10/22/2012 02:15 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

The Unifying Power of Language

I recently had the chance to make my 17th visit to the State of Israel and was struck, once again, by a phenomenon unique to a nation created in May of 1948. Never before had a "dead" language been resurrected to become the national language for a new state. While Yiddish, a Germanic language written in Hebrew, was spoken in Jewish homes throughout Europe and taught to countless children during the Diaspora, the founders of the Jewish State recognized the irreplaceable unifying power of a national language. Hence, the use of Hebrew was codified and mandated to be used in everyday transactions, in government documents, and in daily interactions between Israelis - regardless of skin color, national origin, or socioeconomic background.

Two quick examples help illustrate the emphasis of teaching Hebrew to new citizens of Israel. Shortly after the State of Israel was created, Operation Magic Carpet brought nearly 50,000 Yemenite Jews into the country and insisted they immediately learn Hebrew in order to more fully assimilate into everyday life. I was in Israel in the early 1990s when another bold undertaking, this one entitled Operation Solomon, airlifted Ethiopian Jews to safety. The operation set a world record for single-flight passenger load on May 24, 1991, when an El Al 747 carried 1,122 passengers to Israel; 1,087 passengers were registered, but dozens of children hid in their mothers' robes. Again, these immigrants - together with the thousands which flowed into Israel from the former Soviet bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall - learned Hebrew as a requisite for day-to-day survival in their new home.

The influx of talent and brain power and intellectual capacity into Israel from these various countries is nearly impossible to fathom. With a population of just over 7 million, Israel is second only to the United States in the number of companies registered on the NASDAQ - a feat that speaks to the technological boom fueled by the infusion of these incredibly capable citizens. And the success of these new immigrants is inextricably linked to their ability to communicate in Hebrew with one another on a daily basis.

We have much to do in this country in terms of language capability and the percentage of our population who are conversant in a second tongue. During our most recent tour to Israel last year, our Palestinian bus driver was superbly fluent in 5 different languages. In visiting Europe, one encounters citizens much more fluent in multiple languages. Americans are woefully inadequate - and this inadequacy reveals, perhaps, a certain arrogance and narrowness in terms of our collective world view - when it comes to our ability to communicate in foreign tongues. I am a firm believer that students should begin learning a language long before arriving on a college campus and that graduation from high school should require some proficiency in a foreign language.

All this said, the national experience of Israel is informative as it relates to the current immigration debate in the United States and the perennial bills that emerge both in the Congress and in state legislatures proposing English as the official language. Let there be no misunderstanding - second and third languages taught and spoken in homes by parents and children do nothing but enhance and enrich our national fabric. And, after all, apart from the Native Americans each and every one of us is or has ancestors who are immigrants to this land.

But recognizing that success in everyday American life is inexorably tied to one's ability to communicate in English is vitally important. To suggest anything less or to accept anything short is a terrible disservice to those entering this country and wanting to improve themselves and their lives.