Can Hebrew Be Gender-Neutral?

Author:Moehlman, Lara

On the first day of the semester, a fly on the wall might hear a college professor ask students to introduce themselves by sharing their names, intended majors and their own preferred gender pronoun identifiers, such as "ze," "hir," "hirs," "they," "them" and "theirs." The practice of promoting gender inclusivity is becoming more commonplace on the American college campus, and it's all part of the evolution of the English language.

But for Hebrew speakers, gender inclusivity is much more complicated. That's because gender in Hebrew--as in Spanish, Hindi, French and other languages--is intimately woven into word construction. "Hebrew goes a lot further," says Erez Levon, a professor of sociolinguistics at Queen Mary University of London who focuses on questions of gender and sexuality. He explains that the language is particularly restrictive because gender is conveyed through masculine or feminine verb, adjective and adverb endings and almost every other part of speech.

Take the noun "friend" in Hebrew. It translates to chaver for a male, chavera for a female, and chaverim and chaverot for a group of male and female friends, respectively. Levon says Hebrew can be "a challenge" for those who don't it into traditional gender categories or identify as nonbinary--those who don't consider themselves male or female or don't want to refer to gender at all.

Some Israelis within the LGBTQ community have come up with their own strategies to address this problem. One example is the practice of fusing male and female suffixes to create a gender-inclusive plural suffix such as -imot or -otim, according to Sarah Bunin Benor, professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College and linguistics professor at the University of Southern California. For example, chaverim is replaced with chaverimot when addressing a group of friends of different genders, rejecting the masculine default.

A more-common method of promoting gender inclusivity is gender reversal, in which biological men--regardless of which gender they identify with--use female signifiers in conversation, and biological women use masculine signifiers. Some choose to switch back and forth in a single conversation or even a single sentence--a practice Levon says communicates that "they don't want to play that gender game."

This is what Nir Kedem chooses to do. A professor of culture studies at Sapir Academic College in Sderot and lecturer at Tel Aviv University, Kedem specializes in queer...

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