"Female Citizens and Male Citizens of Israel!"

Where a new grammatical feature of Hebrew speech comes from.

Merav Michaeli, Labor party leader and then-minister of transport and road safety on June 02, 2022 in Jerusalem. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images.
Merav Michaeli, Labor party leader and then-minister of transport and road safety on June 02, 2022 in Jerusalem. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images.
Feb. 22 2023
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

“Citizens of Israel!” the country’s president Yitzḥak Herzog began a televised speech this month in which he asked both sides in the current political crisis to take a step back from the brink. Or at least that is how it would translate into English. In Hebrew, what Herzog said was, “Ezraḥiyot v’ezraḥey yisra’el!”—literally, “Female citizens and male citizens of Israel!”

Since Hebrew is a heavily gendered language in which not only nouns but also verbs and pronouns are either masculine or feminine, this might seem an ordinary thing to have done. It wasn’t, though. A grammatical feature of Hebrew is that, when addressing or speaking about a mixed masculine-feminine group, it’s the masculine form of the verb, noun, or pronoun that is used. “Ha’im atem shom’im oti?, “Do you hear me?”, a speaker will ask an audience of men and women, using the masculine pronoun atem, “you,” rather than the feminine aten, and the masculine verb shom’im, “hear,” rather than the feminine shom’ot. And by the same token, one would normally turn to the Israeli public on television simply as ezraḥey yisra’el, using the masculine ezraḥ (construct plural, ezraḥey) alone, it being understood that this includes women, too.

Indeed, this is how it has been done in the past. “Ezraḥey ha-moledet ha-ivrit,” “Citizens of the Hebrew homeland,” Menachem Begin launched his first radio address on May 14, 1948, the day Israel declared its independence. (In reading the declaration aloud that same day, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion plunged right into it without a salutation.) Such has been the custom in recent years, too, even when speakers have felt the need to take feminist concerns about language into account. Thus, in speaking to the nation at the time of Israel’s first coronavirus lockdown two years ago, President Reuven Rivlin addressed it as, “Ezraḥey yisra’el, yakiray v’yakirotay,” “Citizens of Israel, my dear people [masculine] and my dear people [feminine].” Citizens masculine and citizens feminine he left to Herzog.

Prior to 1948, of course, there were no citizens of Israel of any sex to address. Nor, at the time of the American and French revolutions, were there citizens to address anywhere in the modern democratic sense of free men with equal rights and responsibilities. When Robespierre and others addressed the French National Assembly as “Citoyens,” that single word was a speech in itself.

Free men! But what about women? French is in this respect like Hebrew. Although many French nouns have both masculine and feminine forms, such as citoyens and citoyennes, the National Assembly would have been understood that citoyens referred to women as well. (In English, in which nouns, with rare exceptions, are never gendered, the question could not even have arisen. When George Washington began his first inaugural address in 1785 with “Fellow Citizens of the Senate and the House of Representatives,” there could have been no doubt that female senators and representatives, had they only existed, were being referred to as well.) There was nothing inherently sexist in Robespierre’s saying “citoyens” without adding “citoyennes.”

Still, it was feminism that responsible for introducing (or reintroducing, if it had been used in such a way before) citoyennes alongside citoyens. So we are told by Kristin Ross in her book Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune. There, Ross describes a meeting of socialists that took place in Paris in 1868, toward the end of the repressive regime of the Second Empire, to discuss the low wages of working women. In the course of it, she writes drily, “a certain Louis Alfred Briosne, forty-six years old and a feuillagiste (artificial flower and leaf maker) by trade took the podium amidst an atmosphere of fairly generalized boredom.” She then goes on to quote the account of a participant at the meeting:

Until then, orators had begun to speak with the sacramental formula: “Mesdames et Messieurs. . . .” This speaker cried out, in a clear and sufficiently vibrant voice, an appellation that had been deeply forgotten for a quarter of a century: “Citoyennes et Citoyens!” The room erupted in applause. The man who had been welcomed in this fashion did not, perhaps, go on to say anything more interesting than any of the others had—but what does it matter? By exclaiming his citoyens, he had evoked—whether purposely or not—a whole world of memories and hopes [going back to the French Revolution].

Briosne had also used the feminine citoyennes alongside, and even in front of, the masculine citoyens. Taking the long view, President Herzog’s ezraḥiyot v’ezraḥey yisra’el goes back to this. If any single person influenced him, though, it was not Louis Alfred Briosne (of whom he no doubt never heard) but rather Merav Michaeli.

Michaeli’s name is no doubt better known to many of you than Briosne’s. A feminist, former journalist, the head of Israel’s Labor party, and a cabinet minister in the short-lived Bennett-Lapid government, she has made a point in her frequent public appearances of redundantly joining feminine verbs, nouns, and pronouns to masculine ones. As minister of transportation, to take one example, she starred in a promotional ad telling Israelis of her accomplishments in providing them with “all that you need” on the country’s trains and buses—which came out in Hebrew as kol mah (all) she’atem (“that you,” masculine) v’aten (“and you,” feminine) tsrikhot (“need,” feminine) v’tsrikhim (“and need,” masculine).

Michaeli’s Hebrew has been the butt of much Israeli humor, since its repetitions don’t add an iota of content. Yet she, as well as other Israelis who have imitated her or begun to speak in the same way independently, have had an effect. Increasingly one hears in Israeli speech, especially in public utterances, ideologically driven feminine forms added to masculine ones that are already sexually inclusive. President Herzog’s ezraḥiyot v’ezraḥey yisra’el is a good example of this. In fact, it owes Michaeli a double debt, because the political crisis that caused the president to address the nation would never have existed had Michaeli not, before the election, rejected pleas that the Labor party run on a single list with the left-wing Meretz—a refusal that led to a loss of Knesset seats for the center-left and the right’s victory. In doing so, one might say, she let down her voters and her voters.