On the request to write in Hebrew

by Oded Goldreich, July 2011

At various times, various people have complained regarding the fact that various messages sent on various mailing lists are sent in English (rather than in Hebrew). Following is my response to one such typical compliant.

I respect your right to promote the use and/or dominance of Hebrew in the Israeli society. I also think that it will be reasonable to require that messages sent to a forum and/or action group devoted to that agenda be written in Hebrew. However, the current mailing list was not created to promote such agenda, and thus I believe that - in principle - the choice of communicating language should be based on practical considerations. The same holds wrt my current email.

Before making a few additional principled statements, let me detail the aforementioned practical considerations. One consideration is that some people feel more comfortable writing in English (e.g., since their command of Hebrew is not good enough to their taste). In my opinion, a society that strongly encourages immigration should be particularly tolerant to this consideration, and should not exclude newcomers (or old comers) on basis of language. This holds "kal va-cho-mer" wrt the state of Israel that encourages any Jew (not any Hebrew-speaker) to immigrate to Israel, and makes no hints regarding their need to command Hebrew in the future. (My guess is that you'd want to change this policy and encourage immigration of Hebrew-speakers only, but you must take account of the fact that this is not the current policy of Israel.)

The second practical consideration is that currently many computing systems (e.g., UNIX and especially its mail program) do not support Hebrew or support it less well than they support English text. This is the main reason that I write in English. A third practical consideration is that I type English three times faster than I type Hebrew. This has to do with the fact that I work in a discipline (i.e., Computer Science) in which almost all books, all journals, and all conferences are held in English; thus, all my professional writing is done in English, and therefore I have much more practice typing English. This third consideration applies to many other researchers, most notably those working in exact/life sciences.

Let me now get back to the principled issues and express my disagreement with a position that says that it is more adequate for forums as the current list to carry out their business in Hebrew. N.B.: I am using "more adequate" since I have already rejected your stronger claim of "requirement" in my 1st paragraph. I am aware that I risk annoying you in the following, but trust you to prefer frankness and truth over politeness. I claim that, at the current time, increasing the dominance of Hebrew in the public sphere in Israel is negatively correlated with promotion of progressive agendas. Do note my emphasis on the terms "at the current time" and "negatively correlated" - I claim no more (but no less). Details follow.

Firstly, much of the current struggles in Israel are aligned with the conflict between universal values and nationalistic ideas. This is reflected best in the conflict between notions of human rights and citizenship versus notions of "loyal subjects of the nation"; here I refer to the "loyalty discourse" that seeks to distribute privileges based on "loyalty to the nation" (as reflected both by declarations of acceptance of its ideology and by actions that are perceived as serving the nation). Needless to say, promoting the dominance of Hebrew in such a social climate may have the objective effect of strengthening nationalistic agendas as opposed to progressive agendas of universal base. Furthermore, I dare speculate that the dominance of Hebrew in the Israeli society contributes to its isolation from the ideas that dominate progressive society in other countries (in spite of the fact that people in Israel like to compare the Israel to these countries).

Secondly, a common method of avoiding discussion of the numerous acute problems that plague the Israeli society is the narrowing of the discussion via various formal procedures (e.g., focusing on narrow legal aspects while ignoring the big social issues). Making an issue of the language used in communications among political activists just caters into the mold.

Lastly, this debate about the stature of Hebrew in the Israeli society ignores the far more begging question of the status of Arabic in our society. Indeed, Arabic is non-existing in the general public sphere in Israel, and almost all non-Arabs do not learn Arabic in school. Given that Arabic is spoken by the large Arab minority in Israel (let alone by the population of all neighboring countries), it is begging to require that all Israelis learn Arabic to a level that would allow them to read a text as the current one and to discuss it.

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