Two weeks ago, during the Means Essay All School Meeting (ASM), students heard a speech which touched on the author’s personal experience with Judaism, feminism, and camaraderie. The speech was beautifully-written, but for some Jewish students, it felt like a deep attack on our culture and existence.
Let us be clear: we do not believe that the essay was intended to be an attack of any kind. Given that a Means Essay is delivered in front of the entire student body, it should be considered from all perspectives. Nonetheless, we believe that parts of the text contain potentially anti-Semitic elements.
While the essay offers sparse specifics and no hard data (and as a personal essay, it need not), it asserts that Hebrew is a language revived specifically to exclude people, and it claims that “the best words in Hebrew are stolen from the neighboring Arabic.”
Hebrew is the language of the Old Testament (and the Torah) and one of two official languages of Israel. It is at least 3,000 years old, and is considered a holy language to people of several faiths. In the late 1800s, Jews faced extreme anti-Semitism in Europe. Though anti-Semitism had already existed for over a millennium, it spiked in the late 1800s. Pogroms in eastern Europe foreshadowed the near future of the Jewish people: the Holocaust. Due to the rise in anti-Semitism, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a German Jew, concluded that the revival of Hebrew in a Jewish homeland would unite Jews facing anti-Semitism around the world. The language was created with the intent of inclusion; it united Jews fleeing persecution.
In addition, there is no such thing as “stealing” between languages. “Critique” and “brunette” are French. “Solo” and “diva” are Italian. In the same way, “sababa,” which is Arabic, is used in Hebrew. Language is fluid, and cultural exchange between Arabic and Hebrew signifies the harmonious mutual respect the peoples have for each other. In Israel, 25 percent of the population is non-Jewish, and one of the two official languages is Arabic; it is no surprise that Israeli culture and modern Hebrew are a blend of several cultures.
In the essay, the author also recounts apologizing to Arab shopkeepers in Israel. “[I’m] sorry for this country, my people, for what we have done to you,” the essay states.
Politics aside, an apology for any people—and considering the fact that the author is not Israeli, she must be referring to the Jewish people—is never okay. Imagine if somebody apologized for the existence of your ethnicity. In this case, the language is an example of anti-Semitism. “Slicha,” the Hebrew word used to apologize in the essay, is used by Israelis to apologize for overlooking chores, or for being late—not to delegitimize a country or a people. We may feel remorse for the actions of a governing body, but all people and religions must be allowed to exist unapologetically.
This article is not about Israel or the Palestinian territories, but as they were touched upon in the essay, we will briefly touch upon them here. Peace talks to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have taken place since Bill Clinton’s presidency. None have succeeded. The topic is intensely complex, and experts have remarkably varying opinions on solutions to the conflict. It is possible to love the country of Israel, disagree with some of the actions the Israeli government takes (in the same way that millions of Americans disagree with the actions the U.S. government takes), and sympathize with the Palestinian people all at once. The three are not mutually exclusive.
The essay calls attention to the Hebrew word “hineni,” which means “here I am.” The word is repeated throughout the essay, possibly to express the author’s confusion over whether or not Jews have a right to be in Israel. What many students at ASM may not have realized is that “Hineni” is the name of a prayer sung on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year when Jews recognize their wrongdoings and commit to a better year. The English translation of the first two lines of the prayer are “Here I stand / Painfully aware of my flaws.” “Hineni” is about self-reflection and humility, and to see it being applied in a seemingly politically-charged manner, in a context so far from its intended use, was deeply hurtful.
During a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, it is essential to continue to be aware of the ways in which underlying messages about a culture and its people can be harmful. On behalf of the authors of this article, “hinenu.” Here we are.