Zionist Discourses on English Language Instruction in Mandatory Palestine

By Liora R. Halperin
Submitted to Session P2336 (Approaches to the Cultural History of Education in Mandatory Palestine, 2010 Annual Meeting
Israel; Palestine;
19th-21st Centuries; Arab-Israeli Conflict; Colonialism; Comparative; Cultural Studies; Education; Hebrew; Historiography; Israel Studies; Judaic Studies; Language Acquisition; Nationalism; Sociolinguistics; Zionism;
English was a required subject in nearly all Zionist schools in Palestine during the Mandate Period. How did institutions passionately committed to promoting Hebrew, the proclaimed mother tongue, and largely autonomous in their curriculum decisions, justify their choice to devote classroom hours to this pursuit?
Part of a larger study of language politics in the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine, my paper argues that the Yishuv grappled with how to balance a fervent commitment to a local national language with the need to gain the linguistic skills to operate on the local colonial and broader international stages. My research shows, however, that alongside purely instrumental justifications for English study, educators promoted the idea that England and the English embodied exemplary values that should be imbibed by an emerging Hebrew society that imagined itself as fundamentally European. England, seen as a bastion of democracy, civic stability, and national normalcy, could offer lessons for a populace anxious about its apparent national abnormality and lack of modern sensibilities. The English language could thus, paradoxically, be construed as a conduit for values understood to be essentially "Hebrew." At the same time, obsessive obsequiousness to English values caused alarm for many who saw Zionism as precisely a movement to escape Europe.
The paper seeks to situate Zionist language policies within the broader history of English instruction during the first half of the twentieth century. The Yishuv was articulating its pedagogical approaches during a period in which the British were revising their own instructional methods in light of a new interest in modern language study and a growing need to teach English in the colonies. Indeed, some of the textbooks that resulted from Indian experiments were used in Jewish schools in Palestine. Far from passive recipients of curricula, Yishuv educators--fashioning themselves as disciples of the newest European pedagogical methods--engaged with and modified these materials for their own use.
The paper replies on protocols from Zionist education committee meetings, teachers' bulletins, school newspaper articles, and textbooks, along with the records of the British Council, which funded some English study in Palestine beginning in the late 1930s. In focusing attention on the English language, I shed light on an object of Zionist attention largely obscured by a scholarly focus on Jewish immigrant languages (particularly Yiddish) and a tendency to downplay the significance of the British mandatory context in the development of Zionist cultural and educational politics.