Commentary Magazine

Israeli Culture and the Jews

There are signs that since the early 70’s significant changes have been taking place in the perception many American Jews have of their relation to Israel. Even before the traumatic, and catalyzing, experience of the Yom Kippur War, voices had been raised calling for a reassessment of American Jewry’s political stance toward Israel and of the general acceptance of Israel as the primary cultural center of the Jewish people. Reassessment, however, has in many instances been intimately associated with reawakening. There has been, I would say, a more pronounced degree of involvement (perhaps especially among intellectuals) with Israel on the part of American Jews, accompanied by a greater readiness to exercise critical freedom from official Zionist positions in defining a relationship with Israel.

This whole phenomenon, though it could well have important consequences, is unfortunately too multifaceted to get very clearly into focus: there is, after all, a good deal of cultural stratification among American Jews, which in turn is cut across by an unevenly distributed spectrum of postures of Jewish identity, from total estrangement to ambivalent nostalgia to various forms of religious or political involvement. It becomes rather difficult, then, to make any confident generalizations about how a collective body called “American Jewry” perceives its relation to Israel. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that one may relate alternately, or simultaneously, to Israel as a political entity with its set policies (or non-policies), to Israel as a distinctive cultural sphere, a religious idea, a simple nexus of kinship.

These various aspects of the Jewish state are of course intricately entangled with one another, but in order to make the confusion of data at least partly manageable, I would like to concentrate specifically on Israeli culture and whatever effects it might have on American Jewry. Since what I have in mind is serious original cultural activity, not Zionist commemorative medallions or olive-wood and copper Israeli kitsch, the segment of American Jews I am thinking of will run from high-middlebrow to highbrow. That in itself may seem a problem because intellectuals have conventionally been deemed the most notoriously “alienated” of American Jews, but there are some grounds for suspecting that this is no longer as true as it once perhaps may have been. Before any consideration, however, of Diaspora response to Israeli culture, some reflections will be in order on the character of that culture. Necessarily, I shall be dealing with culture created in the medium of language because it is difficult to talk about a distinctively Israeli culture in science and mathematics, or even in music and the visual arts.

Among classic Zionist thinkers, there is really only one influential figure who proposed a general theory of permanent cultural relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, and that is Ahad Ha-am. (Ahad Ha-am, “One of the People,” is the pen-name of Asher Ginzberg, 1856-1926, an essayist, polemicist, and editor, who had a dominating importance in the circle of Odessa Hebraists around the turn of the century, during the formative phase of Zionism.) It may be useful briefly to review Ahad Ha-am’s conception of Israel’s cultural role vis-à-vis world Jewry both because it continues to be influential in official Israeli circles—despite two generations of intellectual critiques of his ideology and a good deal of popular impatience with it—and because as an ideal model it can provide a measure of what has actually happened culturally after almost three decades of Jewish statehood.

Ahad Ha-am thought that the essential task of a renewed Jewish nation on the soil of Israel was to serve as a “spiritual center” for world Jewry. By “spiritual” (rukhani) he meant nothing really theological but rather a center of cultural creativity with a strong ethical tincture extracted from the noblest values of classical Judaism. In a well-known 1903 essay, “The Spiritual Renaissance,” and abundantly elsewhere, he insisted on the absolute primacy for Zionism of what he called kultura. The founding of a single school of higher learning, he argued, of a single academy for language and literature, was a more important step in the realization of Zionism than the creation of a hundred new settlements. The extravagance of such assertions derives, I would guess, from a lurking fear in Ahad Ha-am that the whole fabric of Jewish national unity was disintegrating, and that without a powerful cultural center in Israel Jews would quickly lose all touch both with each other and with their common heritage. Israel, in Ahad Ha-am’s rather simplistic model of the dissemination of culture, was to serve as a “center of imitation” for Diaspora Jewry, just as in early cultures tribal or national values were perpetuated by many individuals imitating the exemplary central figure of a founding leader or hero. In his view, moreover, it was crucial that the cultural center be a Hebrew one, for he was convinced that no people could produce an authentic culture, one that was not ultimately apologetic or slavishly imitative, in a borrowed language, and Hebrew was for him the only truly indigenous Jewish language. With such a Hebrew center, the far-flung Jewish communities of the Diaspora could reflect the distinctive traits of their various cultural contexts and yet find in the Land of Israel a “refining crucible and unifying bond” for national consciousness.

