Opinion Articles

Observing the World from Our Own Perspective

The Hebrew University is weighing the idea of changing the language of instruction in some of its degree programs from Hebrew to English. This could be the first step towards making English the language of instruction for undergraduate degrees as well, first in the natural sciences and later in the humanities and social sciences. A decision by the Hebrew University to switch to English would set an example for other institutions of higher education in Israel, and later– for high schools that want to project an image of one-upmanship. There are clear justifications for this step: mastery of English has become a sine qua non for membership in the global community and would increase Israelis’ competitiveness. University faculties would be internationalized, and their classrooms would be filled by students from all over the world (with the economic benefits that come with their presence).

However, a switch from Hebrew to English would mean that we have turned our back on an important aspect of the national renaissance and would have serious repercussions on our local culture. Even though it is clear that this isn’t the intention of the university’s leadership, the proposal marks a decision to decrease the institution’s focus on the particularistic—Israeli and Jewish—and move to the more universal. According to a published report, one senior university official went so far as to declare that “Hebrew is not a relevant language in today’s new world,” implying that its use is an indicator of provincialism. The truth, however, is that a switch to English would be the most extreme expression of provincialism, as it would place the language of others at the center of our own lives, while relegating the national culture, whose soul is the Hebrew language, to the margins. Should this plan be implemented, the university that looks down from “the summit of Mt. Scopus” (the opening line of Avigdor Hameiri’s iconic poem “Jerusalem”) will have proclaimed to the entire world, “I am in the East but my heart is way out in the West” (inverting the opening line of an even more famous poem by Judah Halevy). 

The impending dispute over the language of instruction raises a broader question: do Israeli universities have any responsibility towards Israeli society—and if so, what is it?

Each year, the State of Israel invests some 11.5 billion shekels in its institutions of higher education. This sum, taken out of taxpayers’ pockets, is larger than the combined budgets of a number of important government ministries—Economy, Justice, Immigration and Absorption, Foreign Affairs, and Communications.

The higher education system serves and employs vast human resources: about half of the next generation is enrolled in its institutions – some 300,000 students – most of whom are still at an age when their world views can be shaped. Senior academic staff —Israel’s most precious reservoir of knowledge—number 7,300 women and men.

Such a vast investment of money and human resources is essential if Israel is to remain at the forefront of global scientific research. The future of a small country like ours depends on a qualitative advantage; and higher education seeks to gain this advantage by pursuing two goals: first, a critical search for truth and the expansion of human knowledge. Our ability to achieve this goal must be defended unconditionally. The second goal is to train professionals for the job market, in order to meet the needs of society and the economy. In general, professors view the first goal as paramount, whereas their students focus on the second goal. But is this enough, or should we demand that, in light of the unique “Israeli situation,” Israeli academia accept an additional responsibility?

Israeli society—its marketplace of ideas, its democratic institutions, the rule of law, the components of national identity—is caught in the turbulent vortex of a kulturkampf—a “culture war.” Various identity groups, armed with arguments derived from individual, community, religious, and global preferences, are competing for dominance and control of the public space. The overall picture is one of a challenge to the fundamental Israeli unity: our democracy, which used to be “consensual” and based on a widely accepted common narrative is turning into a democracy in crisis.

For example, according to the 2018 Israel Democracy Index, a majority of Israelis, when asked about their view of the legal definition of the country as “Jewish and democratic,” do not believe that the current balance, in reality, between these two identities is appropriate. The split is growing deeper: in recent years there has been a rise both in the percentage of those who would give priority and precedence to one or the other. The group supporting attributing equal importance to the two is shrinking. How sad: 70 years after we agreed on the values embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the current debate does not allow us to unite around them by adopting them as legal norms.

Given this background, it seems that we cannot limit ourselves to the demand that Hebrew be the language of instruction in Israeli colleges and universities. The unique value of higher education requires that its institutions be key players on two fronts: the Israeli democracy arena and the Israeli culture arena. 

Democracy cannot exist without a stable middle class whose members are equipped with knowledge and education, and who are broad-minded about key issues of national life. The crisis of Israeli democracy is linked to a troubling deficit on this front: young Israelis contend with the issues of democracy only in high-school civics classes, and then only very skimpily. Unlike young adults in the United States, who are exposed in college to the seminal texts of democratic society, Israelis serve in the IDF and then continue straight to professional studies. Later in life they are exposed to unprofessional and populist influences from the media, politicians, religious authorities, and others. The marketplace of ideas becomes shallow; extremism flourishes; and the demonization of the other deteriorates more and more. 

Israeli academia could lead the way to change by taking advantage of its institutional charisma, its social clout, and its accessibility to the young people who enter its gates. It is important to emphasize: I am not calling for politicization of academia in the sense of promoting a specific “correct” vision. From that we must steer clear. If academia becomes a player on the political field it will be disloyal to its mission; and the politicians will retort by interfering in academic life. What I am calling for is greater involvement of academia in the Israeli discourse, as an authoritative voice that can make the discussion more serious, clarify the complexity of Israeli dilemmas, and, especially educate towards cultural pluralism. Exercising this responsibility would decentralize the responsibility for political action, based on a fair and fruitful marketplace of ideas which is able to contain the opinions of the “other”, and thus provide a remedy to the crisis of democracy.

The second challenge relates to culture. We Israelis possess a special and multifaceted story. It relates not only to language but also to our collective historical memory and especially, for the present generation, to the tension produced in the encounter between Jewishness—as a nation, a religion, and a culture—and the state and civil society. Where will the ideas and insights for dealing with the immense challenge come from? Are the Knesset, the courts, the Yeshiva study hall (Beit Midrash), and the media the only possible sources? Aren’t the thousands of highbrows among us, who devote their lives to abstract thought and research, an essential source for wrestling with questions on the very substance of Israeli identity in our generation?

Higher education is a public asset. Its legitimacy rests on tradition: it passes on inherited knowledge from one generation to the next. It bears the responsibility to preserve and develop this heritage. The content of this public asset is not only universal, but also particularistic, especially in the humanities, and this must find expression in the curriculum and in the many relevant fields of research.

At the Hebrew University cornerstone laying, the eminent chemist Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of Israel declared: “In the depths of our heart we feel that the goal of this university is to give expression to our spirit and to observe the world from our own perspective.” These laudable and sensitive words should serve as our guiding light today as well: we should always observe the world from our very own perspective.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Report.