The Jewish Chronicle
Creating feminist Hebrew language
THE NEWEST political leader in Israel, Merav Michaeli, is now the only woman to head a party in the Knesset after the 23 March elections delivered Labour a much better result than predicted — seven seats, including Gilad Kariv as the first Reform rabbi to enter parliament.
Michaeli, a 54-year-old former broadcast journalist, only took over as leader in January. But she vowed to rescue Labour with what she called “a pink collar revolution”.
The first thing many people say about Michaeli is that she is “an extreme feminist” — by which they mean her unorthodox approach to the Hebrew language.
It’s 140 years since Eliezer BenYehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, arrived in Jerusalem from his home in Vilna. His methodology formed the basis of what is today the Academy of the Hebrew Language. The Academy’s mission is to preserve Hebrew, frequently debating whether to accept new words into the lexicon. But while it imports words from other languages — English is a frequent treasure chest for magpie Hebrew, whose Biblical forms often can’t accommodate present-day concepts such as those related to information technology — the one thing on which it is certain is that Hebrew is a gendered language.
Hebrew casts all nouns as either masculine or feminine. Thus adjectives, pronouns and verbs have to align. It’s not possible, for example, to be confused if you overhear a Hebrew phone conversation as to whether the person on the other end is a man or a woman. The verbs or pronouns used will give it away.
On the other hand, the default use of nouns and verbs is — or has been up to now — masculine. That’s usually illustrated by saying that if there is a group of 99 women and one man, the masculine form will apply; but in fact, as most Hebrew speakers are aware, it’s possible for a woman to be giving a speech to a girls’ school, and for her to be using only masculine forms of words. Michaeli began to wonder why.
A long-time social activist, she had a two-year break from TV between 2001 and 2003. While she was off-screen, she decided to relearn Hebrew by using only the feminine forms.
It was, she says, “a huge change to make, very hard to acquire as a natural way to speak.
“When I got back on TV I was accustomed to it — but it really blew up, people asked what on earth I was saying. Hebrew forces you to say I [male] go, or I [female] go. You can’t say ‘doctors’ neutrally: you have to say male doctors or female doctors.”
Michaeli’s linguistic bombshell caused consternation, but also a massive public debate about language in a notoriously macho society.
Israel, as a country of immigrants, constantly teaches Hebrew to newcomers, and language teachers were unsure how to proceed.
When she first entered the Knesset as a politician in 2013, there was even a debate about how the Israeli parliament’s equivalent of Hansard would render her official speeches, if she used the feminine forms. Almost needless to say, the Academy of the Hebrew Language deplored Michaeli’s initiative and ruled it unacceptable.
It’s not just feminisation of language that is seeping into Israel. Campaigners for gender-neutral Hebrew — frequently those from the LGBTQ+ communities, seeking a way to identify themselves — have established the Non-Binary Hebrew Project, inventing new forms for this most ancient of languages.
Today, not least as a politician on the stump, Merav Michaeli says she uses both masculine and feminine forms, depending on her audience. But she believes there has been a trickle-down effect. She says: “It [her questioning of the linguistic status quo] has changed the norm: people use both forms today, they will say in the same sentence [male] citizens and [female] citizens”.
There’s even been a change in the army, she reports: “IDF graduates of one of its courses formerly received a badge with a symbol of a man. But now that more women are graduating from this course, the army has changed the symbol to a woman’s image. And they say that if the situation reverts to more men than women graduates, the symbol will remain a woman. So there are so many effects in so many places.
“Using the feminine form in language was like a stone I was privileged to throw in the water — and it has had such an overwhelming impact.”
The ripple effect served Michaeli well in these latest elections. Now she plans to capitalise on her success and work with other centre-left parties to improve services for less privileged people throughout Israel.
It caused a massive debate in a notoriously macho society’