An Israeli legislature (Knesset) lobby focused on revitalizing the Yiddish language and culture in the country had its first public meeting earlier this month, according to The Forward. Historically, Yiddish has been suppressed in Israel despite many elderly citizens speaking it natively, so members of the Knesset have joined forces to support policies that will boost the language’s status.
The Lobby for Promoting the Yiddish Language and Culture is spearheaded by Knesset member Tali Ploskov and Dr. Dov Ber Kotlerman, a Yiddish studies professor at Bar-Ilan University. According to The Forward, the lobby’s goal is to secure Israel’s status as a center for Yiddish culture and preserve the language, which the Endangered Languages Project currently classifies as an at-risk language.
The Knesset serves as Israel’s legislative branch of government. Members can form groups known as lobbies, which serve to rally support for (or opposition to) individuals and policies. At the lobby’s first meeting, Dr. Kotlerman evoked the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, stating that the Israeli government should look to the preservation efforts of other nations as examples for Israel to emulate.
Today, Yiddish is a sizable minority language in Israel, spoken by around 200,000 native speakers, though it pales in comparison to other minority languages such as Arabic and Russian, both of which are spoken natively by more than 1.5 million Israelis. The vast majority of the world’s Yiddish speakers actually reside in the U.S.
Many of the European Jews who began settling Israel spoke Yiddish natively, however a number of Zionist groups sought to subdue the language’s prevalence as many saw it as a reminder of life in the diaspora, favoring Hebrew to become the official language. During the early years of Israel’s statehood, the anti-Yiddish campaigns and sentiment prevailed—Yiddish theater, for example, was effectively banned in the 1950s as a 10% tax was placed on shows in Yiddish.
However, public opinion in Israel has shifted, and many young Israelis have become interested in learning Yiddish and engaging with Eastern European Jewish culture. Dr. Kotlerman noted Sweden as a particularly inspiring example of a nation that has worked toward preserving the Yiddish language by supporting the production of art and children’s literature in the language and even allowing Yiddish speakers to conduct government business in the language. “My goal is for Israel to help raise the status of Yiddish as a national language, the way Sweden has done for it as an official minority language,” Kotlerman said at the lobby’s first meeting. “That would mean partnering with Yiddish institutions around the globe and eventually becoming a global center of Yiddishist activity.”