The revival of Hebrew from scratch, or lessons for Ukrainians and the Ukrainian language

A hundred and fifty years ago a handful of Jewish enthusiasts from various European countries devised what appeared to be an unrealizable task: to restore the Jewish state almost 2,000 years after it disappeared from the face of the Earth.

They were determined not only to gather together Jews who were spread out in every corner of the world, but also to revive Hebrew, a sacred but dead language used only in religious services. Barely a hundred years passed before this was done.

Last week this incredible experience was discussed and applied to Ukrainian realities in Kyiv, where a Ukrainian–Jewish forum on “Israel’s Experience of Nation Building: Lessons for Ukraine,” organized by the New Europe Center, was held. One of the panel discussions was devoted to the revival of the Hebrew language.

Arguably, the most interesting speaker on the Israeli side was Dr. Einat Wilf, former member of the Knesset (and head of the Education, Sports, and Culture Committee). According to her, language was the critical link without which Israeli state and nation building had no chance of success.

“You must understand,” Wilf said, “that in the nineteenth century the Jews, who were scattered throughout dozens of countries, needed to prove that they were a people and a nation. For this it was not enough to have people and one’s own land. This land had to be settled by people who speak the Hebrew language.”

After the session ended, a journalist from spoke with two of the panelists: Dr. Einat Wilf and Dr. Volodymyr Kulyk, a political scientist and Leading Research Fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. During the conversation we tried to determine why language is so important for creating a nation and a state.

For the sake of Israel’s restoration, Israelis were willing to sacrifice themselves—Einat Wilf

Mrs. Wilf, from your speech today it would appear that language is critically important for state and nation building. With what is this connected?

The thing is that during the period when the Jews were conceiving and launching the state-building process, there were quite a few people who said, “You are not a people and not a nation!” This challenge came from various places. First, from the great nations, like the Germans or the French. They said: “Listen, German Jews are Germans, and French Jews are Frenchmen; Jews are not a separate nation.” Second, this challenge came from religious communities that also claimed that Jews are not a separate people, only a religious group.

Then the urgent need arose to demonstrate to the world that we are a people and a nation. We strove to prove that we have the same kind of rights to possess our own state as the French or the Germans. It was necessary to become recognizable to the world and attain recognition from the world. Indeed, land and people were important arguments in this discussion, but it was language that was critically important. This is connected with the fact that the idea of the development of the nation in the nineteenth century was closely linked to the idea of the development of language. Let’s recall the idea of a single French language as opposed to a bunch of local dialects; the same applies to a single German or Italian language. So, thanks to a single, separate language, no one could continue telling the Jews that they are not a people or a nation.

Does this mean that from the very outset the Jews were so aware of the idea of language that they did not call its value into question? Were there never any thoughts expressed along the lines of, it’s not important which language the Jews speak, the most important thing is to gather them together and create a state and a nation?

You’re right. Such voices were heard indeed n the early state-building years. For example, Theodor Herzl, who was the ideologist of the modern state of Israel, imagined it as German-speaking! He lived in Vienna and thought it was a good idea for everyone in the future state to speak German. At the same time, we see a considerable number of people who were arriving on the territory (of future Israel) and establishing French schools. The fact is that at the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a period that we call the war of languages. This was truly a battle for a language that was supposed to have dominant status.

You are also correct in saying that in the early years the founders of the state definitely tended to emphasize land and people. The priority was to obtain lands and gather the people in them. Language was not the focus of the majority. It was the focus of a few marginal and “insane” people, so to speak, who said that this is important. However, over the course of this war of languages, during which the Jews could not reach an agreement about the dominance of the German, or French, or Arabic languages, suddenly Hebrew turned out to be the only language that had substantiated grounds for this status. It may have looked like a crazy idea; after all, no one spoke Hebrew. However, it was truly the only language on which everyone could agree. Because they knew that Hebrew is the ancient language of the Jewish people.

How easy was the transition to Hebrew for your ancestors; a language that they did not speak but had to learn?

I would say that the revival of Hebrew is a story about strong will and determination. First of all, the project of reviving this language seemed crazy. But the Jews who were settling in the lands of Israel were willing to make a sacrifice. They understood that it would be difficult for them, but their children’s generation would grow into the language completely naturally. The readiness to make a sacrifice derived from an awareness of great history. This was being done in the name of a great history and a great nation. It was a period when the most intelligent and most talented people were writing books, going into the schools to teach children. They invented new words and brought Hebrew closer to modern requirements.

In the twentieth century there were several waves of Jewish settlement in Israel. The last one took place after the collapse of the USSR. As a result of this, quite a few Russian-speaking people came to Israel. How is your state integrating these people into active civic life? What is the language policy regarding them?

First of all, it is necessary to understand that we are waiting for these people. This is not even debated. We always wait with open arms for every Jew, no matter where s/he lives in the world. Second, the last settlement wave, which took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was a great success for us. We certainly benefited from this, because educated people with high-level skills and knowledge had arrived. But they did not speak Hebrew, with the exception, perhaps, of a few people who had been imprisoned in the GULAG and learned the language there.

