Tanya Reinhart: Linguist and ardent critic of Israel

Obituary by Dapha Baram, The Independent – 31 March 2007
www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/tanya-reinhart-442597.html

Tanya Reinhart

Tanya Reinhart

Tanya Reinhart, linguist, writer and political activist: born Kyriat Haim, Palestine 23 July 1943; married 1997 Aharon Shabtai; died New York 17 March 2007.

Tanya Reinhart was a distinguished academic linguist and a political commentator and activist. She was known internationally as an ardent critic of Israel’s policies and of the Zionist ideology. Reinhart was married to the Israeli poet and translator Aharon Shabtai.

She taught linguistics at Tel Aviv University from 1977 until 2006, in the last 15 years spending half her time teaching in the Netherlands, at Utrecht University. In December 2006 she left Israel for a teaching job in New York University. She said she was leaving because of constant harassment by Tel Aviv University’s authorities, who objected to her double teaching role in Utrecht – though their objection was alleged to be more to do with her left-wing politics than her teaching practices. Reinhart vociferously joined the calls for an academic boycott of Israeli institutes (unlike individual boycott, to which she was opposed).

Her background was on the left from the very beginning. Born in Kyriat Haim in Palestine in 1944, she was a team leader in the Israeli Communist Youth Covenant (Banki) as a teenager, leaving the Communist Party during the 1970s to join Israel’s fledgling “new left”. She studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, graduating in 1967 with a degree in philosophy and Hebrew literature, followed by a master’s in philosophy and comparative literature.

Michael Warschawski, a writer and veteran Israeli left-wing activist, has described how he met Reinhart at university in 1968 when she fished him out of a swimming pool: he had been thrown in after getting into a fight with right-wing activists. “She was there distributing leaflets denouncing the recent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza”, he said:

Although there are now many activists who claim to have opposed the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza from the very beginning, Tanya was one of the only ones who actually did.

Reinhart wrote her PhD thesis in linguistics in the United States at MIT under the supervision of Noam Chomsky, and was highly influenced by her mentor both politically and professionally. “When we argued I used to call her a ‘Chomskyite’,” says Warschawski:

Her analysis viewed every move by the Israeli leadership as a result of a neatly pre-established plan and scheme. As a teacher and friend, she didn’t leave any room for incoherence, mess or inherent contradictions. This is why she was always betting on the worse scenario, and sometimes surprised when the alleged plan deteriorated into a fiasco, like in the last Israeli aggression in Lebanon.

Chomsky himself bid his farewell to his student on the online magazine Counterpunch, to which Reinhart herself regularly contributed. He wrote:

She will be remembered not only as a resolute and honourable defender of the rights of Palestinians, but also as one of those who have struggled to defend the moral integrity of her own Israeli society, and its hope for decent survival.

He noted Reinhart’s “remarkable academic contribution to virtually every major area of linguistic studies”. Her professional writing concentrated on the connection between context and content, and the interface between grammar and the tonal system. Her most recent academic book, Interface Strategies, was published last year.

At Tel Aviv University she had gathered around her a group of bright students who shared her political vision and her enthusiasm for linguistics. But even students who did not belong to her inner circle remembered her fondly. “I never agreed with her politics but her lectures were a huge influence on my life. I can’t imagine my intellectual development without her,” said one.

Reinhart was an outspoken critic of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. “Tanya was ahead of her time,” wrote Eyal Gross, a law lecturer and a colleague from Tel Aviv University:

When the Oslo agreements were signed and all of us peace activists rejoiced in the thought that peace and a Palestinian state was just around the corner, Tanya called the accords “the surrender of the Palestinian people”. She realised before anybody else how they only enable the occupation to prevail, and become even deeper.

Reinhart wrote regular op-ed articles for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. Her latest book about Middle East politics was The Roadmap to Nowhere (2006). But she did not restrict her political activity to the world of words. She frequented the demonstrations against the separation barrier constructed in the West Bank by the Israeli government – and referred to by left-wing activists and Palestinians as the “Apartheid Wall”. She gave her support and help to the group of young activists Anarchists Against the Wall who demonstrate every Friday in the Palestinian village of Bil’in against the wall and the Israeli occupation.

The writing of Reinhart’s husband Aaron Shabtai is deeply influenced by his wives. While his first wife, Coleen, invoked “poems about family”, and the second, Ziva, inspired blunt sexual exposs, Tanya was his muse of political poetry. Last summer, early in the war against Lebanon, he wrote, “In the name of the beautiful books I read / in the name of the kisses I kissed / May the army be defeated.”

Daphna Baram

Back to Top

Readers are welcome to discuss IOA content on our Facebook page. To participate, please click HERE.