Zev Harvey, "Leon Roth on Hebrew, English, and Arabic"

During his years as professor of philosophy at the Hebrew of Jerusalem (1928–1951), Leon Roth insisted that three languages had special importance for the rebuilding of Jewish national life in the Land of Israel: Hebrew, English, and Arabic. Roth learned Hebrew as a child, and had a great love for it all his life. Hebrew, he held, is an excellent language for philosophy, precisely because, unlike European languages, it has a "horror of abstractions" and uses abstract terms only "with pain." Nonetheless, he believed it was the vocation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to force Hebrew to speak the language of the most advanced modern sciences.

Born in London and educated at Oxford, Roth was a master of English language and literature. He saw that after World War II, English had become the international language, and it was important for Jews in the Land of Israel to learn it. There is, he said, only one English book that it is absolutely necessary for pupils in the Land of Israel to study. No, not Shakespeare, not Milton—but the King James Bible! Roth did not speak Arabic. However, on the eve of the proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948, he took a position that was not taken by any other educator in the Land of Israel at the time. He urged that all pupils in the new Jewish State be taught Arabic. Good citizenship, he explained, requires that citizens know each other—and Jewish citizens must learn to understand their Arab fellow citizens. In effect, Roth said: As Jews, we must know Hebrew. As citizens of the world, we must know English. As citizens of the State of Israel, we must know Arabic.

Zev Harvey Professor Emeritus of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Presented by the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies with the support of the Leon Roth Foundation.

Date & Time
Monday, May 15, 2017 - 4:00pm

Jackman Humanities Building, Room 100, 170 St. George Street