TEL AVIV (Reuters) - In an Israel that often gets tongue-tied trying to define national identity, Hebrew can be said to speak for everyone.
By harking back to the Bible, the language offers for many Israelis a sense of both continuity and renewal, as well as a vibrant, vocal counterweight to divisive contemporary debates.
But one maverick linguist wants that changed, and his campaign has drawn the wrath of established scholars who see him as a politicized threat to a pillar of the Jewish state.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann, a 35-year-old graduate of Tel Aviv University with doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge, argues that modern Hebrew should be renamed “Israeli” and give up its claim of pure descent from holy writ.
“Israelis are brainwashed to believe they speak the same language as (the prophet) Isaiah, a purely Semitic language, but this is false,” Zuckermann told Reuters during a lecture tour to promote his soon-to-be-published polemic “Hebrew as Myth”.
“It’s time we acknowledge that Israeli is very different from the Hebrew of the past,” said Zuckermann, who points to the abiding influence of modern European dialects — especially Yiddish, Russian and Polish — imported by Israel’s founders.
Zuckermann’s lectures are packed, with the cream of Israeli academia invariably looking uncertain on whether to endorse his innovative streak or rise to the defense of the mother tongue.
Some critics throw Zuckermann in with revisionist academics who made their names questioning the justice of the 1948 war of Israel’s founding in what had been British Mandate Palestine.
Early Zionists were quick to assume Hebrew as part of an ancient birthright to land also claimed by Palestinian Arabs.
“His attitude toward modern Hebrew is less that of a professional linguist than of someone driven by the agenda of post- (if not anti-) Zionism,” wrote an Israeli contributor to the American newspaper Jewish Daily Forward.
Professor Moshe Bar-Asher, president of Israel’s Hebrew Language Academy, likened Zuckermann to Noam Chomsky, a renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist who in recent decades became a freewheeling critic of U.S. foreign policy.
“I think Zuckermann is a very good scholar, but he risks wasting his efforts by mixing up linguistics with politics,” Bar-Asher said. “He stirs up a lot of antagonism.”
ANTI-ZIONIST OR ULTRA-NATIONALIST?
Though not shy of controversy, Zuckermann, an ebullient former military officer who lobbied against a pro-Palestinian drive by British academics to boycott Israeli counterparts, expresses dismay at being censured on patriotic grounds.
He says his views were also rejected by leftist Israelis for being “ultra-nationalist”, as they call for switching “Hebrew”, a term that can be divorced from politics, with something that would be even more closely identified with Zionism.
For Zuckermann, the proof of linguistic discontinuity between ancient and modern Israel is that Hebrew had to be revived, by 19th-century Zionist pioneers and lexicographers, after 1,700 years in which it was no one’s native tongue.
Hebrew had been in decline as far back as the 1st century, when Judea had limited sovereignty under Roman rule: Jesus, like other Jews, was more likely to have spoken the popularized Aramaic.
“The contemporary resurrection is remarkable, of course, but it does mean that the natural evolution you see, say, between Anglo-Saxon to Middle English to Modern English does not exist between Hebrew and Israeli,” said Zuckermann.
Those who disagree with Zuckermann note that an average Israeli can divine the meaning of much of the Bible’s Hebrew unaided — not the case, for example, with English-speakers who try to crack open an Anglo-Saxon classic like “Beowulf”.
Bar-Asher described modern Hebrew as the latest historical installment of a language that had always been preserved in Jewish rabbinical seminaries, if not on the streets of Tel Aviv.
“There was biblical Hebrew and then came the Hebrew of the Mishna and so on,” he said, referring to the 1,800-year-old canon of Jewish law, which includes phrases borrowed from Aramaic and Greek.
“Today we have a new, Israeli form of Hebrew. Calling it simply ‘Israeli’ has too many unfortunate connotations.”
Zuckermann said his Hebrew mirrored his own idea of Israel.
“‘Israeli’ is not at all derogatory. It celebrates what is the world’s youngest language, spoken in a country that is forever reinventing itself,” he said. “What’s wrong with that?”