Easy-Hebrew newspaper Sha'ar La'matchil.
Easy-Hebrew newspaper Sha'ar La'matchil.
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Newcomers to Israel will now have to wade through sophisticated Hebrew in order to get their news in their new homeland's mother tongue. The Hebrew newspaper Sha'ar La'matchil (literally, a gate for beginners ), which provided news in easy Hebrew, will no longer be published.

The final edition of the paper came out in the first week of April, and as per a note in the penultimate edition, the paper will not be published anymore, "until further notice." The note went on to "thank all readers, teachers, and administration staff in Israel and overseas for the love they've shown for the newspaper during its 50 years of existence, and also thank you to those who contacted us in recent weeks and expressed concerns and support for us."

The first edition of Sha'ar La'matchil hit the stands 56 years ago, as palpable evidence of the state's commitment to the absorption of more than a million new immigrants.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote to the weekly's readers on the occasion of its 1000th edition in June 1998, during his first stint as premier, "Who, more than you, readers of Sha'ar La'matchil, know about the pains and difficulties inherent in the effort to assimilate into a new society. Despite all these difficulties, it can be said that Israel's society has succeeded in this effort to absorb new immigrants. The newspaper Sha'ar La'matchil definitely contributed to this success. Its distribution around the world enhances another undertaking which the State of Israel has assumed, the project of teaching Hebrew in the Diaspora," added Netanyahu.

Sha'ar La'matchil was created in the Education Ministry's "Department for Spreading the Language" in March 1956. "On this page we want to tell you about our life in the country, in simple language," the first edition explained. "We invite you to read this page until you are able to read a daily newspaper in Hebrew."

The newspaper quickly developed a regular, weekly format; it was marketed via subscriptions in Israel and overseas, and also distributed free of charge in many locales. Eventually the weekly was privatized, though it was still edited and supervised by Education Ministry officials. At first it was published under the auspices of the Davar newspaper, along with the Jerusalem Post, but in the past decade, a Yedioth Aharonoth subsidiary was responsible for its publication.

The newspaper has long served Hebrew language ulpan classes in this country, as well as overseas students. It was read in university classrooms overseas, and by elderly persons and young students from Israel’s Arab sector. The weekly turned into a symbol of immigration to Israel and of the revival of the Hebrew language; it featured simple Hebrew syntax, diacritic marks and a fixed vocabulary − in an effort to make Hebrew accessible to immigrants to Israel and to lovers of the ancient language overseas.

The decision to end publication was not a pedagogic one. In fact, there was not actually a single, official decision to pull the paper from newsstands and Hebrew classrooms. Its cessation is the result of an unanswered tender offer, and has been described as a “bureaucratic failure” by ministry officials, and by others. “Under terms described in the last tender offer for rights to publish the weekly, nobody was prepared to take responsibility for the publication,” explains a source who is well informed about the newspaper’s demise. “Nobody made a tender offer.”

The Education Ministry had published the tender in hopes of handing over responsibility for editing the easy Hebrew weekly. Now that the newspaper’s publication has ceased and its reporters have been dismissed, the ministry is seeking to revive connections with Yedioth Shurot, the Yedioth Aharonoth subsidiary that published the weekly for the past 10 years. “On its own initiative, Yedioth sent warnings to the ministry about what was liable to happen to Sha’ar La’matchil, but the ministry ignored them and did nothing until it was too late,” the source added.

“Yesterday I left my office at Yedioth Aharonoth aware that the chances of my returning to it are negligible,” wrote Tzipi Mazar, Sha’ar La’matchil’s editor for the past 16 years, in a letter she sent to her colleagues. Mazar, who was employed by the Education Ministry, continued, “As a last gesture in a building where I worked for ten years, I met with a maintenance staff worker, who asked my why we are leaving. I answered with a wave of the hand that suggested ‘I have no answer to that.’ The worker then launched into a monologue − it’s unfortunate that I didn’t record it so that I can play it for the education minister and other ministry officials. ‘What’s this idiocy,’ she said. ‘Why doesn’t anyone care about those who can’t read Hebrew fluently and who don’t know how to work with a computer? This is wrong! And how are children going to be taught in school to read a newspaper? And new immigrants?”

“I had the privilege to edit this unique weekly for many years,” Mazar concluded. “Our work is not finished − our commitment remains!” The Education Ministry said in a statement, “Because nobody made an offer, the tender had to be changed. This requires the approval of the ministry’s tender committee, which is a procedure that takes time. The ministry is determined to issue a new tender and assure the publication of Sha’ar La’matchil. It should be emphasized that once the results of the old tender became known, the ministry’s director-general sent an order to issue a new tender without delay. In the meantime, the ministry asked the previous franchisee, Yedioth Shurot, to go on printing the paper until a new franchisee is found.”