The Little Language That Could

By Magid, Shaul | Moment, January-February 2015 | Go to article overview

The Little Language That Could


Magid, Shaul, Moment


BABEL IN ZION: Jews, Nationalism, and Language Diversity in Palestine, 1920-1948

Liora R. Halperin

Yale University Press

2014, pp. 328, $40

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. …

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