He Says, She Says: Hebrew Meets Gender Politics

JERUSALEM — Hebrew, with its roots in a biblical patriarchy, and reinvented 3,000 years later to become the lingua franca of today’s Israel, has become the focus of efforts to make it more inclusive of modern era.

Hardly a sentence can be uttered in Hebrew without the gender appearing; every object has an assigned gender – a table is masculine and a door is feminine, for example – and the language lacks neutral terms for people and groups of people.

But in recent years, many Israelis have pushed for changes to Hebrew and even its alphabet to address what they see as inherent biases in a language whose modern form has retained the grammatical standards of biblical times.

“When I want to send a message to a group that includes men, women, and non-binary people, how do I address that group in a way that includes everyone?” asked Michal Shomer, an activist who has worked to make Hebrew less gender-specific and created a comprehensive set of characters for the Hebrew alphabet.

To research has shown that the use of the ‘standard’ masculine form has a negative impact on girls and women and their chances of succeeding in modern society,” she added.

The absence of gender-neutral pronouns and constructions in Hebrew means that the masculine plural form of verbs and pronouns has long been used as the standard form when referring to or addressing a mixed crowd, for example.

Today, when addressing or referring to a mixed or general group of people, Israelis increasingly use the masculine and feminine forms of each verb and pronoun, along with the corresponding adjectives, or mix them in the goal of creating a more inclusive Hebrew. .

Such efforts, however, have been criticized by some Israelis as cumbersome and unnecessary tinkering with the Jewish state’s cherished official language that is a binding marker of identity. It also drew a backlash from religious conservatives.

Critics complain that the constant doubling of genres turns every sentence into a potential tongue twister and impedes the natural flow of speech and prose.

“It’s awful to repeat that more than once, the text becomes a big annoyance, we don’t want to hear it anymore!” grumbled Ruvik Rosenthal, a language expert who, in his latest book, “My Life, My Language,” titled a chapter on gender and Israel’s lingua franca “In Praise of Sex-maniacal Hebrew,” borrowing a phrase from Yona Wallach, a feminist poet.

Mr. Rosenthal said he supports efforts for more inclusive language, but also pointed out what he sees as some of its limitations. Referring to what he called “technical” writing – the use of slash and dot signs in a painstaking effort to incorporate the two gender endings that have become more common in Israel in recent years – M Rosenthal added: “It’s not grammatical. It’s ugly, it’s complicated and concretely it’s not suitable for speech.

Some ultraconservative and strict Orthodox Jews oppose the new focus on linguistic equality, as they reject the principle of equality in general. Avi Maoz, a lawmaker from a party opposed to LGBTQ rights, protested the use on government forms of a gender-neutral formula to verify parental information, “Parent 1” and “Parent 2,” which includes couples of the same sex.

As many Israelis become interested in their language, the social media platforms of the venerable Hebrew Language Academy, the state authority on Hebrew scholarship, are among the most popular in the country, with over a million views per month. .

The academy, tasked with inventing Hebrew words to keep up with the times and maintain grammatical standards, finds itself arbitrating between linguistic anarchy and societal change.

Called to weigh in on the gender debate, she recommended the moderate and judicious use of both masculine and feminine forms in certain contexts, without overdoing it.

But its specialists are also skeptical about the new language campaigns.

“People feel like if they talk this way and not this way, things will turn out the way they want,” said Ronit Gadish, head of the Academy’s science secretariat, which is responsible for setting guidelines. standards for modern Hebrew. “Gender equality is built on this platform. People have the illusion that if they change their language to fit their agenda, they will win their battles for one cause or another.

Hebrew is by no means the only language that has been the target of calls for change. Many world languages, such as French, make every noun masculine or feminine. And the UN has issued guidelines for non-discriminatory communications in the six official languages ​​of the organization: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

Nor is gender inclusion the only existential problem facing Hebrew. Many Israelis pepper their speech with English terms, and among tech entrepreneurs in particular, English professional terms are often used in the original or in a cannibalized, Hebrew form.

But it is the question of gender that causes the most anguish in Israel.

Merav Michaeli, the feminist leader of the Labor Party, is widely credited with leading the charge for more inclusive Hebrew. At first, she tended to favor only the use of the female form, but moved on to more frequent use of both.

Among native Arabic-speaking citizens who make up one-fifth of Israel’s population, no such significant movement for more inclusive language seems to have arisen yet, although some progressive young Palestinians, mostly associated with the feminist movement, are keen to speak to mixed groups in female forms.

Chaim Levinson, a Hebrew-speaking journalist and radio host, said he had issues with the new “multi-gender” language campaign.

“It doesn’t come naturally to people; it takes a lot of effort,” he said.

“Religious practitioners are against multi-gender language because of equality,” he added. “I am against awkwardness. For my part, let everything be feminine.

At the start of this academic year, Mr. Levinson, who also teaches new media at a Jerusalem college, received a letter from the college in his inbox with a link to a 24-page textbook of gender neutral language guidelines.

It was subtitled “Language Creates Reality”. But some experts say it should be the other way around.

“The distress of the public is clear,” said Vicky Teplitsky Ben-Saadon, terminology coordinator at the Hebrew language academy’s scientific secretariat, referring to the number of questions the institute receives about it. “Linguistically, we at the academy are not the owners of Hebrew. We are not inventing it,” she said, adding, “We determine a standard based on what has been proven A living language develops as it develops.

Some American students and scholars have tried to build gender-neutral language projects for Hebrewbut they did not take here.

Then there’s Mrs. Shomer’s innovation of a dozen new Hebrew characters – 11 all-inclusive letters combining masculine and feminine markers and a new vowel sign. A visual communication designer, she created the system as part of her graduation project.

Critics say the combined glyphs are unpronounceable and especially good for graphic signage, like the multi-genre “Welcome” signs using his characters now hang outside many Israeli schools.

But according to Ms. Shomer, there have been more than 12,000 downloads of her free program with the new characters included since its release in early 2021.

“Letters don’t add up to a language in a day,” she said. “I am patient. I know change takes time.

Hiba Yazbek contributed report.