Jury Out on Whether Israeli Law Schools Should Teach in English Too

Opponents fear an English program might disincentivize students from studying Hebrew law.

A committee examining the possibility of introducing English instruction in Israeli law schools has failed to reach agreement, and instead has submitted two contradictory opinions.

The committee, appointed by the Council for Higher Education, was set up after both the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan asked the council for permission to teach undergraduate law courses in English.

The panel of Israeli law professors, headed by Amnon Rubinstein of the Interdisciplinary Center, heard from Prof. Ruth Gavison in opposition to the proposal, while former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who teaches in the Interdisciplinary Center, supported it.

Members of the Israel Bar Association who appeared before the committee objected to the idea, saying students who study law in English would have difficulty passing the Hebrew-language bar exams.

Committee members Ariel Bendor (Bar Ilan University), Kenneth Mann (Tel Aviv University) and Rubinstein signed the opinion in favor of English-language law studies, which stated, “English-language academic studies in Israel are nothing new and the Council for Higher Education does not object to them.” They also said fear for the status of Hebrew or of renewing the “language war” is unrealistic.

“If it’s possible to work as a lawyer [in Israel] based on studies abroad of non-Israeli law, it’s difficult to justify the denial of the possibility to study Israeli law in English in Israel,” they wrote.

However, they suggested equalizing the admission requirements in the English and Hebrew programs, and stipulated that the number of students in the English program should not exceed half of the students in the Hebrew one. They also said the reading material should be identical in both programs and the English-language one must focus on Israeli law.

The opposing opinion was signed by Ruth Plato-Shinar of Netanya Academic College and Haim Sandberg of Tel Aviv’s College of Management. They wrote that in a foreign language, it may not be possible to impart the “solid foundations” required for a law degree based on the Israeli legal system.

“There’s a danger that the considerations [for setting up English-language law studies] will lead in the long run to preferring the English program to the Hebrew one. Already today legal researchers prefer to publish in English, and as a result many of them study foreign legal systems or universal issues, neglecting the study of Israeli law,” they wrote.

The council’s plenum is due to discuss the contrasting opinions toward the end of the month and make a final decision. 

Three weeks ago the Knesset Education Committee said it vehemently opposed the initiative, saying such studies could undermine the place of Hebrew in Israeli society and facilitate emigration.

MKs said they would only allow English-language law programs that cater exclusively to foreign students.