He says, she says: Hebrew meets gender politics

Jerusalem – Hebrew, with its roots in a biblical patriarchy, and rebuilt after 3,000 years to become the language of today’s Israel, has become the focus of efforts to make it more inclusive in the modern era.

Hardly a sentence can be spoken in Hebrew without gender; Each object has a designated gender—a table is masculine and a door is feminine, for example—and the language lacks gender-neutral words for people and groups of people.

But in recent years, many Israelis have been pushing to revise Hebrew and even its alphabet, which they see as inherent biases in a language whose modern form dates back to biblical times. Preserves grammatical norms.

“When I want to send a message to a group including 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 been pushing to make Hebrew less gender-specific and who created a set of all-inclusive characters for the Hebrew alphabet.

,research has shown that using a ‘standard’ masculine form has negative effects on girls and women and gives them a chance to be successful in modern society.”

The lack of gender-neutral pronouns and constructions in Hebrew means that masculine plurals of verbs and pronouns have long been used as standard forms, for example, referring to, or addressing a mixed crowd.

Now, when addressing or referring to a mixed or general group of people, Israelis are using both the masculine and feminine forms of each verb and pronoun, along with related adjectives, or attempts to create a more inclusive Hebrew I am mixing them. ,

However, such efforts have been criticized by some Israelis as cumbersome and unnecessarily tampering with the cherished official language of the Jewish state which is a binding marker of identity. This has also resulted in backlash from religious conservatives.

Critics complain that the frequent doubling of genders turns each phrase into a potential slang and disrupts the natural flow of speech and prose.

“To reiterate that’s terrible more than once, the text becomes a huge annoyance, you don’t want to hear it anymore!” Ruvik Rosenthal, a language lover, titled a chapter about gender and Israel’s lingua franca in his latest book, “My Life, My Language,” “In Praise of Sex-Maniac Hebrew,” from Jonah Wallach, a feminist poet Borrowing a phrase.

Referring to what he called “engineered” writing, the use of slash signs and dots in an elaborate attempt to include both gender endings has become more common in Israel in recent years, Mr Rosenthal said. , “It’s not grammatical. It’s ugly, it’s complicated and it’s practically not conducive to speech.”

Some ultra-conservative and strict Orthodox Jews oppose the new focus on linguistic equality, as they reject the principle of equality in general. Legislator Avi Maoz, of a party opposing LGBTQ rights, has opposed the use of government forms of a gender-neutral formula for tracing parental information, “Parent 1” and “Parent 2”, which include similar- Gender pairs are included.

In a measure of how seriously many Israelis regard their language, the state’s authority on Hebrew scholarship, the social media platform of the venerable Academy of the Hebrew Language, is the most popular in the country, with over a million views a month . ,

The Academy, which is charged with coining Hebrew words to keep up with the times and uphold grammatical standards, finds itself mediating between linguistic chaos and social change.

Said to be the focus of the gender debate, it has recommended moderate and judicious use of both masculine and feminine forms in some settings, without going overboard.

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

Ronit Gadish, head of the Academy’s scientific secretariat, said, “People think that if they speak this way and not that way, things will be the way they want to.” “Gender equality sits on that platform. People confuse themselves that if they change the language to fit their agenda, they will win their battle for some reason or the other.

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

Nor is gender inclusion the only existential issue facing Hebrew. Many Israelis associate their speech with English words, and especially among tech entrepreneurs, English professional words are often used in the original or in some cannibalistic, Hebraicized form.

But it is the issue of gender that is causing the most outrage in Israel.

Labor Party feminist leader Merav Michaeli is widely credited with leading the charge for more inclusive Hebrew. At first she was in favor of using only the feminine form, but changed to the more frequent use of both.

Among native Arabic-speaking citizens, who make up one-fifth of Israel’s population, no such major movement for a more gender-inclusive language has yet arisen, although some young, progressive Palestinians are mostly associated with the feminist movement. Addressing mixed groups in feminine forms.

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

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

“Religious are against multi-gender language because of the observant equality,” he said. “I am against clumsiness. For my part, let it be all feminine. ”

Earlier this academic year, Mr. Levinson, who teaches new media at a Jerusalem college, received a letter from the college in his inbox containing a link to a 24-page manual. gender-inclusive language guidelines,

Its subtitle was, “Language Creates Reality.” But some experts say it should be the other way around.

“The public’s distress is clear,” said Vicky Teplitsky Ben-Sadon, coordinator of terminology at the Scientific Secretariat of the Academy of the Hebrew Languages, referring to the number of questions the institute has received on the matter. “Linguistically, we at the Academy don’t own Hebrew. We don’t invent it,” she said, “we set a standard based on proving ourselves. A living language evolves as it develops.” Is.”

Some American students and academics have tried to build Gender-Inclusive Language Projects for HebrewBut they are not caught here.

Then there’s Ms. Shomer’s novelty of a dozen new Hebrew characters – 11 all-inclusive letters that combine masculine and feminine markers and a new vowel mark. A visual communications designer, she created the system as part of her undergraduate project.

Critics say that the combined glyphs are unpublished and are mostly good for graphic signage, such as the multi-gender “Welcome” sign using its characters now hanging outside many Israeli schools.

But according to Ms Shomer, her free program with new inclusive characters has had more than 12,000 downloads since its release in early 2021.

“Letters are not added to a language in a day,” she said. “I am patient. I know change takes time.”

Hiba Yazbeki Contributed reporting.

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