Last week, Britain's Jewish community stirred debate about the government's proposal to exclude Hebrew from its list of recognized languages for primary school education. Under the proposal, only seven languages would be recognized as compulsory learning for primary schools, including Spanish, French, German, Mandarin, Latin and ancient Greek. Hebrew was not included.
When I first heard about this proposal, I thought to myself, “No big deal. I understand the British government - Hebrew is spoken by a relatively measly number of people in comparison to Mandarin Chinese or Spanish. Why should someone learn Hebrew when they can learn a language spoken by a billion people?”
After all, the majority of schools in England should not bow to minority pressure to teach minority languages. Growing up in the United States, I never expected my public middle school or high school to teach Hebrew. A Hebrew language program in the South would have made no sense, as the majority of immigrants in the area spoke languages like Spanish or Korean. Indeed, a career-focused school would emphasize languages like those spoken by multi-millions or billions of people rather than a language like Hebrew which is spoken by only a few million Israelis and Jews.
Then I discovered the alarming part of the British proposal: all primary schools would be required to offer at least one of the seven recognized languages, including Jewish primary schools that already teach Hebrew as a foreign language. Understandably, Jewish schools are concerned for their ability to teach Hebrew in addition to a recognized foreign language. How are they supposed to cope with launching a new language program while working to maintain their top-notch Hebrew programs, too? Creating a new language program is difficult and time-consuming, and it is likely that in the process Hebrew programs would suffer. Furthermore, the Board of Deputies of British Jews warned, the children’s Jewish education could dwindle in the process.
A better solution, perhaps, would be to take a multifaceted approach. Instead of regulating language programs at all schools, public schools could be made to follow a stricter regimen, while allowing private schools to make nuanced and valuable decisions for their communities. My public school had certain “required” languages, but parents had the option of sending their children to Jewish private schools where they would learn Hebrew, and often those same students had the option of taking on a third language, including many of those oft-spoken languages that appear on the British proposal.
That being said, Jewish parents in Britain should keep in mind that if the proposal were to be implemented, it is not the end of the world for Jewish education. A recent study sponsored by the Pears Foundation stated that moderately engaged Jews have the highest expectations of the level of added Jewish value to their children’s lives. These moderately-engaged Jews who expect the most out of Jewish education could take the British proposal as an impetus to stop relying on schools to instill Jewish values – and the Jewish language – in their children, and instead actively teach their kids about Jewish holidays, values, history and culture at home. At the same time, they can appreciate that their children are learning to be global citizens with language skills that will help them both professionally and recreationally. And if they still feel that Hebrew is such an important language for them to learn, there are always after-school classes.
I did not attend a Jewish school, nor did I formally learn Hebrew, but my family engaged with the greater Israeli community, taught us lessons about the holidays, and ensured that we understood the basic tenets of our faith. Am I a lesser Jew than someone who attended Hebrew school for many years? I’d like to think not.
If the curriculum for foreign language education passes, let us take it as a challenge: as parents, sons, daughters, and members of the Jewish community, let’s actively engage with our Jewish communities and attend Jewish events so as to educate those around us. While many of us can’t affect the British educational system, we can impact our own homes, and learn Mandarin while we’re at it.
Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.