Book Review // Babel in Zion

By | Feb 19, 2015
Babel in Zion by Liora R. Halperin


Babel in Zion:Jews, Nationalism, and Language Diversity in Palestine, 1920–1948
Liora R. Halperin
Yale University Press

2014, pp. 328, $40

The Little Language That Could

by Shaul Magid

What did it mean to build a country in a language that almost no one spoke, a language that would replace even the Jewish languages spoken in Europe for centuries? It was audacious. And it was largely successful, albeit with a fight. Small wonder that the scholar of Kabbalah and an ardent Zionist, Gershom Scholem, back in 1926, famously bewailed the cultural-political struggle to make Hebrew the language of Israel: “This country is a volcano! It harbors the language!”

Liora Halperin’s Babel in Zion is, as far as I know, the first book-length study to view the development of Zionism and nationalism exclusively through the lens of the fierce debates over language in the years between the British Mandate and the creation of the state (1920-1948). But it is also much more than that. With painstaking use of archival data and careful historical analysis, it opens at a fascinating moment in time when the Jewish world was in flux, when ideology reigned supreme and when the future seemed bleak and bright at the same time.

The Jews were returning to their ancestral homeland as they were being decimated in European countries where they had lived for more than a millennium. In those ominous and exhilarating days, the new met the old in a clash in which passion and volume were almost biblical. Buried in this cacophony was a deep irony. The revival of Hebrew was a source of pride for many secular European Jews who had abandoned “the holy tongue” and believed strongly that an authentic modern Jewish culture required a new language that represented a spirit that was simultaneously authentic and revolutionary, toxic and ecstatic. It would revive the language of the Temple, then, to ask the price of tomatoes in the marketplace.

The haredim cried blasphemy. The Zionists cried victory. Could this radical transition be successful? Putting aside the early Israeli propaganda films that paint a picture of a society making the desert bloom, this was a messy story fraught with divided objectives.

As Halperin notes, “This book has contended, first, that the Yishuv’s diverse language encounters required a complex set of accommodations and negotiations, and second, that these encounters could be symbolically important even for those without knowledge of the languages in question.” In short, the debate about diversity was not solely, or even primarily, who speaks what, where. It was, rather, about the very nature of cultural capital and power, who has it, and who has the right to use it. This slice of Zionism was far more complicated than many of us knew: a series of culture wars between elite ideologues and immigrants who were glad to be safe from the dangers of their previous homes but also nostalgic for the cultures they left behind.

Complex relationships with languages were endemic to the experience of Jewish immigration to Palestine. As I read Babel in Zion, I jotted down my own reflections in the margins: “Mandate Palestine was the nexus of four language clusters; the language of the home (German, Polish, Yiddish, etc.), the language of power (English), the language of the land (Arabic) and the language of ideology (Hebrew). These four language clusters bounce off one another in interesting ways during the Mandate period when Jews were simultaneously trying to build a country, create a culture and figure out who they wanted to be in the world.”

Halperin’s book deftly dissects several independent but linked phenomena: the ways in which immigrants to Palestine negotiated the continued use of the languages they spoke before they arrived; the role of English under the Mandate, since that represented the “international” language used to engage with the wider world; and, finally, the attitude toward Arabic among European Jewish immigrants. These issues all revolved around a set of broader concerns including the way nascent Zionist society in Palestine wanted to situate itself in the world. Did it want to be European or Middle Eastern? Did it want to be a part of the region or part of the “West”?

The Hebrew monolingualists, perhaps numerically in the minority, had considerable early influence in the debates, wanted to be neither European or Middle Eastern. They wanted a purely Hebrew society that distinguished itself from both Europe and the Middle East. Here Halperin writes, “The norm of monolingualism not only protested the importation of a European Babel but also resisted full integration with the Middle Eastern context, a context that in any case did not welcome Hebrew’s linguistic intrusion any more than it welcomed Zionist settlement. Few Arabs took it upon themselves to learn Hebrew.” Today, of course, most Israeli Arabs, also known as Israeli Palestinians, and Palestinians (in the West Bank, at least) do learn some Hebrew, and there is a small but growing number of Arabs who write in Hebrew. At the same time, monolingual Hebraism is largely a thing of the past except in some radical religious Zionist enclaves.