Then we realized that we should give them a chance to speak Russian. We launched Russian-language radio stations, Russian-language television, newspapers. All this was supported by the state. On the other hand, it was clear as day that Hebrew is critically important. That is why we introduced the Ulpan institutions for the teaching of Hebrew. This is an intensive conversation course that lasts six months. Over the decades Jews arriving in Israel, literally just off the plane, ended up in an Ulpan and began to study the language in these institutions. They lived there, they studied the language, and after completing the course, they could go off to live wherever they pleased. That is why I would say that the older generations had significant difficulties with Hebrew, but the younger generations are already full-fledged Israelis; they don’t have any problems with Hebrew, they speak and study in this language. Some of them also speak Russian, but, of course, worse than Hebrew.

For us it is simultaneously easier and harder than for Israelis—Volodymyr Kulyk

Mr. Kulyk, please compare our linguistic situation with Israel’s. What are our advantages in terms of spreading and consolidating the Ukrainian language, and what advantages did it [Israel] have at one time?

Our main advantage lies in the fact that there were more Ukrainian-language speakers at the beginning of the revival (the early 1990s). Accordingly, the general level of proficiency in the Ukrainian language in society was higher. There was an uninterrupted tradition of using the language; there were people who had used the language from the cradle; there was a press, radio, other practices, etc. The main thing, of course, is percentages. At a certain stage, practically no one spoke Hebrew. During the worst period the Ukrainian language was spoken by 30–40 percent, but these are serious percentages. The problem is that these were not the people who usually contribute to the success of social processes. They were marginal or low-level representatives of society: peasants, not urbanites; ordinary workers, not directors. They were people who usually adapt themselves to other people’s choices, instead of imposing their own choice.

In other words, from the sociolinguistic point of view, the Ukrainian language did not have prestige?

Yes, it did not have prestige, but at first neither did Hebrew. It had prestige only in one sphere, the religious one. Furthermore, there was a rigid idea that it belonged only to this sphere, and to some segment of the population it was blasphemy to use Hebrew outside the bounds of religious practices. In fact, for a certain, small segment of the population even the creation of the State of Israel was blasphemy because it was supposed to arise after the coming of the Messiah.

But, along with this are two important factors that at one time served in favor of Hebrew and which we do not have right now, unfortunately.

First of all, people in Israel did not have another common language. A great number of them knew Yiddish, but a great number did not know it. They had arrived from various countries speaking a variety of languages: German, French, Polish, Russian. That is why they had to rely very quickly on Hebrew as a language that allows them to understand one another. This does not mean that they instantly forgot all the other languages.  This does not mean that all the other languages became instantly marginal and unimportant. No one talks about this today, but there was a segment of people for whom their own languages remained dear and important. But over time, with the change of generations, this receded into the past. The grand idea to create their own state, which other nations have, prevailed.

The second factor is connected with the fact that the second great language which surrounded them—Arabic—was much less powerful and had less prestige than Russian in our country. In addition, almost no Jews arriving from other countries knew it. That is why in fact it did not have an impact on the linguistic situation. This can be compared to the situation if the majority of the citizens in contemporary Ukraine had come from the diaspora. They would not have known the Russian language, they would not be “in thrall” to the Russians, under Russian rule. The idea that we have to defer to this language would not have existed. The Russian language has prestige, and it is a developed language that has sent very deep roots into us. That is why until recently a significant segment of people has begun questioning why we should sacrifice it for the sake of switching to Ukrainian. Our situation can be compared to the one in Ireland, where, despite efforts to revive the Irish language, the population continues to speak English.

Recently the president of Ukraine issued a decree proclaiming the Decade of the Ukrainian Language. What do you think? Is this a prelude to a future law on the state language or a surrogate, so as not to approve such a law, but it makes it look as though the state is supporting the development of the Ukrainian language?

The latter, of course. After the Constitutional Court overturned the Kolesnichenko-Kivalov law and the bill on the state language was registered for consideration during the current session, I had the hope that it would be examined. However, when Poroshenko spoke about autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church, I realized that there will be no law on language. It was decided to grant patriots a single church but not language. The Church is all well and fine, but it would be better if it were the language. The Church concerns a certain part of society, but language is what touches the entire nation.

You must understand that in the great offices of state, they don’t want a serious law on language. There are people there, like that Avakov, who does not feel confident in the Ukrainian language, and the bill makes serious demands on candidates for high positions. They don’t want that. The bill contains things that terrify them a lot, say, language inspection. In our corrupt state this can become a corruptogenic factor. I presume that the authors of the bill wrote this in such a way as to create some bargaining room. They were ready to haggle and make certain concessions, but right from the beginning they greatly alarmed those who make decisions. Therefore, it looks as though this law will not happen before the elections. So, we remain in a situation in which the state has no law on language. There is only Article Ten of the Constitution, as well as a number of sectoral laws.

Interviewed by Serhii Stukanov

Originally appeared in Ukrainian on

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk