Ani Yonatan. Efshar l'azor li?*
* I am Jonathan. Can you help?
Several years ago I did a Jewish event alongside Michael Gove. It was clear whose views the audience preferred. Courteous, witty and as hawkish as they were on Israel, he was the son-in-law of their dreams (apart from the obvious drawback).
So it came as a particular blow to Anglo-Jewry when earlier this year Gove’s department of education proposed that primary schools be required to teach one of a list of seven approved foreign languages – a list that did not include Hebrew. Some hyperventilating critics instantly denounced Gove for “banning the teaching of Hebrew.” He wasn’t. But he was making it very hard. Jewish primary schools, already pressed to squeeze in Jewish studies alongside everything else, would now have to find time for both Hebrew and, say, French. It would, said some heads, have made the teaching of Hebrew all but impossible.
Now Gove has sensibly dropped the idea, a u-turn u-turn for which the Jewish community deserves credit: it made its case firmly and won the day. The danger, however, is that we now relax, satisfied that the battle for Hebrew has been won. In fact, we are losing the battle for Hebrew and the enemy is not the government but ourselves.
The quality of Hebrew literacy among non-Israeli Jews in our community is poor to non-existent. Rare indeed is the British Jew fluent in the language. (I can get by, but no more.) It’s true that, in the past, only one in ten of us went to Jewish schools – but even among those, not many came out able to speak the language. And what about the rest, who spent endless Sunday mornings at cheder? That's our word for Hebrew classes, but they were anything but. Sure, lots of us can read the letters and make the right sounds when faced with a prayer book. But we don’t call those who can read French out loud – but can't understand a word of what they’re saying – French-speakers. This is no different.
Today things should be better. An estimated seven in ten Jewish kids now go to Jewish schools. But I encounter young people, otherwise academically accomplished, who have sat through school Hebrew lessons for more than a decade and yet still cannot string a conversational sentence together.
There is not some hidden code in the language, rendering it indecipherable to all but those born in the land of Israel. On the contrary, if you meet someone who went to a Jewish school in the US or France or South Africa, you are rapidly humbled by their ability to converse in Hebrew. It’s British Jews who lag behind.
What’s required is a community-wide effort to find out what those other communities are doing right and what we are doing wrong. Some say the answer is immersion, enveloping pupils in Hebrew for afternoons or mornings at a time, studying, say, maths or geography in the language rather than confining it to those lessons labelled ‘Hebrew.’ Given the number of Israelis now living in this country, there must be at least a few dozen who could be hired to teach science or art in their mother tongue.
Why does it matter? Listen to the American intellectual Leon Wieseltier, whose Hebrew is fluent. “The Jew’s homeland is not only soil, it is the language," he says. "We are more than a tribe; we are a civilization, and a civilization has language.”
To listen to our fellow Jews, from the past and around the world, we need to speak the language of the Jews. Michael Gove will not stand in our way. Now it’s up to us.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist