Language as a Human Right: The Ideology of Eastern European Zionists in the Early Twentieth Century

By Breslauer, S. Daniel | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 1995 | Go to article overview

Language as a Human Right: The Ideology of Eastern European Zionists in the Early Twentieth Century


Breslauer, S. Daniel, Hebrew Studies Journal


THE IDEOLOGY OF LANGUAGE AS A NATIONAL RIGHT

A recent study of "The Languages of Jerusalem" recounts the following intriguing anecdote. A Jew who taught Arabic in an Israeli public school frequented a grocery shop run by Arabs. Once, seeking to engage the owner in conversation, she began speaking Arabic. The Arab grew indignant and shouted at her, "Don't you use my language. When you speak to me, stick to your own language." (1) The teacher's well intentioned attempt to affirm solidarity with her Arab neighbors failed because she insufficiently recognized the political dimension of a cultural heritage. What may appear to one person as an appreciation of a foreign culture appears to another as an imperialistic appropriation of one's culture by an aggressive intruder. The use of Hebrew and Arabic in this story entails more than communication of ideas; that usage expresses both distinctive cultural traditions and their political manifestations.

The shopkeeper understood this situation well. Hebrew expresses Jewish nationalism, Zionism, and its political agenda. For Palestinians, the use of Arabic has become a symbol of independence, of national self-assertion. In the modern period Hebrew and Arabic symbolize political self-identification. Choosing to speak or write in one or the other tongue represents a peculiar decision to identify with a particular social and political community. As modern scholars of language, ethnicity, and nationalism recognize, such conscious choices represent a peculiarly modern, or even "post-modern" way of looking at culture. Understood this way, choice of language actualizes a distinctive human right, the right of cultural self-determination. Deciding which language to speak proclaims both one's individuality and one's loyalty to a particular social and ethnic group.

Michael Fischer, examining "Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory," comments on this fact and uses the writings of the Hebrew poet and thinker Hayyim Nahman Bialik as his guide. He shows how the choice of language and the acts of memory a writer performs are constructive movements in the creation, or better re-creation, of a national consciousness. He comments that "ethnicity is something reinvented and reinterpreted in each generation" and, like language, conceals as much as it reveals. (2) Fischer's choice of Bialik shows the peculiar irony found in the opening anecdote. The Arab speaker unconsciously articulates what had been a basic part of many Zionists' own ideology--the right of members of a group to choose their own language and express their identity through such usage.

Not every Zionist, however, always espoused this ideology. At the turn of the century only a few Zionist thinkers, of whom Bialik is one outstanding example, began to insist on the uniqueness of the Hebrew language and the right of Jews to express themselves in it. The connection between the Jewish struggle for rights and the use of Hebrew was not intuitively obvious. Indeed, Michael Berkowitz notes that this Hebraist position "began as a fringe element" and "inundated Zionism" to become "the movement's standard" only after a protracted struggle. (3) The ideology developed out of three presuppositions--that Jewish life needed "normalization," that language provides an essential cultural marker distinguishing one group from another, and that the right of the culture to survive outweighs the rights of the individual to personal freedom. The theorists of Hebrew as a Jewish right emphasized each of these presuppositions not only as true in itself but as part of an extended polemic against other theorists of Judaism and the rights of Jews, particularly Western European Enlightenment thinkers.

Each of the presuppositions, however, may be challenged, precisely from the basis of the Jewish experience with Western European Enlightenment. The challenge raised in this essay is not a matter of "fact" but of ideology. …

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