German Orientalism, Arabic Grammar and the Jewish Education System: The Origins and Effect of Martin Plessner’s “Theory of Arabic Grammar”

  • 1 The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yitzhak Rabin Building, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel
Yonatan Mendel


In 1935, a pioneering school textbook was written by the German-Jewish Orientalist Martin Plessner. The work, titled Theory of Arabic Grammar: A Guidebook for Hebrew Schools, was the first textbook written specifically for the Jewish school system and community to focus on Arabic grammar. It strove to link the study of Arabic studies to Hebrew studies, or in Plessner’s words: “to lead the students to a deep understanding of Hebrew… and to highlight the propinquity of the language of the Bible to the Arabic language.” As this article demonstrates, this textbook serves as an educational landmark and is a fascinating case study for the analysis of two processes. First is the idea of transformation of knowledge, exemplified in the way German philology was “translated” into Hebrew in this textbook on many levels – linguistically, discursively, and pedagogically. Second is the impact that this textbook, a beacon of the German philological approach, has had on the study of Arabic grammar in the Jewish education system. In addition to highlighting the profound influence that this early textbook had on the study of Arabic in the Jewish education system, this article argues that along the way – owing to the changing socio-political situation – some of its core ideas, especially that which viewed Arabic and Hebrew as two Semitic sister languages, fell by the wayside.

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Naharaim is a peer-reviewed journal of the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Centre at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is devoted to current research in philosophical, literary, and historical aspects of German-Jewish culture. The contributions are mainly in German or English.