Ninety-nine years after the Technion decided that classes would be taught in Hebrew rather than German, the heated debate that racked the Israel Institute of Technology has returned to Israeli academia. This time, though, the fight pits Hebrew against English.
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Tempers are still boiling over a conference about Israel studies that took place this summer, in which speakers were initially asked to lecture in English. Though the organizers of the annual conference of the international Association for Israel Studies eventually allowed renowned Israeli writer Sami Michael to deliver a speech about racism in Hebrew, the decision was made only after a pitched professorial battle.
"There is no logic in having an academic organization that deals with Israel studies, whose members are supposed to know Hebrew as a prerequisite, exclude Hebrew," said Zohar Shavit, a professor at Tel Aviv University's School of Cultural Studies. "It seems to be self-evident, and I don't even understand how it is possible to have an argument over it."
Shavit was asked to take part in one of the sessions at the conference, which took place at the University of Haifa in June. But she would not agree to participate until the organizers conceded that she could speak in Hebrew, with simultaneous translation provided to non-Hebrew speakers in the audience.
"We are suffering from a lack of self-respect," said Shavit.
She said the problem goes beyond the language spoken at conferences and extends to a lack of respect accorded to academic articles published in Hebrew rather than English.
The organizers of the conference, noting the organization was an international one founded by Americans, said conferences should be in English because that is the lingua franca of international academia. But some academics said the language issue is not just a symptom of globalization, but actively excludes Hebrew from academic research and debate.
Shavit said one reason could be that some researchers of Israeli culture do not speak Hebrew particularly well.
Forced to lecture in English
Yossi Goldstein, a professor at Ariel University Center and an expert on Zionist history, said in a letter to the board of the Israel studies association that he opposed forcing Israelis to lecture in English at a conference.
"I don't care if they lecture in English, but I am against coercion of the language," Goldstein told Haaretz. "Israelis are lecturing in English on the sources of Hebrew. If you are a scientist, a biologist, then you have no choice, but if your language is Hebrew and you are going to lecture in English on your research, there is something confusing here."
Gad Barzilai, the dean of the University of Haifa law school and president of the Association for Israel Studies, said many of the organization's members are not Israeli. He said he doesn't want the group sidelined because its conferences are in a language that participants don't speak.
"They should treat us like Albania?" he asked rhetorically.
The association was founded 26 years ago and its annual conference is held in Israel only once every three years.
But Shavit noted that similar organizations for the study of German and French culture allow lecturers to speak in those languages and argued that the group "must allow discussion in two languages so that English will not be the only option at those sessions."