In regard to Ahad Ha-am’s program for a renascent Hebrew culture in Israel, far more of it has been realized than any sane observer would have dared to predict back in 1903. Urgent historical necessity, of course, soon demonstrated that the enterprise of physical settlement to which Ahad Ha-am referred so dismissively in fact had a desperate priority, and that the political aims of the Herzlian Zionism which Ahad Ha-am criticized were indispensable for Jewish survival in the face of genocide and its aftermath. Through all these decades of upheaval, however, the work of cultural renaissance continued unabated. By the late 20’s Hebrew, almost entirely limited to literary usage when Ahad Ha-am wrote his major essays, was firmly reinstated, quite uncannily, as the living vernacular of the Jews of Palestine. Israel of the 70’s has more academies, research institutes, and schools of higher learning than even Ahad Ha-am could have dreamed of (sometimes, it seems, more than Israeli taxpayers are willing to support); original scholarship that commands international attention goes on in a wide variety of fields, and particularly, of course, in the sundry areas of Jewish studies; a body of new Hebrew poetry and fiction has been produced which, at least at its peaks, deserves comparison with the best serious writing elsewhere. Israel, in other words, despite its smallness and its geopolitical isolation, has succeeded in becoming a major intellectual center.

To be sure, very little of this Hebrew cultural activity has the explicit ethical thrust that Ahad Ha-am envisaged—were he alive today, he would undoubtedly fulminate, for example, against the “nihilism,” “indecency,” and “sterile aestheticism” of contemporary Hebrew literature, as, indeed, some of his spiritual heirs have done. In any case, the moralism of Ahad Ha-am’s program must have been its most unconvincing aspect even in his own time, the point where his argument, buoyed up by fine phrases, visibly floated off from any discernible historical realities into a vacuum of secular homiletics.



But apart from such vague ethical aspirations, if the program for a renaissance of Hebrew culture in Israel has been fulfilled—perhaps one should say, astonishingly fulfilled—the nature of that culture and its impact on Jewish consciousness have proved to be rather different from Ahad Ha-am’s expectations. Let me offer one very recent Hebrew text as an illustration of what has happened to these expectations, a text that is instructive both because it nicely articulates the cultural consciousness of an Israeli literary intellectual in the 70’s, and because it actually comments wrily on Ahad Ha-am’s notion of Zionist culture. In the Spring 1976 issue of the literary journal, Siman Qriah, there appears a group of experimental poems, some of them quite remarkable, attributed to a fictitious Hebrew poet, Gaby Daniel. Self-avowed cosmopolitan, a Russian-born Israeli living in Holland, Gaby Daniel wanders through the galleries of Amsterdam, pondering the possibilities of art and poetry trying to catch the shimmering Dutch landscape in a net of iridescent words, tied to his Israeli past by the strong and subtle bond of the Hebrew language, which somehow imposes itself upon him before all the other languages he knows as the envelope of his most intimate imaginings. In “Galleries,” the third poem of the group, the poet scrutinizes some white-on-white abstract paintings. Then he reflects on his own languages as an Israeli and cosmopolitan in the face of this ultimate visual language of minimal art:

How could I have learned
So many tongues
That have no translation?
The pelting shower
Of colors and lines and juttings and texture
(Isn’t this the kultura
Ahad Ha-am dreamt of:
For Israelis to travel
In groups and alone
To the galleries of Amsterdam
And learn that the interpretation of poems
Even in the language of the Hebrews
Is a trumped-up nuisance!)

