Gove’s got it wrong on Hebrew

By Matt Plen, April 4, 2013
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Last month, Michael Gove defended plans for the teaching of foreign languages in primary schools. Schools will be required to select from a list that, while including ancient Greek, Italian and Mandarin, excludes Hebrew. Jewish schools, pressed for curriculum time, will have to choose between squeezing in Hebrew alongside another language - or abandoning it.

Everyone, it seems - except the education secretary - recognises that Hebrew is the non-negotiable bedrock of serious Jewish education. It is the key to accessing biblical texts and rabbinic literature, to understanding the prayer book, and to appreciating modern Hebrew prose and poetry. In the words of the poet Bialik, "reading the Bible in translation is like kissing a bride through her veil".

Hebrew is a pre-condition for understanding, first-hand, events in Israel and for building relationships with Israelis. Without it, we are locked out of authentic Jewish literacy, unable to take an active part in the age-old Jewish conversation between prophets, rabbis, philosophers and contemporary thinkers.

As Jewish schooling has expanded, the focus has tended to be quantitative - the provision of education for Jews - rather than the qualitative issue of what takes place within these schools. Yet this is changing. Parents and educators in various schools and communities have started to promote a shift from a survivalist vision of Jewish continuity (and the role of Jewish schools in ensuring this) to a position that recognises Jewish literacy as a core value. It's ironic that at precisely this juncture the government has placed an obstacle in the way of Hebrew education.

Overall, the exclusion makes very little sense

The government's position reflects an unresolved tension between two different views of education. The first sees the job of schools as being to prepare students for the workplace and give them useful skills - for example a knowledge of Spanish - thus equipping them to be productive members of a consumer society. The second view, illustrated by the presence of Latin and Greek on Gove's list, harks back to a classical vision in which education should shape young people to become civilised bearers of knowledge and culture.

While the first view of education dominates government thinking all over the industrialised world, Gove is clearly also attracted to the second - hence his views on the teaching of English history.

On either view, the exclusion of Hebrew (likewise Japanese and Sanskrit) makes little sense. True, Hebrew is less economically useful than Spanish or Mandarin - but the same argument could be made about Italian, and certainly about classical Greek. And Hebrew is no less valuable for cognitive and intellectual development, or as a piece of the UK's multi-cultural mosaic, or even as a foundation of Western Judeo-Christian culture. While the growing number of Jewish free schools and academies are exempt from National Curriculum restrictions, there is still a strong case for fighting Gove's decision. The issue could perhaps unite Jews from across the religious spectrum in an era when intra-denominational consensus is hard to come by.

The question of teaching Hebrew goes beyond the curriculum, since Anglo-Jewry itself is largely a Hebrew-free zone. Graduates of Jewish schools rarely have more than a basic competence in it and the same can be said for many participants in Israel gap-year schemes. One result - also a cause - is that our community produces few well-qualified Hebrew teachers. Jewish schools often have no choice but to employ unqualified Israeli classroom assistants, who are committed to their jobs but cannot match the high standards we expect of professional teachers.

Taken together, these mean a vicious circle that can only be broken by changing the culture of Jewish education in the UK. We need to begin developing cohorts of well-trained, learned, Hebrew-speaking teachers. A first step would be the creation of a scholarship to send newly qualified teachers for a one- or two-year, intensive programme of Jewish and Hebrew study in Israel, with a concomitant commitment to return to the UK Jewish education system for a minimum of three years.

This should be the priority for the institutions responsible for promoting Jewish education in the UK. If this is neglected, then the battle to have the department for education see reason will ultimately be in vain.

Matt Plen is chief executive of Masorti Judaism

Last updated: 3:45pm, April 4 2013