11/25/2012 08:28 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2013

Feminizing Israel

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Last week, Israel's Academy of the Hebrew Language made an interesting ruling, reported today by Haaretz (in Hebrew), which stated that titles of official government positions can and should be described with the feminine form of the relevant noun when a given position is held by a woman.

Until now there was some confusion, since unlike English every noun in Hebrew takes either a male or female gender form. So, for example, in the term, "head-of-government," which is the literal Hebrew translation of prime minister, the word "head" must be either masculine or feminine.

It's been unclear whether the noun representing the official position should refer to the person holding it, which would make the noun female if a woman were in office, or to the position itself, which would depend on the inherent gender of the word referring to the position. Golda Meir's Hebrew Wikipedia entry, for example, describes Israel's fourth prime minister as head of government in the male form.

But with this ruling Israel's next female prime minster, as well as any woman holding an official title of any kind, will be described in the feminine. It might seem a bit academic, but it's actually a significant point.

The Academy of Hebrew Language, which was created by the Israeli government in 1953, plays a mixed role as a descriptive and prescriptive body. In its latter role as grammarian, the Academy, among other duties, derives correct Hebrew words for new objects or ideas, like a recently created Hebrew word that denotes the single from a music album, which the Academy created by combining the Hebrew words for "song" and "new." (Though most Israelis still use the English "single," they just say it with a Hebrew pronunciation, "Seengel.")

But in other cases, the Academy defers to common usage, which means that it legitimizes previously incorrect words that have taken hold so extensively that denying their usage would be akin to...well, to the Académie française's sometimes overly rigid insistence on correct French usage. (The French Académie has for years fought calls to feminize titles of office held by women, as one example.)

But with Israel's first female prime minister, Golda Meir, having held that office more than 40 years ago, and with the previous president of the Israeli Supreme Court a woman, as well as the previous head of the opposition (and former foreign minister) and head of the Labor party both women, it seems clear in which direction the role of gender in Israeli public life is headed.

Contradicting the much beloved meme about flagging women's rights in Israel, the trend in mainstream life in Israel is moving in favor of women. It's true that in sectors like the ultra-Orthodox community women are still at a serious disadvantage when it comes to public life. Though with the enormous success of ultra-Orthodox Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein's recent film, this tide also seems to be turning.

Back to the Academy, the decision to feminize all official titles reveals the extent to which common usage (i.e. public opinion) and official attitudes on the topic are coalescing. It might not be a front-page headline, but it does indicate the depth of the change and, amid all the challenges both in Israel and in the region, a model for progress.