JERUSALEM — Hebrew, with its roots in a biblical patriarchy and reinvented 3,000 years later to become the lingua franca of today’s Israel, has become the focus of efforts to make it more gender inclusive in the modern age.
Hardly a sentence can be uttered in Hebrew without gender coming up; every object has an assigned gender — a table is masculine, and a door is feminine, for example — and the language lacks gender-neutral terms for people and groups of people.
But in recent years, many Israelis have been pushing to modify Hebrew and even its alphabet to deal with what they see as inherent biases in a language whose modern form retained the grammatical norms of biblical times.
“When I want to send a message to a group including men, women and nonbinary 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 has created a set of all-inclusive characters for the Hebrew alphabet.
“Research has shown that using the ‘standard’ masculine form has a negative impact on girls and women and their chance to succeed in modern society,” she added.
The lack of gender-neutral pronouns and constructs in Hebrew means that the masculine plural form of verbs and pronouns has long been used as the standard form when referring to, or addressing, a mixed crowd, for example.
Now, when addressing or referring to a mixed or general group of people, Israelis are increasingly using both the masculine and feminine forms of each verb and pronoun, along with corresponding adjectives, or are mixing them up in an effort to create a more inclusive Hebrew.
Such efforts, however, have been criticized by some Israelis as cumbersome and needless tinkering with the cherished official language of the Jewish state that is a binding marker of identity. It has also resulted in a backlash from religious conservatives.
Critics complain that the constant doubling-up of genders turns each phrase into a potential tongue twister and stymies the natural flow of speech and prose.
“To repeat that more than once is awful; the text becomes one big annoyance; you don’t want to hear it anymore!” said Ruvik Rosenthal, a language maven who in his latest book, “My Life, My Language,” titled a chapter about gender and Israel’s lingua franca “In praise of sex-maniac Hebrew,” borrowing a phrase from Yona Wallach, a feminist poet.
Rosenthal said he supports the push for more inclusive language but also pointed out what he views as some of its limitations. Referring to what he called “engineered” writing, the use of slash signs and dots in a belabored effort to incorporate both gender endings that has become more common in Israel in recent years, Rosenthal added: “It’s not grammatical. It’s ugly, it’s complicated, and in practical terms it’s not suited to speech.”
Some ultraconservatives and strict Orthodox Jews oppose the new focus on linguistic equality, since they reject the principle of equality in general. Avi Maoz, a lawmaker from a party opposed to LGBTQ rights, has protested against the use on government forms of a gender-neutral formula for ascertaining parental information: “Parent 1” and “Parent 2,” which includes same-sex couples.
In a measure of how seriously many Israelis relate to their language, the social media platforms of the venerable Academy of the Hebrew Language, the state’s authority on Hebrew scholarship, are among the most popular in the country, with more than 1 million views a month.
The academy, charged with coining Hebrew words to keep up with the times and maintaining grammatical standards, finds itself arbitrating between linguistic anarchy and societal change.
Called upon to weigh in on the gender debate, it has recommended the moderate and judicious use of both the masculine and feminine forms in certain settings, without going overboard.
But its scholars are also skeptical about the new language campaigns.
“People feel that if they speak this way and not that way, things will work out as they want,” said Ronit Gadish, head of the Academy’s Scientific Secretariat, which is charged with setting norms for modern Hebrew. “Gender equality sits on that platform. People delude themselves that if they change the language to fit their agenda, they will win their battles for some cause or other.”
Hebrew is by no means the only language that has been the target of calls for change. Many world languages, like French, make every noun either masculine or feminine. And the United Nations has issued guidelines for nondiscriminatory communications in the six official languages of the organization: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
Nor is gender inclusivity the only existential issue facing Hebrew. Many Israelis pepper their speech with English terms, and among tech entrepreneurs in particular, English professional terms are often used in the original or in some cannibalized, Hebraicized form. But it’s the gender issue that is causing the most angst in Israel.
Merav Michaeli, the feminist leader of the Labor party, is widely credited with having led the charge for a more inclusive Hebrew. At first she tended to favor only using the feminine form but has switched to more frequent use of both.
Among the native Arabic-speaking citizens who make up one-fifth of the Israeli population, no such prominent movement for more gender-inclusive language appears to have arisen as yet, although some young, progressive Palestinians mostly associated with the feminist movement make a point of addressing mixed groups in feminine forms.
Chaim Levinson, a Hebrew-speaking journalist and radio host, 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.
“The religiously observant are against multi-gender language because of equality,” he added. “I’m against clumsiness. For my part, let it all be in the feminine form.”
At the beginning of this academic year, Levinson, who also teaches new media at a college in Jerusalem, received a letter from the college in his inbox with a link to a 24-page manual of gender-inclusive language guidelines.
It was subtitled, “Language creates reality.” But some experts say it should be the other way round.
“The public’s distress is clear,” said Vicky Teplitsky Ben-Saadon, coordinator of terminology at the Hebrew language academy’s Scientific Secretariat, referring to the number of queries the institute receives on the matter. “Linguistically, we at the academy are not the owners of Hebrew. We don’t invent it,” she said. “We determine a standard based on what has proven itself. A living language develops as it develops.” Some American students and academics have tried to build gender-inclusive language projects for Hebrew, but they have not caught on here.
Then there is Shomer’s innovation of a dozen new Hebrew characters — 11 all-inclusive letters combining masculine and feminine markers and one new vowel sign. A visual communications designer, she created the system as part of her graduation project.
Critics say the combined glyphs are unpronounceable and mostly good for graphic signage, such as the multi-gender “Welcome” signs using her characters now hanging outside many Israeli schools.
But according to Shomer, there have been more than 12,000 downloads of her free program with the new inclusive characters since it was released in early 2021.
“Letters are not added to a language in one day,” she said. “I am patient. I know that change takes time.”