Israel’s Language War II: This Time, It's Over English

In the first war, 100 years ago, Hebrew won out over German as the language of instruction in Haifa’s Technion; this time, two local colleges want to offer law programs in English.

One hundred years ago, in 1913, the Jewish community in Palestine was roiled by controversy, set off when the German aid organization Ezra began work in Haifa on the Yishuv’s first institution of higher education, the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. The Board of Governors decided that German would be the main language of instruction. In response, some teachers said they would refuse to teach and students walked out of their classes. The Board of Governors eventually backed down, and Hebrew became the sole language of instruction.

Now, a century later, a new language war, as the Technion dispute was named, has broken out. The issue this time is whether Israeli academic institutions may offer English-only studies in Israeli law.

Last May the Council for Higher Education in Israel appointed a committee of Israeli law professors to study the matter and submit its recommendations, which it is expected to do shortly. The committee is chaired by Prof. Amnon Rubinstein of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Its other members are professors Ariel Bendor of Bar-Ilan University, Ruth Plato-Shinar of Netanya Academic College, Kenneth Mann of Tel Aviv University and Haim Sandberg of Tel Aviv’s College of Management, representing the Council for Higher Education. Rubinstein is said to favor permitting instruction in English language, while Plato-Shinar and Sandberg are said to be opposed.

Many law school faculty members support the proposal. Prof. Yuval Shany, dean of the Hebrew University Faculty of Law, and Prof. Eyal Benvenisti of Tel Aviv University, sent the committee a letter in support of the initiative. Former Supreme Court president Prof. Aharon Barak has also come out in support of permitting English-language law programs. Bar-Ilan University has not taken an institutional position on the matter, and both positions are represented in its law school.

Only two schools are interested in offering law studies in English, both of them private institutions with relatively small student bodies: Ramat Gan’s College of Law and Business and Herzilya’s IDC. Much of the debate is one of principle and ideology.

Leading the fight against permitting undergraduate law programs in English is the dean of the Netanya Academic College law school, Prof. Sinai Deutch. His allies in battle include the Israel Bar Association, Safed Academic College and Sha’arei Mishpat College of Legal Studies in Hod Hasharon.

“This is a more of a public matter than just a few departments that may be established where they will teach in English,” Deutch says. “There is no reason in the world they should teach in English a subject that is purely Israeli.”

He adds, “There are thousands of books on law in Hebrew, tens of thousands of articles and more than a million legal rulings. There is traditional Jewish law and the Scriptures. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be some courses taught in English, and I did my doctorate in the U.S., but an entire degree program is entirely another story.”

According to Deutch, Israel has a very divided population that is united solely by the acceptance of Hebrew as the language of discourse and this should not be undermined.

“Would anyone think to open a law faculty in the U.S. that will teach in French,” Deutch asks rhetorically. “Perhaps instead of passing laws in Israel we should translate other countries’ laws?”

Deutch sent a letter to Education Minister Shay Piron on the issue and plans to meet at the end of the month to discuss the issue with MK Shimon Ohayon (Yisrael Beiteinu), historian Zvi Tzameret and Nathalie Akun, who heads a center for the promotion of Hebrew around the globe. “We will discuss how to bring this important question to attention of the masses because it is a question for the public,” Deutch says. “The job of the education minister is to represent not just the educational establishment but also the public.”

Deutch says he is worried that Hebrew-speaking Israelis might prefer an English law program, with the goal of emigrating to the United States. He says salaries for lawyers in private practice and in academia in the United States are four times higher than in Israel, and that Ramat Gan’s College of Law and Business offers courses that prepare students for the U.S. bar exams.

Prof. Sharon Rabin-Margalioth, dean of the IDC law school, argues that there is demand for an English-language Israeli law program. She says she isn’t sure whether Hebrew-speaking Israelis would be interested in it.

The College of Law and Business was the first school to seek approval for undergraduate law studies in English. The dean of the law school, Prof. Moshe Cohen-Eliya, believes such a program would encourage immigration to Israel, not emigration from the country. He says the target audience is Jews from English-speaking countries who will be able to study Israeli law in their native language.

He doesn’t think many Hebrew-speaking Israelis will want to study law in English. “I can certainly see a situation in which Israeli students join English-language courses, for example in private international law,” he says. “But why would an Israeli student want to learn Israeli civil law in English?”

The president of the Israel Bar Association, Doron Barzilay, explains his reasons for opposing the English-language programs. “The ability to function as a lawyer in Israel is inextricably related to a fluent command of Hebrew and without the steadfast position of the bar association regarding the in-depth control of its members in the Hebrew language, the association cannot ensure that lawyers will be able to provide the best service to clients,” he says.

Cohen-Eliya says opposition is as based on irrational fears. “This program will bring foreign students who will be familiar with Israeli law and will make Israeli law accessible to the world, giving [Israeli law] greater influence,” he says. “We can be part of the global dialogue on topics faced by many nations … the position against it is provincial and it’s distressing that Israeli law should be buried and not develop,” he says.

Newly minted Israeli lawers at their swearing-in ceremony.
Eyal Warshavsky