Who's Talking About Gender Equality

The Academy of the Hebrew Language may not take a stand against the linguistic exclusion of women, but I am

Male and female students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2008.
Daniel Bar-On

The concealment of and disregard for women in the Hebrew language isn’t new, and many people are apparently waiting for the Academy of the Hebrew Language to pick up the gauntlet and change the grammatical rules so that when addressing a group in which the majority of members are women, the feminine gender would be used. But the language academy, which was founded five years after the state’s establishment by dint of the Law of the Supreme Institute for the Hebrew Language (1953), is refusing to institute such a reform, on the pretext that “One shouldn’t exaggerate the importance of grammatical issues in shaping social thought.”

This eyebrow-raising statement, which supports the academy’s overall position that the masculine gender, rather than the feminine one, should be used when addressing groups comprised mainly of women, is taken from its standard answer to the question of “How do you address a group of which women form the majority?” This answer, which also contains several other problematic statements, posed a major question for me.

If the academy is indeed ignoring its role in promoting the connection between language and society, one could ask, “then what is its purpose?” What other goals has the academy set for itself, that it permits itself to remove any discussion of an issue this important from the agenda? Does it not thereby betray the goals for which it was established, which include “guiding the development of the Hebrew language” (Article 2 of the Law of the Supreme Institute for the Hebrew Language)?

The answer to these questions is apparently that the academy has chosen to wrap itself in modern, innovative clothing, so people will get the impression that the Hebrew language hasn’t ceased to develop and adapt itself to the zeitgeist. Yet even though the work the academy does to Hebraicize foreign words isn’t pointless, the thought that it’s refraining from developing a gender-equal language ought to sound an alarm.

The academy’s indifference to the language’s gender balance is also evident in other parts of its official reply. For instance, to bolster its position that a group comprised mainly of women shouldn’t be addressed in the feminine form, it argues, “The masculine form is fine for women as well, which isn’t true for the feminine form: The latter indicates women only and excludes men. That’s how Hebrew works.” This statement shows the academy accepts the antiquated social view which assumes it’s insulting to address a man in the feminine form, but it’s not insulting to address women in the masculine form.

The academy also included another reason in its response: “The trend that emerges from Hebrew throughout the generations is the abolition of the feminine form in favor of the masculine form, and not vice versa.” This reason is additional proof of the academy’s ideological stagnation with regard to the connection between language and gender, since the ancient “trend” the academy describes is hardly disconnected from women’s inferior status throughout history.

But if so, why should we accept this very trend as a reason to conceal women in our language? Why shouldn’t we see this as yet another way to reduce the presence of women in our day-to-day public conversations?

The academic year is about to open, and I – who, as a teacher, give weekly lessons to about 70 male and female students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – must make an existential decision every year. On one hand, it’s clear that most of the students who study in my department are women. On the other hand, I’m obligated to obey the academy’s dictates and guidelines and ignore the existence of the female students in my classroom during these lessons.

After all, the language academy has stated unequivocally that it is “the institution which makes decisions regarding the Hebrew language,” and that “its decisions on issues of grammar, spelling, terminology and transcription obligate state institutions.” And the university where I teach is included in the list of state institutions.

For the past two years, I’ve opted to disobey the academy’s policy, and I’ve addressed the groups I taught in the feminine form, even if they included many male students. I received many and diverse reactions to this from both male and female students. Naturally, there were some who supported my decision and saw it as an action that strove for equality, even if it was “just words.” Others saw the change as artificial and petty, and still others were offended that I addressed them in the feminine form.

These reactions, which almost always pour forth in response to the academy’s official policy as well, sparked an emotional discussion in the classroom. These conversations reminded me of the academy’s essence and purpose, at least for me. In my view, the academy is supposed to rouse dormant institutions that, over time, have lost their desire to lead changes in society and the public square, and to remind us that what is extant isn’t necessarily what’s desirable.

Meanwhile, as long as I continue to work at Hebrew University, I’ll continue to teach with this insight echoing in my head, and I’ll continue to address the female students who study with me as women who exist both in deed and in word. At the same time, I’ll wait impatiently for the language academy to take action that would lead to dealing with this hot potato instead of just trying to cool it down.