Marcelo Dascal
Endangered Languages

Let us consider now what we have done and we can do as Jews and Israelis.

This question is significant because of the particular position we Jews (and especially Israelis) find ourselves in, regarding language(s):

Israel is a multi-linguistic country, with a large Arabic speaking minority, as well as with many new and old immigrant linguistic communities.

As Israelis and Jews, we should:

The Biblical text can be read as supporting and legitimizing language diversity.

Wasn't it God's design to have people dispersed throughout the planet? And isn't geographical separation the ultimate cause of linguistic diversification?

Anyhow, the Genesis account itself tells us that, once dispersed throughout the earth according to God's original design, different peoples spoke different languages de facto.

According to prophet Zephaniah (15k), this de facto situation will only be changed in the Day of the Days, when the reunification of tongues will come about.

This means that, in our world, we must learn to live with language diversity, and make the most of it.

The Talmud carefully keeps record of the often contradictory interpretations of the Law offered by the partisans of Hillel and those of Shamai. Why doesn't the text keep only the winning position, the 'correct' one? Because - the Talmudic sages say - "those and those are the words of the Living God.

In a sense, we might say -- borrowing the Talmudic puzzling but inspiring remark about the contradictory interpretations of Beth Hillel and Beth Shamai -- that all of the multiple languages of the world are languages of the Living God; i.e., that none of them can be suppressed or despised.

Consider our own amazing achievement in reviving Hebrew.

1882 - E. Ben Yehuda's son, born in 1882 in Palestine, is the first modern Jew to speak Hebrew as a "first language".

- The first program of Hebrew language teaching is introduced at the Rishon Le Tzion school.

1904 - Creation of the "Committee for the Hebrew Language".

1906 - Foundation of the first school where Hebrew is the language of instruction. Census shows that 40% of the Jewish population who lived outside Jerusalem spoke Hebrew.

1918 - 34,000 persons in Palestine (outside Jerusalem) speak Hebrew.

1921 - The Hebrew language is recognized by the British Mandate in practice as one of the official languages of the country.

1928 - Foundation of the first Hebrew Theater.

1934 - Three and a half hours of daily radio broadcast in Hebrew.

1939 - Five and a half hours of daily radio broadcast in Hebrew.

1948 - Hebrew becomes the official language of the new born State of Israel.

80% of the Jewish population (around 480,000 persons) know Hebrew, and 54% of them use it as their first language.

1954 - The Committee for the Hebrew Language receives legal status and becomes "The Academy of Hebrew Language".

861,000 Hebrew speakers in Israel.

15 daily newspapers were published.

1996 - 3.6 million persons use Hebrew in Israel as their first language.
In less than seventy years, the number of speakers of Hebrew in

Israel alone has grown a hundred times from 34.000 to more than 3.4 million!

Recall that the revival of Hebrew went hand in hand with our national and cultural revival. Our achievement has been a source of inspiration for many similar attempts throughout the world -- Hawaiian, Welsh, Basque, Gallego, etc. -- and we should provide whatever help we can for the linguistic revival efforts of these and other peoples' languages.

It is also important to recall that we, Jews and Israelis have had a very painful experience of being "constructed" by other nations as their "enemies", an experience we should never forget -- not in order to take revenge, but in order not to let it happen again to any people or nation on earth.

As already pointed out, it is natural to construct one's identity by contrasting it with the despicable traits of one's "enemy".

The Spaniards carried with them - in their heads and in their hears, in their myths, in their rituals and festivals, in their proverbs and novels - images and evaluations of their neighboring peoples, of the Mediterranean region. Among them, a special place was reserved for Moors and Jews. They elaborated pejorative ethnic stereotypes about Moors and Jews, that served to express, through various oppositions and contrasts, the more positive features of their than enhanced national consciousness. These two people are the "others" with respect to which the Spaniards felt and made themselves imaginarily "ones". This has been done by that they came to share - as a result of the living together and confrontation of Christians, Moors, and Jews of Spain.

Manuel Gutierrez Estevez

The result of this process of self-construction through other-destruction is dangerously determinant of a child's frame of mind. As Gutierrez Estevez candidly confesses, "when I was six years old, I already knew that Moors and Jews were my enemies."

But this need not be so forever, as the recent development in Spain of a trend to acknowledge, value, and develop the triple origin of the Spanish people, demonstrates.

We too, Jews and Israelis, should not forget what our culture owes to that of other peoples, with whom we have been in close contact throughout our whole history.

Back to Chapter 9