The amusing juxtaposition of Ahad Ha-am’s kultura and an avant-garde gallery in contemporary Amsterdam is a suggestive one because it so vividly illustrates, from the viewpoint of a post-ideological Israeli, that part of the intellectual baggage of classical Zionism which has not traveled well over the years. Ahad Ha-am believed profoundly in the uniqueness of Jewish culture, a uniqueness that had crystallized above all in the Hebrew language; and from time to time in his writing one glimpses an underlying assumption, perhaps camouflaged in the interests of “progressive” thinking, that uniqueness meant ultimate superiority. Indeed, the whole idea of a linguistically grounded loyalty of Diaspora Jewry to a Hebrew center in Israel was predicated on a sense that Hebrew was, after all, the language of languages, in which a unique set of moral values had been transmitted to mankind and by a process of exegesis was continually refined through the ages. Ahad Ha-am’s kultura, then, is exactly reversed in the experience of the Israeli tourist, who, confronted by European art, is forced to reject all grandiose national and rational perspectives, forced to recognize that any commentary (perush) on poem or artifact is lahadam—a cock-and-bull story. After this radical denial of the validity of exegesis, the poem concludes with the affirmation of an art beyond nationalism:

This is not a poem on earth and blood.
This is a poem on the wealth of the tongues of
For instance, in Amsterdam.

I have dwelt on this illustrative text by “Gaby Daniel” not because it represents any breakthrough in awareness but, on the contrary, because it so finely expresses a representative Israeli perception about Hebrew culture and its role in the world. Among living Hebrew writers, the only one I can think of who still preserves unambiguously a sense of Hebrew as the instrument of ye’ud, of a grand and unique destiny, is Uri Zvi Greenberg, now in his eighties, and someone who has been quintessentially a maker of poems “on earth and blood.” Certainly all of the Hebrew writers I have known personally have seen their language simply as one of the tongues of man, their own inherited “for instance” in a realm of many possible instances of cultural expression. The old Zionist sense of a message to convey to the Jewish people and to the world is almost nowhere evident in the pages of contemporary Hebrew literature.



If this is, in very broad terms, the nature of self-awareness in the creators of Hebrew culture today, what impress does that culture have on the Jews of the Diaspora; and in particular on American Jews? The whole phenomenon of a reborn Hebrew culture in an autonomous Jewish state is probably still too new to permit any accurate assessment of what its general impact will be in the long run. One may, however, hazard a few guesses, keeping in mind that the situation we are trying to grasp is at this moment in history still a highly fluid one.

I have a sense that over the past dozen years, while the attitude of the masses of American Jews has remained one of unquestioning loyalty to the Jewish state and relative indifference to its serious cultural life, there has been a gradual but significant shift in feeling among intellectuals. If one had surveyed the American Jewish intelligentsia a decade or more ago, I suspect one would have found that, apart from a fairly small minority of committed Zionists, there was a general lack of interest in Israel, a disavowal of connection based on the universalist’s fear of parochialism, perhaps on uneasy memories of Sunday-school classes and Jewish National Fund collection boxes, of parents attending Israel Bond dinners, and the like. The typical Jewish intellectual of that period would of course have affirmed Israel’s right to exist as a haven for refugees, a democracy in the Middle East, a place where social experiments like the kibbutz were undertaken, but these were concessions of intellectual charitableness.

By the end of the 60’s and even more noticeably after the October 1973 war, the prevalence of this self-conscious indifference to Israel had dwindled considerably. Many were now willing to admit not exactly to a sense of loyalty to the Jewish state but at least to a feeling of involvement in its precarious fate. There was now also a modest but growing curiosity about the cultural productions of Israel, extending to the American intellectual community at large.

In the last four years, for example, the Hebrew novelist Amos Oz has become a fairly well-known writer in America, his translated novels regularly receiving enthusiastic reviews in both-general and intellectual journals. I happen to think that Oz is a very good writer and deserves the success he has won, but fifteen years ago such acclaim for an Israeli writer would scarcely have been possible, as the nearly total neglect of S. Y. Agnon at the time by American literary intellectuals should suggest. Or again, when Gershom Scholem’s Sabbatai sevi was published in English translation in 1973, it was greeted on all sides as a major work, with journals like the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books devoting long discussions to the book and to Scholem’s intellectual enterprise. There had been, clearly, a geological shift in consciousness from the previous intellectual generation when a critic like Lionel Trilling, writing in a symposium at a moment when Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism had recently appeared in America, could sweepingly suggest that there was no voice committed to Jewish life that spoke with any intellectual authority.

