This is a post I wrote in German about the recent German court ruling equating ritual circumcision to bodily harm, thus making it illegal. That decision has been followed by similar decisions in Austria and Switzerland. An English translation of the post can be found below. Continue reading Was der Deutsche nicht kennt / Ignorance and bris
I recently finished reading an amazing book about Israel and Jewish history, written over 20 years before I was born. The Source, by James A. Michener, is a thick tome spinning an intricate web of fictional stories spread out through the realistic history of a fictional tel1 called Makor (Hebrew for ‘source’) near Acre, in what is now Israel. In retrospect, I probably should have kept a reading diary, because there are so many things in this book I would like to comment on. Continue reading Book Review: The Source, by James A. Michener (1965)
- A tel is a hill composed of layers over layers of civilization; these things are everywhere in Israel. [↩]
The Enlightenment achieved many things, some good, some bad. About a year ago, in a conversation, I realized that one of the good things was eliminating the role of religion in public discourse and policy in Europe. One of the bad things, perhaps, is stigmatizing spirituality in the personal sphere, an unfortunate side-effect of its elimination from the public sphere.
You see, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with people having faith in something supernatural, so long as they know their belief is their own business. In Israel, the Jewish religious establishment tied in with the state has never internalized the Enlightenment. The establishment, and the mainstream Judaism to which the secular majority belongs (together with some of the orthodox minorities) rejects the Enlightenment outright, denouncing it as “Hellenizing” and foreign.1
This is no accident, of course, as religion provides some of the classic arguments for the Zionist project and the resulting existence of the state. And indeed, when one views Israel through a naive Judeochristian lens, it’s really pretty amazing that a Jewish state with its capital in Jerusalem exists today. This fact, particularly in isolation, has tremendous emotional power, and the state clearly cannot afford to shut up about that kind of thing.
The problem is that religion-oriented political discourse has been losing currency in the developed world for a couple of centuries now. In most of Europe it’s a thing of wacky backwards foreigners and the crazy past. That the United States re-elected George W. Bush seven years ago is evidence that in America this is still a divisive issue.
Israel is swimming backwards in this current. Where the founding generation’s Judaism was a secular nationalism with some religious symbols, religion has been creeping into politics for decades. In recent months it’s been getting positively scary. As such, it’s probably too much to hope that Israel will realize sometime soon that in today’s world, you sound like a crazy person when you claim the Bible as an authority in your favor in a dispute over land.2
And as long as hasbara goes back and forth from sounding like an attempt to change the subject to sounding like the politics of a time predating the invention of the airplane, Israel will not convince the world of anything.
I remember there used to be a load of public outcry amongst the Israeli secular and reform regarding religious coercion (kfiya datit). What ever happened to that? Is that simply a battle we’ve already lost?
- Ironically, certain well-known European fascists called the Enlightenment a Jewish plot. All nationalist projects need an outside force to associate universalism and humanism with, so that they may be rejected. One cannot see all human beings as equal and at the same time consider one’s own nation especially important. [↩]
- Consciously or not, this is using an excuse that has little direct bearing on most people’s current reality but is used to justify gross injustice towards large groups of people. As such, it is morally reprehensible and should be rejected outright. [↩]
Noam Sheizaf at +972 Magazine brought to my attention a Jerusalem Post editoral which made a few red lights in my head go off (bolding mine):
ISRAEL IS the only country in the world where Jews are the majority. Only here can they enjoy the advantages of living in a state whose language, holidays and national symbols are their own.
Let’s leave aside the truly objectionable stuff in this editorial and focus on the linguistic part. I love Hebrew, in fact, it’s my favorite of Israel’s national symbols. I would like to point out how ludicrous it is for the Post to claim Jewish “ownership” over this, or any, language.
Before anything else, reflect for a moment on the fact that the majority of Jews worldwide do not speak Modern Israeli Hebrew and would probably call another language (usually American English) their own.
The nation is a relatively new construct, dating back just to the end of the 18th century. Naming official national languages was part of the rise of nationalism in Europe. It was part of the creation of a national identity — not artificial, but put together of existing pieces.
To the linguistically uninitiated, it might seem natural that every nation-state has a language “of their own”. German for the Germans, Swedish for the Swedes, Chinese for the Chinese. But languages are actually really bad at sticking to international borders. The Swiss speak Swiss German, which is no more similar to Germany’s Standard German than is Dutch. Standard Swedish is so similar to Norwegian and Danish that the three might be considered dialects of one language, and can be understood mutually with a bit of effort. “Chinese” is not even one language; usually “Chinese” means Standard Mandarin, the official language used by the People’s Republic, but the term includes the many many languages spoken in mainland China, even though many of them only have a writing system in common, remaining unintelligible to one another.
