Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Language Politics

Chancellor Angela Merkel caused a minor firestorm in Israel by planning to address the Knesset in her mother tongue- German.

Israel Radio reported Shelly Yachimovich, of the coalition Labour Party, said she would stay absent from the speech to the 120-member Israeli parliament because it was "insensitive" toward Holocaust survivors to hold it in German, "the language of their torturers - SS officers, camp commanders and the Gestapo."

Germany is a "friend of Israel," but the feelings of the survivors should be taken into consideration, said Yachimovich, the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

Two lawmakers of the opposition hard-line Likud party and two of the ultra-right, religious National Union also said they would boycott the address, with three saying they would stay absent and one, Arieh Eldad of the National Union, announcing he planned to walk out of the room in protest.

No word yet on how many actually stayed away. Am I the only one annoyed by Yachimovich's presumption to speak for the supposedly offended survivors? Maybe I'm just too cynical, but seeing as how there are presently none in the Knesset (AFAIK), I wouldn't have minded seeing how some people that actually lived through the Shoah feel about this. I do feel bad for Eldad, though I'm not sure I agree with him about declaring the language permanently verbotten:

One Knesset member, Arieh Eldad, who lost two grandparents and other relatives in the Holocaust, said: "German was the last language my grandmother and grandfather heard before they were murdered.

"The execution orders were given in German... I plan to stand up and leave."

(Not to nit-pick, but there were also execution orders given in ENGLISH during the British Mandate. Will leaders from the US, UK, and Australia be banned from speaking in their lingua franca from now on?)

Quibbling aside, Eldad's certainly got more sympathy from me than his fellow MK, certified wacko Uri Ariel:

MK Uri Ariel was also against allowing Merkel to speak German at the podium: "I don't think that on Shabbat, when we read the parasha about what Amalek did – and they are Amalekites – they are the father of the Amalekites…six million…

"It's all well and good that Germany changed its ways, and there are important things in the political and security sphere that they should be praised for, but to go back to the reptiles and to be wusses…what's the matter? What happened to us?

Does anyone know what this guy is talking about? Someone please help me. (Incidentally, Ynet, this is a really crappy attempt at quoting someone. A better, but clipped one, is here.)

Incidentally, while Eldad may have a long-standing grudge against the German language, he should keep in mind that even though it was the language the Nazis used, it was also the language spoken by many of their victims (even more, if you count Yiddish):

MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) responded to the debate saying: "My grandmother and grandfather were refugees from Germany, from the oppressive regime. The German language was not heard in their house because it was the language of the oppressors. I understand where MK Eldad is coming from. This wound is still open.

By contrast, one of the shuls I go to occasionally was founded by refugees from Berlin, and they all speak to each other in German (of course, a lot of them also go back and visit, so maybe they're more forgiving than most).

Incidentally, I find this kind of interesting- and ironic:

The strongest Israeli opposition to the notably close political, diplomatic and cultural ties with modern Germany has, in the past, tended to come less from Jews of German origin than from those whose families came from Poland – such as Mr Eldad, who refuses to buy German goods or visit Germany.

Dr Lars Hansel, director of the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Jerusalem, said last night that its polling indicated elderly German Jews in Israel who had lost "big parts of their family" in the Holocaust were strongly in favour of close ties with modern Germany – while younger Israelis showed relatively little interest in Germany or the rest of Europe.

So, German Jews like Germany, Polish Jews have mixed feelings, and young Israelis could give a shit.

Boo to Haaretz, incidentally, for totally screwing up Eldad's quote- it was his grandparents, not his parents, who were killed by Nazis. (Look out! Zombie Lehi!)

Anyway, I would be more sympathetic to Eldad if he didn't have a history of politicizing language for his own isolationist agenda. Like in 2005, when he complained that Arabic still has official status as one of Israel's national languages, and denied that English had any semi-official status.

Eldad also condemned the fact that Arabic remains Israel’s national language alongside Hebrew. “They simply erased English when the British left and left Hebrew and Arabic,” he said. “It needs to be made clear that the official language of the State of Israel is only Hebrew. The Arabs now seek to add a crescent to the state’s national symbols in their struggle to erase Judaism from the State of Israel.”

He made a similar stink in 2006 over a proposal to print road signs in English only.

"The status of English as official language was annulled after my father and his friends managed to kick the British out of here," Eldad told the transportation minister. "I'm certain you heard about it, it happened in 1948."

Hmm. Not to detract from Eldad's "sarcasm master" buzz, but maybe he could benefit from a refresher course in Israeli language laws. English was never taken off the list of official languages; rather, its priority as THE official language was revoked. Apparently English isn't allowed to be used in the Knesset, but it is mandatory for most schools and universities. If that isn't a working definition of semi-official, I don't know what is.

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