What I would like to stress is that the authority of intellectual and artistic voices coming out of Israel and the Zionist experience does not finally differ in kind from the authority of the abstract canvases that confront “Gaby Daniel” as a revelation in Amsterdam. Western Jewish intellectuals now by and large seem at last free from Jewish prejudice against the culture of Israel and so are open to being moved by the force of its creative idiom, but they are not looking for a message, any more than the Hebrew artists and thinkers themselves are seeking to impart one. Hebrew writing and a good deal of Hebrew historical scholarship—as in fact the work of both Scholem and Oz bears witness—have very frequently been devoted, like serious modern writing elsewhere, to an unflinching scrutiny of paradox, ambiguity, psychological and spiritual abysses, and it is precisely this quality of Israeli literary culture that engages the attention of intellectuals abroad, even as it disquiets Zionist loyalists. Amos Oz, the short-story writer Yehoshua, the poet Yehuda Amichai are read by American Jewish intellectuals with basically the same order of expectations that they would bring to the reading of, say, Borges, Cal-vino, Merwin, Robbe-Grillet. Whereas the old-line Zionist leadership, with Ahad Ha-am’s thinking distinctly in the background, tended to envisage the renewed Hebrew culture in neo-prophetic terms, with all the nations going up to Jerusalem to seek instruction, our actual cultural situation, on both the Diaspora and the Israeli sides of the interchange, would appear to be one in which there is a “for instance, in Jerusalem,” just as there is a “for instance, in Amsterdam,” in Paris, or even in Tokyo.



Ahad Ha-am’s implicit assumption, then, of a unique source of value in Israel as the cultural center of the worldwide Jewish people must be regarded with the greatest suspicion. The Jewish state has certainly not become the “center of imitation” he imagined. Nevertheless, the existence of Israel has, I believe, made a significant difference in the cultural consciousness of most Diaspora Jews, and it is that which I would now like to explore. To take the full measure of the difference Israel has made, it will again be useful to go back in time and recall the peculiar perplexities of the Jewish condition before the realization of the Zionist program.

Modernity for Jews seems to have meant that for the first time the fact of being a Jew had become conceptually and psychologically problematic, demanding some sort of systematic definition and rationale. In the pre-modern period, Jews everywhere were adherents of a universalist monotheistic faith which determined the whole frame-work of their existence and which, unlike the two other monotheistic religions, was paradoxically linked with the historical destiny of a particular people, compelled by common ancestral memories and national aspirations. Once it became possible as a social fact for Jews to leave the enclaves in which they had lived in the lands of their exile, and once the authority of traditional faith began to erode, one was free to choose Judaism as a purely creedal commitment, as a national identity, or as some third entity. By the beginning of our own century, therefore, Jewish life had become a noisy marketplace of competing ideologies of Jewishness and post-Jewishness. According to one’s preference, the Jews were an ethnic-cultural group with a natural place in the East European sphere (the Yiddishists); a strictly confessional group with national ties only to the countries they lived in (classical Reform Judaism); an avant-garde of the European revolutionary proletariat united by a common vernacular (the Bundists); an awkwardly anachronistic historical survival at last in the process of being absorbed by its enlightened surroundings (the assimilationists); an unhoused people for whom the historical moment had arrived to return to its national home (the Zionists). History often seems to provide the most savage refutations of false construals of historical process, and after Hitler and Stalin many of the ideologies that exercised the Jewish imagination early in the century seem painfully self-deceived or sadly irrelevant.