Fluency in Arabic among Israelis has always been low, except in the military and intelligence, and Arabic is not a growing part of Jewish Israeli society and culture. But the marginalization of Arabic was not without its serious critics. In a 1946 article, Shlomo Dov Goitein, the Hebrew University scholar of Arabic and medieval Jewish society, wrote, “Arabic study is part of Zionism, a part of the return to the Hebrew language and the Semitic Orient, which today is wholly Arabic speaking. We wish that our children, when they go out into the world, be able to feel themselves to be at home in the east and to be able to act within it, just as we desire that they do not lose the precious inheritance of European spirituality that we brought.”

Halperin agrees. “Goitein’s pro-Arabism was not merely academic,” she says. “He believed that if Jews could master and converse in the language of the region they would feel more at home there and become what Halperin called a ‘hybrid,’ manifesting the best of Europe and Asia.” Sadly, both of Goitein’s hopes were unfulfilled; Israelis have not become an integral part of the region (linguistically, culturally, economically or politically), nor have they, by and large, retained the “precious inheritance of European spirituality.”

Halperin argues that by viewing the cultural debates of this nascent society through its struggle in coming to terms with language, we get a picture of an innate double-mindedness that sometimes borders on collective confusion. She begins her conclusion by citing journalist Avraham Sharon writing in 1949. Jews, he explained, “…wanted to dance at two weddings; the Israeli one and the exilic one. They had the homeland on their tongues and exile in their hearts and minds.” Even the Hebraists, Sharon suggests, could not let go of the diaspora. There are numerous reasons for this. First, after the Second Aliyah (ending in 1914) many immigrants did not come to Palestine primarily out of a deep Zionist conviction as much as the need for refuge in a world that was becoming increasingly untenable. Hence, their cultural ties often remained tethered to their country of origin.

The pressure of the Mandate and the predominance of English led many Jewish Palestinians to speak English despite the fact that they hated the British. Many believed that if the project of statehood did not work, or even if it did, if Europe became a safer place for Jews, or the United States opened its borders, English would be the best language to know. Many Jewish mothers were Zionists in their hearts but also wanted to maximize options for their children.

Today, Israeli academics regularly publish in English, sometimes French, and are actually encouraged to do so. As in many small countries, bilingualism in Israel is a necessary ticket to cultural and economic success. The extent to which that has had an impact on Zionism more generally is an important question. If Hebraism was a cornerstone of Zionism, how can it survive in a functionally multilingual country?

It is a sad fact, Halperin also notes, that new immigrants to Palestine generally did not feel any compulsion to learn Arabic, the language of the large majority in their new home. The reasons were in one sense obvious. The Zionists were intent from the beginning on setting up a new country that would not include Arabic in any integral way. The so-called Arab Question was only operative to a select group of leftist intellectuals. If they cared at all, most immigrants believed the Arabs would simply pack up and leave.

There were exceptions to this rule, but they largely fell on deaf ears. It is perhaps significant that while every prime minister of Israel has had some facility with English and other European languages (Ehud Olmert also knows some Mandarin), not one to my knowledge had the capacity to converse in Arabic. Apparently David Ben-Gurion, who knew many languages, briefly tried (unsuccessfully) to learn Arabic in 1909. Here the Mizrahi community played a crucial role, because many of them knew Arabic quite well and contributed to the study of Arabic among Jewish immigrants to Palestine. Halperin shows that there were some real moments of Jewish-Arab collaboration during the Mandate period as a result of some Jews attaining fluency in Arabic, but it was mostly limited to hasbara or simple communication with Arab workers, the way many upper-income whites in Los Angeles know Spanish. 

After the founding of the State of Israel, with the Jews retaining most of the power, Arabic became even less important. As Halperin observes, more often than not, the common language between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians today is English. Of course, we will never know what might have transpired had Zionists taken the language of the land they now inhabited more seriously. But ideology won the day, and thus that is a story that will never be told.

Shaul Magid is professor of religious studies at Indiana University/Bloomington and author of American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society.


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