In the case of Modern Israeli Hebrew it should be especially clear that there is not a 1:1 relationship between (Jewish) nation and (Hebrew) language. Modern Hebrew has taken on European structure in almost all areas of grammar (with some very notable exceptions), since those who revitalized it were speakers of European languages. The bulk of Israeli slang is comprised of Arabic loanwords such as ahla and sababa. And the language is spoken by non-Jews as well; the Arabic of Israeli Arabs is so full of Hebrew that efforts are underway to refresh the community’s Arabic vocabulary.
Nonetheless, Modern Hebrew is the result of a conscious effort of will, and one might insist that it is an exceptionally national language. After all, the Zionist made a real, and apparently successful, effort to revive the language of Jewish scripture.
But in fact, even those parts of Modern Hebrew considered “pure Hebrew” — the parts attested in the Bible and other ancient texts — are unlikely to be in any way pure or belong entirely to any ethnic group. Quite simply, no language ever does. The ancient Israelites did not live in isolation, and were surrounded by different peoples with different cultures and different languages. Inevitably, the language they spoke was affected by it, and likely eagerly assimilated elements of the gentiles’ languages, just as all languages have always done everywhere. (but see NOTE below)
The suggestion that the Arabs have no place within our state, that they are a foreign entity that does not belong, is ludicrous and incredibly offensive. It is even ludicrous if you think there’s a god-given right for Jews to be in what was once Cana’an. Modern Israel (and its language) have always had non-Jewish residents (and speakers), most of them Arabs. At no point was the pre-state Yishuv isolated from Arabic culture. Israel has co-existed with Arabs, sometimes more peacefully than at other times, from the very start. Perhaps oddly, I find myself startled to see Israelis railing against Arabic culture as though it were a scary foreign influence. To me, hummus is the national dish, and even those who mistakenly think it’s falafel can’t deny there’s a bit of Arab in us.
Incidentally, sababa shel hummus, roughly “nice hummus”, is a phrase with an [arguably] European structure (cf. English “quite a day” and “hell of a guy” ), made up of two Arabic-loaned content words connected by one Hebrew function word [shel, “of”]. And what phrase could possibly be more Israeli?
I feel there is a general point here about Jewish culture – before, during, and after Diaspora. Before Diaspora, the Israelites were a part of the fabric of the Ancient Near East, going about the typical Ancient Near East national pass-times of worshiping, building, farming and conquering, maintaining a distinct culture and very distinct religion but not without influence from the languages, cultures and religions of their neighbors (who were all influenced in return, and by one another as well). In Diaspora, the Jews of every area developed their own cultural and linguistic remix. The most well-known resulting languages are Yiddish and Ladino, but they are not nearly the only ones. I recently learned that a small Jewish community in northwestern India developed a dialect of Marathi: Judæo-Marathi, still spoken in India and Israel.
And indeed, after Diaspora, the state of Israel has been a cultural patchwork quilt, taking patterns and colors from the many places its residents came from, while remaining firmly grounded in the political and cultural reality of the Middle East, which we are now undoubtedly part of.
One could argue, and perhaps one should, that in all of these cases the borrowing group made the borrowings its own, both by choosing them and by integrating them in a unique way (i.e. fitting loanwords to native phonology and morphology, which Modern Hebrew excels at). But there is nothing particularly Jewish about living in cultural isolation, nor is it a particularly sensible proposition that Modern Hebrew belongs exclusively to Israeli Jews. The Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have been there since before Hebrew was revitalized, Hebrew has been in contact with them ever since, and whether the Jerusalem Post likes it or not, the Arabic language and Palestinian culture are part of the fabric of the Israeli quilt.
Unfortunately I am unfamiliar with Ancient Hebrew and neighboring languages of the same period, such as Philistine, Phoenician, Moabite, Hittite, and Ancient Egyptian, and can’t give examples for loanwords off the top of my head like I can with English and Modern Hebrew. I also don’t know any good source to check (though I’d be eager to get one). But I’ve certainly seen mention on Wikipedia and on Israeli linguistics blogs of loanwords from neighboring languages into Ancient Hebrew, and this is not surprising in the slightest. It would be surprising if it were the other way around.
Related reading tip
Jerry Haber of the Magnes Zionist is writing a fascinating series of articles about “Israel’s ‘Arab Problem'”. Part one, part two. I read them cross-posted on +972 Magazine, which is becoming a more and more central source for my reading…