a new war on the Hebrew language and classes may be conducted in English and doctoral dissertations may now be written in English.

Members of the Hebrew Language Academy who for many decades have been the defenders and promoters of “rak ivrit” (Hebrew only) and who act as successors to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of the modern Hebrew language revival, are up in arms. A new war seems to be on the horizon. Hebrew or English?   Ivrit o Anglit?

If the Hebrew University persists in the use of English, I propose that its name be changed from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to simply the University of Jerusalem. It will have lost its right to bear the original name given to it on Mount  Scopus on July 24, 1918 at its founding ceremony.

We are a multi-lingual nation with immigrants who arrived here from almost 100 countries, each with a mother-tongue of its own. Various languages were and are spoken in homes but on the streets, shops, schools and playgrounds in Israel  Hebrew is the national language, spoken, read and written.

Around the corner from my home in Rishon Lezion is the Haviv school,  the first all-Hebrew speaking school in the world founded in 1886.

Based upon the principles established by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda of reviving ancient Hebrew into a modern spoken language, the Haviv school’s first teachers, David Yudelovitch,  Israel Belkind and Mordechai Lubman  instituted all instruction in “ivrit b’ivrit”… Hebrew into Hebrew.

All subjects were required to be taught only in Hebrew, including science, mathematics, history and gymnastics. Not a word in any other language was permitted.  Happily, this has been the principle of Haviv for the past 133 years.

I did not attend the Haviv school but spent six years in the Hebrew elementary school, Menorah Institute, in which ivrit b’ivrit was taught. One of my favorite teachers was Aharon Rashish, brother of Pinchas Rashish who had been for many years the mayor of the city of Petach Tikvah.

If I asked a question in another language, Mr. Rashish would rebuke me sternly with a “daber b’ivrit. Rak ivrit”…. Speak in Hebrew. Only in Hebrew.

From him, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, I learned two phrases which still, 73 years later, I can remember.  “Ivrit hi sfat ha ooma” (Hebrew is the language of the soul) and “Eved anochi l’ivrit lanetzach” (I am an eternal servant of the Hebrew language).

Truly I pray that we will not see another cultural war, another language war.  Hebrew is the official language of Israel and should and MUST be the only language of instruction in our schools and universities.

Less than that we will forever be haunted by the ghost of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.  Oy va-voy lanu !

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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