Zionism: a historic force for Jewish life

Exploring the relationship between Hebrew literature, modern Hebrew and Zionism

HERZL’S IDEAS were at the center of debates about Hebrew and the future Jewish state. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
HERZL’S IDEAS were at the center of debates about Hebrew and the future Jewish state.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Without Hebrew literature,” writes Hillel Halkin, “Zionism would never have become a significant force in East European Jewish life, nor could Hebrew have been revived as a spoken language in Palestine.”

In The Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion, Halkin, a renowned writer and translator, examines the works of the pioneers of modern Hebrew literature, including Joseph Perl, Avraham Mapu, Peretz Smolenskin, Ahad Ha’am, Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, Haim Nahman Bialik, Rahel, Yosef Haim Brenner and S. Y. Agnon, discussing their literary styles, translating passages of their work, and commenting on their significance.

Halkin explains that the purpose of the book is twofold – to introduce a number of major Hebrew authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries whose work forms an important part of the literary response to the modern Jewish experience to English-speaking readers, and to explore the mutual relationship between Hebrew literature, the evolution of modern Hebrew, and the emergence of Zionism as a historic force in Jewish life.

The Jewish world was rapidly changing during the second half of the 19th century. The Haskala, the ideological and social movement, attracted many to the study of secular knowledge and led to attempts to modernize and revive Hebrew as a spoken language.

Halkin explains that it was through the yeshivot of Eastern Europe that the Haskala and its ideas were disseminated most thoroughly. Young yeshiva students, with sharp minds and a good knowledge of Hebrew, were eager to read the works of the leading maskilim. Smolenskin, for example, studied Talmud at a yeshiva in Shklov for four years, and secretly read Haskala literature, until he was caught and expelled. By mid-century, he writes, most yeshivot had clandestine cells of budding maskilim.

The earliest Hebrew writers, explains Halkin, had to grapple with the issues of how a modern Hebrew language could be integrated into the lives of the Jewish people living in Europe. Throughout much of the 19th century, the Land of Israel, which was part of the Ottoman Empire, was a land of neglect and abandonment. Could a modern language that was not associated with a land survive?

Halkin writes that it was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a 21-year-old medical student in Paris in 1879, who wrote that Hebrew would never succeed without a place where Jews could read, write and speak Hebrew as its native tongue. Ben-Yehuda, writes Halkin, was the first in the world of Hebrew letters to make this point.

Halkin surveys the writings of the pioneers of modern Hebrew letters, providing excellent translations into English of selected portions. He analyzes the ideas expressed by the authors, both in terms of the types of Hebrew styles that they utilized, as well as how they dealt with the existential idea of being Hebrew writers at the very beginnings of modern Zionism.

HALKIN’S SECTION on Asher Ginzberg, better known as Ahad Ha’am, is particularly interesting. Ginzberg, the founding editor of Ha-Shiloah, the leading Hebrew literary journal at the beginning of the 20th century, was one of the foremost pre-state Zionist thinkers, had actually visited Israel in 1891 and 1893, and had firsthand knowledge of the difficulties that the Zionist pioneers were encountering.

Ginzberg, writes Halkin, wrote that “Palestinian Jews could create a model Jewish society whose influence would radiate to the Diaspora, giving it a sense of pride and purpose.” Ginzberg, however, wrote that it would not happen quickly, but would take time.

Thus, when Theodor Herzl, a journalist with no previous interest in the subject, wrote The Jewish State in 1896, which called for the early creation of a Jewish state, Ginzberg and his followers were not impressed. When Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Ahad Ha’am, who had been previously acknowledged as the leading spokesman for Zionism, writes Halkin, “was suddenly in the shadow of a man who was not only his opposite in many respects but had no appreciation of what he was.” In 1902, Herzl published Altneuland, a utopian novel set in Israel of 1922. The book, a detailed blueprint of Herzl’s vision, speaks of a modern, multilingual society in which the main languages are German, Hebrew, and Yiddish, and which closely resembled European society of the day.

Ginzberg responded to the book by writing what Halkin calls “the most contentious Jewish book review of the century,” attacking Herzl for writing about a state that was “a replica of Europe transplanted to the Middle East.” He bemoaned the educational system set out in the book, in which Hebrew was not the language of instruction, and no Jewish content was included. For Ahad Ha’am and many others, says Halkin, Hebrew was an essential component of their Jewish identity, and it was inconceivable to imagine a Jewish rebirth in Palestine without it. The review led to a storm of controversy about the book, both pro and con.

In April 1903, the Kishinev pogrom, in which 49 Jews were murdered, demonstrated the necessity of establishing a Jewish national home. At the Sixth Zionist Congress, held in August of that year, Herzl presented the Uganda plan, which intended to create a temporary Jewish refuge in East Africa. Although Herzl’s resolution passed, the convention was thrown into turmoil, with many delegates voicing their objections. Ahad Ha’am, not surprisingly, was critical of Herzl’s plan. Herzl died of heart failure in 1904, and the Uganda plan was never actualized.

Halkin writes that Ahad Ha’am was correct in his objections to Altneuland. “Hebrew alone could unite Jews from all over the world. A Yiddish-, German-, or English-speaking outpost in Palestine could do none of these things.” On the other hand, he adds, Herzl was correct in advocating for the speedy establishment of a Jewish state, something that Ahad Ha’am did not realize. Herzl recognized how quickly the world was changing, and while he may not have understood the centrality of the Hebrew language, Ahad Ha’am did not grasp the growing menace of antisemitism.

Nevertheless, Halkin points out, Ahad Ha’am set the agenda, not only for many of the debates of his times, but for many of those of today as well. His expression of the Land of Israel as a national center of Jewish communities around the world and his belief in a secular Jewish moral mission still shape the outlook of many Jews of the 21st century, he writes.

Halkin succeeds in bringing the world of these pioneers of Hebrew literature to those who are unaware of their achievements and the world in which they lived, and his expert translations clearly communicate their ideas to a 21st-century audience. For those who have heretofore thought of names like Mapu, Smolenskin, Bialik and Gordon as simply street signs in modern Israel, gaining an appreciation of who they were and the times in which they lived makes the book worthwhile reading.                                    The writer covers a wide variety of stories for The Jerusalem Post, from the Veterans/New Arrivals column to feature articles to coverage of Jerusalem Post conferences. Previously, he was vice president of the Davka Corporation for 30 years, helping pioneer the development of Hebrew and Judaic software.

The Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion
By Hillel Halkin
Toby Press
436 pages; $20.18