Allegiance to fixed principle, of course, dies slowly, perhaps especially among Jews. In the years after World War II, when America was becoming conscious, or self-conscious, of a new pluralism in its national life, there was much emphasis among Jews on their constituting a religious denomination that was a symmetrical part of the American pluralistic picture—Protestant, Catholic, Jew—but the last twenty years have made it increasingly clear both to Jews and to other Americans that the Jews are in many respects a stubborn anomaly in the American denominational arrangement. To put it bluntly, the so-called “dual loyalty” that made non-Zionists so uneasy seems to have become, for both Gentiles and Jews in America, a quietly acknowledged fact. There is still a tiny group of ideological anti-Zionists who conceive themselves as American citizens of the Mosaic persuasion, but they represent little more’ than the dying reflex, geographically displaced, of a 19th-century German-Jewish mentality. More commonly, one still finds both in America and Europe a generous sprinkling of ideological universalists, mostly but not exclusively of the Left, who believe that it is the historical vocation of the Jew to be a man of all nations, free of the claustral air of national loyalties and perspectives, a harbinger of the undifferentiated brotherhood of man. (One trouble with universalism as an ideological stance is that it is professed mainly by Jews, and in this last quarter of the 20th century, after all that has happened and in the face of rampant particularism all over the globe, it seems a peculiarly quixotic strategy for hastening the unity of mankind.)

Clashes among Jewish ideologies, then, can still easily occur, but the essential point here is that, for the first time since the beginning of the modern period, there seems to be a fairly clear consensus about what the Jews are, and what they are, quite simply, is a people with a geopolitical center and a national language in Israel, and a membership (in fact, the large majority) scattered across the world. It is not that the Zionists of 1903 were in all respects so much more clairvoyant than their ideological antagonists, for we have only to read the daily newspapers to be reminded that the Zionist solution has opened a Pandora’s box of frightful problems which no one knows how to handle. But what the Zionists did understand better than their opponents was the terms of the problem, the kind of entity that Jews emerging into modernity felt themselves and perhaps needed to be. Individual Jews could still opt to be religionists of various sorts, Yiddishists, Marxists, liberals, militant vegetarians, or what you will, but what bound them together now was a sense of belonging to one people with a set of valued historical memories and a strong sense of its prerogative to persist in history as a collective presence with a decent degree of autonomy.



Two recent and instructive illustrations of how pervasive this consciousness of peoplehood has become among American Jews are Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers and Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back.1 Since the ’73 war, Howe, despite his commitment to a universalistic socialism, has given public expression to a deeply felt concern as a Jew for the survival of Israel, and what is particularly interesting in this connection about his ambitious historical study of East European Jewish immigrants in New York is its implicit congruence with a Zionist view of Jewish existence. The East European immigration as Howe sees it was not merely a flight of individuals from persecution and deprivation but a more or less conscious drive to Jewish national renewal on American soil. Such a reading of modern Jewish history, both in its perception of the strength and solidarity of Jewish peoplehood and in its sense that modernity has been grasped by Jews as the occasion for the vigorous transformation of the conditions of collective Jewish existence, would not, I suggest, have come very readily to an observer of Howe’s background without the existence of Israel.

Similarly with Saul Bellow’s extraordinary new work of non-fiction in which an emotional and intellectual engagement with Israel and its problems has elicited from that writer his richest, most finely intelligent writing since Herzog. If one were to go back fifteen or twenty years, to the first great flourishing of noticeably Jewish writers on the American literary scene, it would be hard to imagine any of them, including Bellow himself, devoting this amount of time and intellectual energy to an exploration of Israel and the writer’s relation to it. “I am an American, Chicago-born,” The Adventures of Augie March proudly announced in its opening sentence, and a Jewish cultural realm beyond the American sphere of experience was nowhere on the imaginative horizons of that novel, a book that many saw as the signal beginning of an American Jewish “literary renaissance.” Now, over two decades later, Bellow is impelled to encounter Israel not from the distance of intellectual tourism but out of a sense of intimate connection, which leads both to a warmly understanding evocation of the Israeli scene and to an acutely felt apprehensiveness about the grave quandaries that Israel faces.

I have contended that a consensus of world Jewry now recognizes, without much ideological fuss and bother, an essential bond of peoplehood connecting Jews everywhere, whatever other allegiances they may have, and focused geopolitically in Israel. When one speaks of a “normal” people like the Italians or the French, it is clear that the boundaries of its distinctiveness, confined in any case within a geographical locus, are marked by a unifying language and culture, but what possible culture could be deeply shared by so disparate and dispersed a people as the Jews? If the Israelis—in contradiction to the contention of Georges Friedmann and others—persist, with very few exceptions, in regarding themselves as Jews, it is obvious that the Jews of the Diaspora are very far from being culturally Israelis. It will probably take at least a century before the real answer to this imponderable question begins to emerge, but perhaps a few observations on the anomalous linguistic situation of the Jewish people may point in the direction of a conceivable answer.

In the pre-modern Diaspora, the characteristic response of Jews to their double condition of isolation from and interaction with their various cultural environments was the creation of Jewish dialects that grew to be distinctive languages—Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, and, above all, Yiddish. In the relatively open societies where most Jews now live, without the pressure of social isolation, the impulse to create or perpetuate a Jewish dialect has disappeared, and some have argued that, deprived of a particular Jewish language, Jewish cultural distinctiveness in the Diaspora is doomed. A few observers have imagined in the practice of certain American Jewish writers the first signs of a new “Yiddish” forged out of the American language, but this seems, to put it mildly, fanciful.

Perhaps Ahad Ha-am was not so far off the mark in his stress on the necessity of a Hebrew center radiating its influence out to the Diaspora, though he had extravagantly excessive expectations both of the Hebrew language as a guarantor of values and of Diaspora Jewry’s potential for serious devotion to Hebrew. At any rate, with the fading of Jewish Diaspora dialects, a new situation has imperceptibly developed since the creation of the state of Israel in which Hebrew has become the second language of the Jewish people outside the borders of Israel. Yet it is a bit peculiar as a second language because only a tiny minority knows it really well, while another, somewhat larger minority has a smattering of it.

Among American Jews there is no doubt that in the three decades since the political realization of Zionism Hebrew has been accorded a progressively more esteemed and secure place. One should not, however, fall into the trap, by listing institutions and selected statistics, of projecting a great renaissance of Hebrew in American Jewry. It is true that a few thousand children each year spend their summers in Hebrew camps; that Jewish day schools with intensive Hebrew programs are flourishing; that even the congregational religious schools have become more serious about the language; and that dozens of American universities now have active programs in Hebrew where a generation ago this was true of only a small handful of institutions. But when all this is compared, for example, to the Hebrew gymnasia of Poland and Lithuania in the 20’s and 30’s, or to the flourishing Hebrew press and original Hebrew literature in Russia before the revolution, it is clear that anything that might presently be called a Hebrew movement in America is a rather anemic affair. On the campus where I teach, though I might point with promotional pride to more than one hundred fifty students every term in Hebrew-language courses and to well-attended graduate seminars on the most complex topics of Hebrew literature, there remain four or five thousand Jewish students untouched by any concern for Hebrew, and even of those hundred fifty, the majority will end up with about enough command of the language to communicate with a Tel Aviv taxi driver, perhaps to decipher a newspaper for new immigrants printed with vowel-points in simplified style. The study of Hebrew for most would seem to have less practical than ritual value, as the expression of a strong allegiance through an effort of learning.



It is probably unrealistic to hope for much more than this from North American Jewry, and perhaps even less can be expected from the Jews of Western Europe. What seems to me important, however, is not the statistical prevalence of Hebrew but rather the status it has achieved, the role that the idea of the language now plays in the consciousness of Jews. Half a century ago, Hebrew was still thought of by most Jews as a vestige, whether cherished or despised, of the rabbinic, “clerical” past, or, alternately, as the possession of a small intellectual elite of Hebraizing ex-yeshivah students, linguistic diehards determined out of nationalistic passion or sheer atavism to swim against the mainstream of modern history. All that, of course, has radically changed through the accomplished fact of Hebrew as the living language of a restored Jewish commonwealth. Though perhaps no more than a fifth of the world’s Jews actively use Hebrew, it has become—faute de mieux, from a Yiddishist point of view—the acknowledged language of the Jewish people. The authority of the language, once so much in dispute, is now conceded even by those who have no real knowledge of it, and increasingly, I think, Jews who want to be in touch with what their people is up to as well as where it has come from will have to acquire some competence in Hebrew. The language of the Jewish past has become the instrument of the Jewish present, and so a degree of historical continuity as well as future cultural coherence has become more feasible.

The fate of Hebrew in the Soviet Union is an instructive case in point. In the first years after the revolution, those Hebrew writers who chose to remain in Russia published two slender literary miscellanies singing the praises of the new Communist era, but by the mid-20’s Soviet authorities had banned Hebrew as a counterrevolutionary language—and quite rightly, from their Marxist-Leninist viewpoint, for whatever professions of loyalty to the revolution the Hebrew writers might make and even deeply feel, their commitment to their language implied a national allegiance finally incompatible with the intransigent Russian nationalism that called itself Soviet socialism. Through the grim years of Stalinist terror, a few brave souls continued to write clandestinely in Hebrew, sometimes smuggling their work out for publication in Palestine—like the gifted lyric poet, Haim Lensky, who perished in an NKVD camp in the early 40’s. As part of the national reawakening triggered by the Six-Day War—“when we realized,” as I heard one ex-Soviet Jew say, “that the Russians were aiding the enemies of our people”—an underground network was created for the study of Hebrew, working with smuggled texts and tapes and radios surreptitiously receiving Voice of Israel broadcasts. Now, the acquisition of Hebrew was of course a practical step in preparation for emigration to Israel, but I would suggest that it has meant much more than that to Soviet Jews. Especially after 1967, many thousands of them (though by no means the majority) felt themselves to be Jewish nationals who had been till then deprived of their national language and culture, and they were willing to begin literally with aleph bet, at the risk of their freedom and personal security, because the Hebrew language was the distinctive voice of the people they had come to affirm as their own.

In more normal national circumstances, language is of course a powerful unifying element. For the world’s Jews, who share a second language rather than a mother tongue, it is a source of unity in some respects and division in others. (A Russian Jew may discover a deep sense of connection with his people in the arduous effort of acquiring Hebrew, but then a Jewish intellectual in New York or Paris is surely separated in a profound way from his counterpart in Tel Aviv by the fact that the latter thinks and writes in Hebrew.) The present status of Hebrew among Jews, then, is less a reflection of its effectiveness as a unifier than the result of a prior consciousness of national unity. That consciousness in turn is the product of historical causes too multiple and complex to analyze here—including, most obviously, not only the establishment of the state of Israel but the Holocaust and the catastrophic failure of Marxist messianism as a road to salvation for Jews—but evidence for the new sense of unity can be found in many directions, especially since 1967.

An Ahad Ha-am writing in the 70’s, then, might perhaps not be so anxious about the danger of the Jewish people’s falling apart, though he might well be concerned about the direction in which it was moving. Now that Jewish national existence has again assumed a local place and habitation, its inner divisions, its moral and political confusions, its constant precariousness, have become all too evident within a highly concentrated arena. Solidarity of consciousness means not only shared strength but also shared vulnerability, and the shock waves, for example, of national hysteria, disorientation, demoralization, which recent events have produced in Israel have been felt in the far reaches of the Diaspora as well.



The Jews seem to have been “chosen” for a particularly difficult, dangerous relationship with history. The achieved consciousness of peoplehood, grounded in national autonomy, provides no easy way out of these difficulties and dangers—indeed, in some ways it multiplies their reverberations through the body of world Jewry. What Zionism has given Jews is not a clear-cut solution but a way of living dangerously in history with a modicum of honor, without crippling self-doubt, without supine acquiescence in the role of the helpless victims of historical forces. To this end, it was necessary for Jews to attain the awareness that they were not merely disparate individuals, co-religionists, sharers of a common ethnic or racial heritage, but members of a people that, like any other, had a right to its own political and cultural life among the nations of the earth. For all the uncertainties and ambiguities of our relationship with Israel, it seems that the pressures of history have at last forced this awareness home to large numbers of American intellectual Jews.


1 See Edward Grossman’s review, beginning on p. 80—Ed.

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