How Canada could learn a language lesson from Israel

The attractive young lady says “shalom” and right away I know I’m in trouble. I’m just entering El Al’s special security screening, as much psychological as technological. And I can’t decide whether it’s polite or patronizing to respond with the only word of Hebrew I know (which is also “shalom”). It’s a very Canadian moment. In the face of elaborate precautions against international terrorism and anti-Semitism, I’m paralyzed by a language issue. And uneasily aware that standing speechless at El Al security with beads of sweat forming on your forehead is not a promising start to a trip. Ultimately I settle for “Hi,” and after having my luggage passed through their special X-ray machine and my brain through their special psychological understanding I am cleared to fly to Tel Aviv (on a trip sponsored by the Canada-Israel Committee). I concluded that they had other things on their minds than whether it was dorky for a tourist to mispronounce their equivalent of “Hello” (and that my airplane seat bore no useful resemblance to a bed). I turned out to be right on both counts. The story of language in Israel is an amazing one not least, to a Canadian, because of how relaxed everyone seems to be about it.

Israel’s familiar language miracle is the resurrection of Hebrew as a vernacular rather than liturgical language. As Paul Johnson’ s History of the Jews notes, when Eliezer ben Yehuda went to Palestine in 1881 and insisted he and his wife, née Deborah Jonas, speak Hebrew to each other, “Theirs was the first Hebrew-speaking household in the country (indeed in the world) and Ben Yehuda’s first son, Ben Zion, was the first Hebrew-speaking child since antiquity.” For Israel to resurrect Hebrew was at least as improbable as if the United States had sought to revive Latin in 1776. Indeed more so, for there were more people capable of conversing in Latin in 1776 than in Hebrew in 1881, and it had been a living language more recently. But, my goodness, it has succeeded.

English, unsurprisingly, is widely spoken and understood in Israel, without any sort of Gallic sneer. Only in one rustic stop on our trip north, in the closest thing they have to a proper Appalachia, did we encounter a gas station where only Hebrew was spoken and the English-language Jerusalem Post was not to be had. Which may not seem odd, since English has penetrated the cosmopolitan elites of most societies leaving the hinterland speaking only the traditional Croatian, Twee or Japanese. But remember that as recently as the founding of Israel in 1948 Hebrew was not traditional. You’d think, the adoption of an ancient language being an eccentric intellectual enterprise, it would flourish in the cities in some elaborate, stilted form and up in the hills they’d be yammering away in Yiddish, Russian, or for that matter English or Arabic. You don’t find much Esperanto in Sioux City, Iowa. Instead, in Israel, it is in the cities that large-scale immigration, like nearly a million Russian immigrants in the 1990s, creates pockets of traditional language. In the boonies it’s all Hebrew, as though 2,000 years of history just hadn’t happened.

In fact Yiddish has all but vanished from Israel. It makes me a bit sad because it is not only a marvelously expressive language but also (as Johnson’s History notes, citing Isaac Bashevis Singer) the only one never spoken by those in power. Perhaps Yiddish is felt to be the language of the helpless Jew in exile and Hebrew that of the House of David. Perhaps it is too closely linked to one side of the once-problematic Ashkenazi-Sephardic divide. But however that may be, I only heard one Yiddish word while there (the wonderful “schnorrer”) and was told the language’s only significant remaining use is by observant Jews so orthodox they think it profane to use Hebrew for secular purposes. Do not think this is a society where people are less stubborn or opinionated than Canadians.

That’s why a second miracle about language in Israel is how nice everyone was about it. Even before I arrived, I was pestering my seat-mate on the plane to teach me “Thank you” in Hebrew, followed by “Yes, please.” The flight attendant added that Israelis were not big on elaborate manners and merely barking “yes” (“ken”) would be fine. But folks were so hospitable they didn’t mind when I insisted in true Canadian fashion in adding “Bevakeshah.” When I mentioned how nice everyone was being about language, I was generally told something like, “Yes, this isn’t France.” Or, I would add, Quebec; it’s not that Quebecers have been as rude to me when I try to speak French as, let’s be frank here, Parisians. But they don’t encourage it. They switch to English. They don’t seem to want you speaking French badly, well, or at all. Israel is totally different.

One of our tour guides was extremely, even weirdly patient, first writing out the Hebrew alphabet for me and then putting up with endless stupid questions about what various signs said and how to pronounce them (incidentally, I have the distinct impression that the Hebrew alphabet is harder than the grammar but that may be only because I know even less about the latter). By the end of the week I was confidently saying not only “I need more coffee” (roughly, “Anee rotsee odd cafe”) and “bathroom, please” (“sheeruteem bevakeshaw”) but even, my favourite, “my friend will pay” (“ha chaver shale yeshalem”) which, as we were on a sponsored trip, was not only useful but mostly true. At first I thought I must be speaking this handful of words with a flawless accent because people clearly did understand and seemed impressed. Then it occurred to me that there might not be any one accent given the constant influx of people from who knows where, often bringing with them the local liturgical pronunciation.

Finally I decided the real explanation was that in Israel there is no shame in mispronouncing Hebrew words provided you’re trying. In part I suspect it’s because they’re a bit short of sympathetic gentile foreigners. But more than that, Israel has a national narrative that, as it is far more compelling than Canada’s, creates far less trouble over diversity than our shapeless, pointless multiculturalism. The country experiences a constant influx of people from America, Argentina, and for that matter Ethiopia who have every right to be in Israel and every right to speak Hebrew but who currently don’t and must be taught.

Partly for this reason, Israel’s third language miracle is that in a region where even the most trivial events are wired to ancient hatreds language didn’t seem to be wired to much of anything. And I don’t just mean Hebrew. My limited opportunities for observation suggested that while the division between native Hebrew speakers and native Arabic speakers is not exactly unrelated to certain other unresolved quarrels it is not, in itself, a flashpoint either.

During our trip we spent less than a day in the West Bank, and bits of another day in a Druze town in the Golan Heights, so I had much less opportunity to do well-intentioned harm to the Arabic language. I didn’t manage to learn the alphabet at all, though one Israeli Arab journalist insisted, pointing to his own hand-written notes, that Arabic script consists of separate letters despite the fondness of sign-makers for long lines with bits on them. But I did learn to mispronounce “thank you”, as either “soukhran” or “shokran” depending on my mood, and no one seemed to mind. Instead they took it, as intended, as an awkward gesture of appreciation for their hospitality. (Even my semi-articulate “no thank you” to a young Ramallah entrepreneur persuaded of my urgent need for chewing gum was received in a friendly way.) And I noticed that a discussion between an Israeli intelligence officer fluent in Arabic and a Druze fluent in Hebrew thanks to a lengthy security-related stay in an Israeli jail was conducted without the least linguistic animosity despite the evident motives each had for learning to overhear the other.

Canadians often feel that language is necessarily awkward here because it relates to one of the two major historical issues we do confront and you all know what it is. But, a propos of the Chinese curse about living in historic times, I think Israelis are relaxed about language partly because they have more important concerns like Kassam rockets and suicide bombers. Perhaps Canadians sweat language because we have the luxury of doing so. If so, let’s not. I don’t see what good it does, and I sure liked how they did it in Israel.

Indeed, on leaving I confidently answered “Shalom” to the security greeter and it didn’t cause any problems. Maybe they were just glad to be rid of me and my mispronunciations. But I doubt it. They all seemed so nice.

To da.” Thank you. My friend will pay.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson