Violence and the Hebrew Language: Jewish Nationalism and the University

Eyal Chowers. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies. Volume 16, Issue 3. November 2017.

The national language and the nation-state are typically presented as interwoven. Possession of a singular language comprises one of a people’s legitimate grounds for demanding a sovereign state, while the state itself fosters that language through its education system and other means. But the national language and the nation-state do not always work in concert; they can also represent conflicting meanings and ideologies of national life. Zionism is a revealing case in this context; the Hebrew language, at least as understood among cultural Zionists, was associated with ideas that are humanistic, moral, universalistic and anti-violence—ideas that conflicted with the values and practices typically accompanying the formation and furtherance of a nation-state. This divergence of paths was reflected at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in its pre-state period and has yielded a lasting effect on the role that universities play in Israeli political life and in civic education.

Nationalism changed the meaning of language. According to Kohn, whereas “before nationalism, language was very rarely stressed as a fact on which the prestige and power of a group depended”, nationalism reversed this reality towards the end of the eighteenth century. Language acquired importance not merely as a way of erecting unseen borders between groups, but also (presumably) as a means of shaping each group’s members in a similar fashion. In Fichte’s words, language “binds together all those who speak it into one common understanding”. Humboldt expressed a similar view, suggesting that it is language that forms a nation, not visa-versa. According to him,

Language and the basis for nationality have direct resemblance to one another. But the effect of the former is stronger and more evident, and the concept of a nation must chiefly be founded upon it. Since the development in man of his human nature depends on that of his language, the very concept of the nation is thereby directly given, as that of a body of men who form language in a particular way.

Theories of nationalism, indeed, tend to emphasize the national language as a significant foundation for a distinct, collective identity and as a motivating force behind a group’s demand for an independent political life (Hastings; Roshwald). Language, the argument goes, both reflects and shapes the way a people thinks and feels; it bonds people, molding them into a group aware of themselves as a nation. While these presuppositions and assertions are debated (Hobsbawm; King; Judson), the national language and the nation-state are typically presented as interwoven: possession of a singular language comprises legitimate grounds for a people to demand a sovereign state, while the state itself fosters the national language through its education system and other means.

However, the adherence to a national language and the consciousness of being “a nation” often based upon this language, do not necessary lead smoothly to the establishment or the valorization of a nation-state. The philosophy and language ideology associated with a particular language could, in some cases, generate reservations and even resistance to integral features of the modern nation-state. [I use the term “language ideology” in the sense of “shared bodies of commonsense notions about the nature of language in the world” (Rumsey, 346), and the cultural meaning ascribed to human linguistic interaction.] If, for example, the national linguistic and literary tradition underscores ideas such as heightened humanism and moral universalism, these do not easily cohere with the collective mindset, exclusion of minorities and strangers, and the use of violence towards other people often associated with the nation-state (Weber). What is conceived of as the gist of the national language—its key concepts, familiar proverbs, metaphors and symbols and textual canon—could point to an understanding of the nation that would challenge the very functions a state is expected to perform in promoting the nation’s interests and needs in a competitive political environment. When essentialism is discussed in the context of nationalism, it is often associated with an exclusionary and chauvinistic vision of culture and language. But nationalism, as I argue below, is not a monolithic phenomenon and may involve an understanding and ideology of the national language that conflicts with fundamental ideas defining the nation-state.

These potential contradictions and opposing forces in nationalism are perhaps exceptionally evident in the case of Zionism. In this national revival movement, the national language, Hebrew, came with a formidable history. It was the foundation of a textual corpus and of practices of religious study that were considered the core of Jewish tradition for generations. In comparison, the Jewish people’s state, alongside state-based citizenship, reflected a new phenomenon. Moreover, before modernity and Jewish emancipation (which gradually evolved after the French Revolution) Jews tended to be marginalized from the politics of the countries in which they resided. This predicament helped foster an understanding of the Hebrew language as the foundation for fashioning a just and virtuous person (zadik). Jews could aspire to exemplify such a lofty character partly because they were devoid of full citizenship and participation in the life of the gentile nation—and hence less exposed to the demonic compromises such citizenship may entail when the preservation of the state demands the use of dubious moral means (as the tradition of raison d’etat from Machiavelli to Weber acknowledged. See Meinecke). Given this background, tension potentially existed between the national language with its allotted meaning, on the one hand, and a Jewish nation-state on the other. To demonstrate this tension, the present study examines the understanding of the Hebrew language that flourished at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (hereinafter, the “Hebrew University”), an institution that embodied the school of cultural Zionism.

The conflicts within nationalism regarding language indeed played themselves out at universities which, perhaps more than any other institutions, are founded on a faith in the significance of language and language-based practices. In the age of nationalism, especially in Central Europe of the nineteenth century, the university conceived of itself as responsible for exhuming the history of the nation, for exploring the latter’s distinct popular culture and practices, for reflecting on customary laws and reinterpreting them, and for preserving the literary tradition. In short, the university was seen as the home of the volksgeist whose achievements were studied through and preserved in the national language. However, while the university thus plays a key role in forming a bounded national identity, it is also interested in, and committed to, the flourishing of the individual student (hence fostering modes of expression necessary for the cultivation of the distinct self), and to a transnational community of scholars and researchers beyond its borders (hence to developing a cross-national and culturally “neutral” conceptual and theoretical vocabulary). The involvements of the university lie both “below” and “above” the nation; in a way, the university has its own “language ideology,” which reflects its multi-layered commitments.

At the Hebrew University, this multi-layered conception of language was combined with the traditional view of the Jew as essentially a language user, a person oriented towards a perpetual study of the religious canon. Moreover, scholars at this institution considered the mastery of the Hebrew language to be intertwined with the perfection of (moral) character: an intimate knowledge of words and concepts, of idioms and phrases teaches us what is worthy and unworthy, right and wrong. Despite the university’s small number of faculty and students in its early years, its professors were respected members of the community. Their conception of Hebrew in the pre-state period is thus worth recalling, not only to enrich our understanding of nationalism in general and of Zionism in particular, but also to remind us of what has been lost. For while moral and political critique of the Israeli state is often written in Hebrew today, since 1948 the particular vision of the Hebrew language as dictating moral conduct in its own right has become increasingly marginal. Yet before turning to explore this lost idea of language, a few brief remarks about Zionism and language are in order.

Mainstream Zionism and the Hebrew Language

Traditionally, Jews preserved their identity by cultivating demanding practices of study. They memorized sacred texts, repeated them time and again, and aspired to add additional layers of interpretation to existing texts. They developed a literary corpus based on the Bible (a “portable homeland,” as Heinrich Heine put it), which could travel with them wherever they went. Indeed, as Amos and Fania Oz note,

Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words, on an expanding maze of interpretations, debates, and disagreements, and on a unique human rapport. In synagogue, at school, and most of all at home, it has always involved two or three generations deep in conversation. (Oz and Oz-Salzberger, 1)

The Jewish textual tradition includes the use of many languages, among them Aramaic, Greek, Arabic and Yiddish; nevertheless, Hebrew comprised the foundation of this tradition.

The Zionist movement in Palestine rejected this view of the Jew as a master of texts, as well as the view that Hebrew is a “holy” language (Midrash Bereshit Raba; Chowers, Ch. 4). While the movement is responsible for reviving the Hebrew language as a vernacular and transforming it from a “high” literary and holy language into one that serves people in their daily life, Zionism also comprised a rebellion against the ontological status of language in diaspora Judaism and against the diaspora’s culture of study. In the new Zionist imagination, language is needed to express an existence shaped by physical matter and work; it is no longer the bearer of truth and revelation or the medium through which God created the world. Zionists, in fact, embraced an almost Promethean sense of action and transformation of the phenomenal world. “Something that was merely written and said,” proclaims writer Micha Josef Berdyczewski, “shall not be deemed part of the nation’s character and existence. It must be embodied in being and become an operating force in life and action” (Berdyczewski). For the early Zionist pioneers, the text-based tradition suddenly meant unnaturalness and unproductiveness, passivity and lack of vitality, exclusion and hierarchy; “tradition” came to signify faith in an unsubstantiated, speculative shared world of meanings that words establish and transmit. Y. H. Brenner, perhaps the leading writer of the Second Aliyah, represents this point of view by warning that one should not be beguiled by “the beauty of the new Hebrew terms” in themselves. Rather, language should first of all express “working life and thoughts about work” (Brenner.

While it would be simplistic to assign one understanding of the meaning of the Hebrew language to labour Zionism, the functional view of the language increasingly dominated this strand of the movement. Indeed, the use of Hebrew allowed (secular) Zionists to revive their historical attachment to the land and voice their claim to it, to distinguish themselves from Arabic speakers in Palestine and Yiddish speakers in the diaspora, and especially to establish a shared vernacular for people who emigrated to Palestine from various countries and who spoke assorted mother-tongues. As Ben-Gurion noted: “the tribes of the diaspora are now being fused into one people, united and unique. For the renewal of the Jewish nation, Hebrew is the cultural cement, as the land is the material cement and independence the political one”.

In this atmosphere, which was generally ambivalent towards the role and status of language in public life, the Hebrew University perhaps served as the main “home” of the Hebrew language, promoting this language and the constitutive, non-functional, humanistic and moral meaning its leading professors ascribed to it.

The Hebrew University and the Ideology of the Hebrew Language

In his inaugural address as Rector of the Hebrew University, the philosopher Leon Roth noted that “the university is the place in which a content is given to a word … [A]t the university one learns not only to use language, but to use it properly.” He even declared on that occasion that “without Hebrew speech, the university has no right to exist” (Roth, 5). In these pronouncements, he was affirming both the cultural Zionists’ perspective on the role of language in the Jewish national revival and language’s role within the institution of the university in general (notably, both the liberal arts tradition and the German notion of Bildung durch Wissenschaft held language to be the foundation of education). At a practical level, indeed, the Hebrew University played a key role in the successful revival of Hebrew and its transformation into a vernacular. The faculty taught in Hebrew (Efrati), translated works into Hebrew, and helped to expand the number of Hebrew speakers through the professional training of schoolteachers. Of concern in this study, however, is the conception of the Hebrew language as a national language that prevailed at the university, as well as the university’s self-understanding as responsible for the Jewish, morally oriented volksgeist.

The idea of the Hebrew language as central to Jewish national revival had arisen before the state was established. Many leading scholars during the Hebrew University’s early days (including Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Shmuel Hugo Bergman, Ernest Simon, Leon Roth and Judah Magnes) were associated to varying degrees with the school of cultural Zionism founded by Ahad Ha’am (born Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927). Ahad Ha’am believed that Zionism required the renewal of Judaism as a culture and an identity. In his view, the movement’s task was to translate religious tradition into solid secularized and modernized beliefs and practices, thereby to mold a cohesive nation that would not be concentrated merely in one territory or state. Yet Ahad Ha’am believed that this cultural and linguistic revival could commence only in Palestine, where the act of re-bonding with the ancient homeland would inject new life and spirit into collective existence. He called for the establishment of a “spiritual centre” (merkaz ruhani) in Eretz Israel rather than for the founding of a nation-state (which he did not oppose at a later stage, after the spiritual and cultural foundations had been laid). Ahad Ha’am advanced three points pertinent to the current discussion:

  • Each nation possesses a distinct national spirit (ruah ha’am, akin to the Herderian volksgeist) that progresses and unfolds throughout history in an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary manner;
  • This national spirit is expressed, preserved and cultivated through the national language. Given the Jews’ dispersal throughout the diaspora, language is the main factor that preserved their shared identity. As he put it: “we barely have any remnant; only our language itself still shows signs of life” (Ahad Ha’am, 113). The Hebrew language, however, can be revived only in the Land of Israel, which is intertwined with both the memories and the aspirations of the nation.
  • Regarding Judaism, the national spirit, as expressed in language, means a heightened moral awareness and strict demands in human relations. “There should be one nation in the world,” he wrote, “whose national attributes will prepare it for moral development, more than any other nation (Ahad Ha’am, 155-156).” For Ahad Ha’am, this morality involved (among other elements) an uncompromising search for justice, an ability to view ethical questions objectively and without regard to one’s own interests or emotions, and a great reluctance to use violent means in resolving human conflicts. “Ever since the days of the prophets,” he noted, “our fathers learned to scorn in their hearts the power of the fist, and respect only spiritual power” (Ahad Ha’am, 88).

The Hebrew language embodies exemplary moral standards that are universalistic in their application and divorced from the narrow, egotistical interests of the national community. For centuries, Ha’am argues, the users of Hebrew enshrined this morality through the books they canonized, the stories they transmitted, the lines of arguments and modes of thinking they cultivated, and the proverbs and concepts they invented and celebrated; so as to preserve its historic essence, the modern Hebrew language should be renewed in this spirit. Yet such renewal would be impossible, Ha’am realized, if a Jewish nation-state would be established under conflictual circumstances (Chowers, Ch. 4).

As noted, prominent scholars at Hebrew University followed Ahad Ha’am in developing a vision of the Hebrew language and of Jewish cultural nationalism at odds with the prevalent functional understandings of language in the yishuv and the latter’s political aspiration (especially since the 1930s) for a nation-state. The addressees of their cultural nationalism were, beyond the community of the yishuv, Jews in the diaspora and through them, the non-Jewish world as well. In fact, one of the promoters of this vision was the principal founder and first Chancellor of the university, Yehuda Magnes, who aimed to foster a universalistic moral and political vision among Jews, precisely by grounding them in their own ancient land, community, and national language and tradition. Through these anchors, he sought “to produce a new type of life and a new way of living for Jews” (Roth, 4-5). Magnes argued that only “after you have rooted yourself in your nation, you can overcome nationalism.” He believed that while “many things predisposed … [the Jew] to universalism—his prophets, his wonderings, his experience” (Magnes, 226)—Jewish individuals would be unable to embrace an outlook that respects the rights of others and approaches these others with empathy as long as they, as Jews, are insecure about their own place in the world. The strength and richness of national identity is precisely what would serve as a bulwark against the kind of nationalism that posits the nation-state as the epitome of collective aspirations. Fostering such an identity involves, as mentioned, the founding of an institution of higher learning that enshrines the role of the Hebrew language in Jewish life through ongoing research and teaching.

In explaining why Hebrew was chosen as the language of instruction at the university, Magnes notes (in an interview conducted in Yiddish) that “we want to give the Bible back again to the Jewish people as a living document,” a task that could be accomplished only through Hebrew because the Bible “is in Hebrew”; this re-introduction of the ancient text in its original language to the centre of Jewish life and scholarship means, in particular, advancing the Bible as “the book of social justice,” argues Magnes. This book sets the tradition on the path of “yearning righteousness [that is] in the blood and marrow of the Jewish people.” Magnes notes, then, that the core of the Jewish tradition is its moral vision, and that the continuity of this tradition depends on “the Hebrew language, which is both the means and a symbol of this continuity” (16).

Magnes’s colleagues at the university clarified this “ideology” of language. Given the limited scope of this article, I demonstrate this point by discussing only three such colleagues: Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, Leon Roth and Martin Buber.

Shmuel Hugo Bergmann

Shmuel Hugo Bergmann (1883-1975) was the founder of the National Library in Palestine, the first Rector of the Hebrew University, and a leading philosopher (Selzer). Reflecting on his years at the National Library (1920-1935), he noted:

I had a vision: to establish, if I may say so, a spiritual place (mikdash mèat) … my idea, desire and hope were to add another symbol to Zionism … to set up a national treasure that people would pray for and that would be dear to their hearts. (Bergmann, 88)

While Hebrew was not among his main subjects of scholarship, Bergmann’s writings present this language—with the university and the library serving as its natural abode—as critical, especially in facing two types of looming cultural and social impoverishments.

First, Bergmann, an emigrant from Central Europe and a veteran of the First World War, shared the widespread concern that the West was engulfed in a crisis of meaninglessness and nihilism, a crisis famously articulated by writers such as Nietzsche, Weber, Nordau, Spengler and Kafka (Bergmann’s childhood friend). The modern university, according to Bergmann, contributed to the crisis: it developed powerful natural sciences, but its internal division of labour prevented it from being able to offer these sciences any normative and moral direction. Indeed, the growing role of technology and science in the war itself (epitomized perhaps by Fritz Haber’s advocacy of chlorine as a weapon) demonstrated the possible abuses of science. In his inaugural address as the first Rector of the Hebrew University (1936), Bergmann insisted that “the grounds of science, its base, have become untenable, and the disease that attacked the heart of the scientific organism will soon manifest itself in all its parts, if we do not find a remedy” (Bergmann, 92). The scientific endeavour had become dangerous, oriented towards technological advancement and the control of nature and of humans without a normative critique of its own ends. Given his own religious leanings, Bergmann argued that the modern university should embrace at least a cultural or secularized version of religion. He considered the Hebrew university (as inspired by Judaism) to be an extraordinary opportunity to start afresh, to offer science such an overarching meaning.

Second, Bergmann was concerned that mainstream Zionism’s orientation towards “building” would lead to its adherents’ spiritual depletion. That is, Zionism (which was dominated in Palestine by Labour movements) celebrated chiefly tangible achievements: the increase of population, the agricultural work conducted in the fields, the volume of the economic activity, the number of houses constructed and other landmarks. In conjunction with this materialistic tendency, it trusted what could be observed with the eye and quantified in numbers. This movement lionized the men and women of initiative, of patriotism and sacrifice, of the world of practice; it downplayed, as noted above, the person who masters the use of words and has faith in them, particularly if these words evoked tradition. To this prevalent understanding of early Zionism, Bergmann responded by warning that:

We must be on guard lest the activities required by the building of the land distance our hearts from our spiritual mission in respect to Judaism. The building that we serve is more than an economic and social building: it is the embodiment of thousands of years of hope and of the spiritual aspirations of Judaism. One historic line connects Yavne and its sages [of ancient Judaism] with the professors and teachers on Mount Scopus. (131)

More generally, in his search for an alternative to the two types of impoverishments mentioned above, Bergmann proposed the Hebrew University as the embodiment of Ahad Ha’am’s idea of a “spiritual centre” (131). This institution was the evolving, pumping heart of Jewish cultural nationalism. The Hebrew University provides the forum to study and explore the Jewish tradition, especially with its emphasis on tikkun olam (Bergmann, 93), on healing and repairing the world through ethical conduct as prescribed by the religious law and the customs of tradition. Moreover, Bergmann believed that both the pursuit of knowledge in the natural sciences and the project of nation-building, two projects that augment human power without sufficient reflection on the looming danger that such power could yield, require external ethical guidance. He argued that this guidance could be achieved in modernity mostly through hermeneutical and critical work conducted by scholars, especially in the humanities (Bergmann, 133). For Zionists, however, this work demands the use and mastery of Hebrew, the language that best preserves the Jewish world of meanings, ends and values. In a revealing letter to Buber, Bergmann wrote:

If we are not going to have the strength to free ourselves, if we are not going to throw ourselves completely … into the intellectual life of the Hebrew literature, then the future course of things will simply pass over us as stragglers, as those who lagged behind halfway along the road, as old men. For me … Hebraism is simply an attempt to remain true and to maintain [the integrity and effectiveness of] the word. (Bergmann, 250)

The revived words are not neutral means of communication or arbitrary signs in a linguistic system but, rather, lead to specific, internal dispositions and actions in the world. Bergmann aspired, in particular, for potent words that would evoke the biblical prophets’ vision of reconciliation and mutual responsibility among nations. Hence he criticized Jewish nationalists for furnishing themselves with “compliments and congratulations” and was concerned that because of their past servitude in the diaspora, modern Jews would “spill their wrath upon the nations” (Bergmann, 46). Certainly he downplayed other qualities one could ascribe to the Hebrew language (if, that is, essentialist qualities are credible at all), such as the xenophobic, territorial and messianic concepts Hebrew contains. Later in life, Bergmann even acknowledged that his (and his colleagues’) vision of the trinity (the Hebrew language, the university as the embodiment of cultural nationalism, and the humanism embedded in Judaism itself) was perhaps too vague (16). He admitted that it was wrong to assume that the revival of Hebrew in itself would provide a solution and steer the nation in the right direction.

Leon Roth

Similarly to Bergmann, Leon Roth (1896-1963), the Oxford-educated philosopher and the third Rector of the university during the Second World War, attached the Hebrew language to moral ideas enshrined in Jewish tradition. He noted that Hebrew

is not only the lingua franca of Jewry, the only language on the use of which all Jews can agree. It is in itself an inspiration, a call to better things. It is the linguistic side of the cry for a New Jerusalem. (Roth, 7)

According to Roth, this striving to materialize a New Jerusalem substantially through language involves seeing Judaism as essentially a hermeneutical religion in which the sacred texts are read and re-read across generations. “The seeking out of the meaning of the Scriptures,” he suggested, “is the source of historic Judaism of whatever variety it may be” (Roth 24). But Roth’s language-based cultural nationalism was not satisfied with merely preserving this postulated, intrinsic and moral content of Hebrew and with anchoring the modern Jew in tradition (which he read through a liberal lens). Roth, who wrote extensively on the Hebrew language, also professed the following: (a) that the core moral and existential meanings of Hebrew could be upheld only if it would simultaneously learn to “open itself” to other cultures and to the present era, mostly through the translation of various texts into Hebrew and the expansion of the latter’s vocabulary and range and (b) that Hebrew, in the age of national revival, must also be tailored to fit the needs of democratic life, including a viable political sphere and active citizenship.

According to Roth, Jewish collective existence was being transformed, since Jews sought to embrace modernity and to become a nation among nations. The Hebrew language must respond to these changes. “In this age of transition, as in the medieval period, the greatest services to the Hebrew language are to be done in the field of translation. We want to know what the language is capable of” (Roth, 299). Modern Hebrew lacks words for old and new objects, social institutions, scientific concepts, human emotions and experience, and much more; other languages contain human inventions and insights that Hebrew, argued Roth, must incorporate. Roth, however, did not consider translation to be motivated exclusively by need; rather, translation expresses deep curiosity and appreciation for the achievements of other cultures. Thus, in his own field of philosophy, Roth invested much energy in translating into Hebrew (on his own or as an editor) the philosophical canon: Descartes, Plato, Rousseau, Leibniz and Aristotle, among others; he believed that “philosophy had to be taught Hebrew afresh, or rather … Hebrew had to be taught modern philosophy” (Roth, 299). Roth hoped that the new philosophical vocabulary, along with the new vocabulary in other fields, would challenge and enrich Jewish (and Zionist) thought and would strengthen the respect for, and sense of mutual dependency with, other cultures and nations. Moreover, the introduction of the new, translated words into Hebrew would foster the standing of the single word by helping to conceive of the word as a “being” in itself, free from the confining biblical context and the traditional phrases in which it was typically embedded.

Roth called for a language-based, collective life in a society dominated by pioneers who were committed, as noted, to transforming palpable reality and rebuilding the land, and who rebelled against the traditional “bookish” Jewish life. “I call,” Roth said, “not merely for a culture, nor merely for a language, nor even for language [conversation] about cultural things. I call for a culture of language and speech [tarbut lashon], and from that everything else will ensue” (Roth, 247). Among the professors at the Hebrew University, Roth was distinguished for consistently underscoring the interconnection between this “culture of language” and democratic political life. “Democracy,” he wrote, “means governing through conversation,” and its great discovery is that the attempt to convince others through “free debate among independent human beings and through cooperation with opponents” (Roth, 38, 73) could replace a rule of the sword. Roth underscored familiar themes in democratic thought: that the expression (through public speech) of diverse opinions is crucial for arriving at the right decision, since each opinion could shed new light on the issue at hand; and that public discussion, especially in parliament, is important for instructive reasons since it is a way “to educate the representatives … as well as the public at large that follows their discussions” (Roth, 39). For Roth, indeed, it was the challenge of his generation to make the Hebrew language, comprised of both its historical layers and its newly invented and translated words, cohere with democratic principles and practice. Notably, Jewish sources and traditions support this challenge: for example, debate about the correct interpretation is an essential feature of the Jewish method of studying the Talmud, resembling debate among citizens and representatives in the democratic public sphere. Through this prism, a state of the Jewish people (be it either a national or a bi-national one) would strive to combine the democratic respect for language with the Jewish traditional respect for it.

The presupposition of Ahad Ha’am’s followers that the Jewish volksgeist and the revival of the Hebrew language would lead to heightened moral consciousness and that Hebrew speakers would act with greater moral restraint in cases of international conflict was demolished during the War of Independence. Roth, in particular, was appalled by the war and the mutual brutality it unleashed between Jews and Arabs. During the war, he gave an address about Ahad Ha’am’s legacy asking, “Jews and blood? Are there two greater opposites” (Roth, 159. For a different perspective, see Penslar). In the early 1950s, when his beliefs about the core and direction of Zionism seemed to have been rebuffed by reality, Roth left the State of Israel and the Hebrew University where his career had blossomed. Later, when his break with the Israeli state was cemented, it seems he even suggested that the language-based Jewish existence (including Hebrew) had to be salvaged from Zionism and Palestine. During an address to a synagogue in London, he said:

Is our nonpolitical persistence of over two thousand years so small a thing that we should be prepared so lightly to agree to its being buried and forgotten … I am not sure that the first task in your work of Midrash, of seeking a new interpretation is not the rehabilitation of the idea of the Diaspora. (Roth, 26)

Martin Buber

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was perhaps the most prominent philosopher for whom language was at the core of his thinking and of his understanding of human beings. “In actuality,” he stated, “speech does not abide in man, but man takes his stand in speech and talks from there” (Buber, 36). This conviction also shaped his language-based idea of Jewish nationalism and what he saw as the role of the university in promoting that idea. His inaugural address at the Hebrew University in 1938, upon assuming the position of Chair of the Sociology department, is particularly revealing in this context. In that address, Buber championed Auguste Comte’s idea that the humanities and social sciences are aimed not merely at acquiring facts, forming explanations or generally augmenting knowledge; rather, these sciences must generate a normative critique and thus help advance communal relations. The neutrality of science that Weber demanded is, for Buber, an escape from responsibility, a submissiveness to history and circumstance. True, the scholar, or “representative of the spirit (ruah),” lacks the backing of state power (in contrast to Plato’s philosopher king) and hence cannot shape society by law and coercion. Nevertheless, in Buber’s view, the scholar (like the rebuking biblical prophet who masters speech but has no power) must embrace a commitment to betterment and “educate from a sociological point of view.” More specifically, the scholar “must educate the human being and foster his ability to truly live with his friend” (Buber).

Buber, moreover, believed that Jews have a universal task of amending human relations in the world. Following Ahad Ha’am he was certain, as he explained to Mahatma Gandhi (Buber, 480), that Jews would be able perform this task only as a community, and only in the Land of Israel. In the galut, dispersed and non-autonomous Jewish communities could only exercise their collective action in limited ways. Zionism, in contrast, offers a singular opportunity for translating Jewish ideals (as the prophets in particular had articulated) into all spheres of life, including the political. Scholars at the Hebrew University, he therefore demanded, should teach their students the meaning and value of peace among and within nations, of social equality, of the Sabbath and the freedom from labour its observance yields, of truthfulness in public life, of diminishing coercion in social relations, and of mutual openness and genuine togetherness which could be achieved through intimate dialogue. The “representatives of the spirit” (as Buber calls university lecturers) must retrieve—particularly from the religious, textual tradition—visions of human and social perfection. These visions could not have been accomplished in the past due to the nation’s dispersal, but perhaps could be now. Genuine scholars are the guardians of powerful words from the shared past: they speak to the “people’s soul,” in which a “longing of human beings to fulfill the truth” (Buber), is dormant but can be reinvigorated. Notably, for Buber, the university is not the place in which human dialogical existence can be fully materialized (the kibbutz, where lives are truly interwoven, being his preferred ground for such an existence). At the university, he argued, students can acquire an understanding of what this existence means and of how to fulfil such a task outside its walls. However, this understanding demands, first of all, the mastery of inspiring texts, the “purification of concepts,” and the “scrubbing of words” (Buber).

This emphasis on concepts and words stems from Buber’s conviction that language forms human beings and their thought. “The creation of the word is for me one of the mysterious processes of the life of the spirit,” he wrote many years before he came to Jerusalem. “The becoming of a word is a mystery that takes place in the world-poeticizing (weltdichtenden), world-thinking (weltdenkenden), world-discovering man” (Buber, 482). Communities preserve their discoveries through the words they invent. Accordingly, the goal of an education committed to Jewish nationalism is to uphold the particular modes of thought and evaluations enshrined in the Hebrew language. “The Hebrew man is the individual who lets himself be addressed by the voice that speaks to him in the Hebrew language,” writes Buber. This openness to Hebrew is the ground for moral life since “we can truly retrieve the normative only as we open ourselves to the Biblical word, wherein it appears as a primal force” (Buber, 47, 48). As Paul Mendes-Flohr explains, for Buber Hebrew (and biblical) humanism meant living in light of “the conceptual and liturgical formulations of [the] primal Jewish experience” and articulating “the inner knowledge that virtually every Jew bears within his soul, perhaps even despite himself” (164).

While Buber considered the mission of Judaism to be achievable only collectively, he underscores that the ultimate goal of this mission, as in the German tradition of bildung is the cultivation of the individual. “With each human being,” he writes, “something new comes to the world, something new and distinct that did not exist before” (Buber, 15). Each person must explore this singularity, which is formed through, and expressed in, language. “When a great man speaks,” Buber writes, “he need not tell us about his character in order to reveal it to us. Language itself takes care of that” (243). The literary (and religious) tradition should be read through humanistic lenses, assisting the individual in distinguishing between right and wrong, just and unjust, ideals to be sought and perils to be wary of: “Humanistic understanding sees literary tradition as the authority and the standard, for it shows us how to distinguish between what is human and what is inhuman; it bears witness to man and reveals him” (Buber, my emphasis, EC). For Buber, then, no contradiction exists between tradition and respect for individual authenticity: a people’s literary tradition comprises the necessary context through which individuals cultivate their singularity, beginning the creativity and self-understanding that language allows.

Buber’s writings exemplify the marriage of language with nationalism and humanistic moral consciousness with Judaism. This conception however, largely collapsed after the War of Independence and the Palestinian Nakba, as well as in the aftermath of the Holocaust. After these events, cultural Zionists had to grapple more directly and perhaps more honestly with the role of evil, scarcity, conflict and particularly violence at play in the world. The ideology they attached, and the essentialism they ascribed, to the Hebrew language could no longer credibly hold. Put differently, the foundation (that is, Hebrew) of moral and political critique, one produced by the most prominent and capable group of intellectual, internal critics of Zionism in Palestine, collapsed, creating a void that perhaps has not been surmounted since.


Bergmann, Roth and Buber were all committed to Jewish national revival. Their contributions to the Zionist movement are immense. Yet their understanding of Jewish nationalism was based on their adherence to a humanistic and morally driven interpretation of the tradition. These abstract, rather general ideas became challenging, if not impossible to implement in the actual circumstances of Palestine, where Jewish nationalism was revived in the midst of a native Arab population. Even under these circumstances, however, the three thinkers argued that Jewish nationalism should not base itself on the aims characteristic of state-centred nationalism: augmenting power, expanding territory, boosting favourable demography and so on. Indeed, they feared that a Jewish state, whose establishment and maintenance would probably require frequent use of violence given its geopolitical circumstances, could prove itself a great threat to their understanding of Jewish nationalism. Hence, they became members of the group Brit Shalom (founded in 1925), which aspired for a bi-national state in which Jews and Palestinians would preserve their distinct national identities while sharing political institutions.

As discussed above, these scholars considered the Hebrew language an important element through which to advance their particular vision of nationalism, and the Hebrew University was the main abode of that understanding of the language. To be sure, they overestimated the constitutive role of the language (and certainly the role of the university) in Zionism. Moreover, after the establishment of the State of Israel the moral political voice they represented receded into the background of Israel’s public life, and the university gradually became a state institution not only legally and financially but also in its intellectual orientation. Scholars such as Nathan Rotenstreich, Jacob Talmon, Yehoshua Arieli, Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, Benjamin Akzin and the young Shlomo Avineri welcomed the creation of the Jewish nation-state and served in the role of internal critics when necessary, rather than as challengers of the very idea of such a state. Incidentally, except for Eisenstadt, none of them wrote substantially about the Hebrew language, and even he studied the language’s role from a sociological perspective rather than exploring its moral and-philosophical significance.

Perhaps the failure of the early faculty at the Hebrew University to suggest an enduring idea of language-based human goodness and excellence stems in part from the institution’s neglect of citizenship and the role of the Hebrew language in the political context. Roth, as noted, was an exception. The professors were interested in reviving an identity that would preserve the spirit of the Jewish tradition as an essentialist, moral one, not in forming a new Jewish political identity that would seek a synthesis of the tradition with democratic life in a state. In comparison, the liberal arts conception of higher education during the same period perceived universities and colleges as fostering an idea of citizenship in which individuals engage in public conversation and believe in its value. These institutions ought to promote “that unrestricted exchange of ideas within the body politic by which a prosperous intellectual economy is secured,” appreciating that linguistic communication “is the instrument by which human beings are welded into a society, both the living and the living and the living with the dead” (Harvard Committee’s Report). The logic behind this argument is that a profound affinity between a university and a democratic regime could potentially exist: both require open communities of speech or discourse in which all members can participate; pluralism of arguments, opinions and theories; textual canons and shared concepts; and ceaseless, often frustrating, efforts to create a shared world based on linguistic interaction.

At the Hebrew University, the institution as a whole and individual professors mostly championed membership in a national cultural community defined particularly by its language. While they embraced democracy as a system of government, they held on to the notion of the Jew as a morally driven language user without fully grasping the challenges of the times. The university as an institution may not have assisted the student in becoming a political being capable of creating a shared public world (regardless of the national or bi-national nature of the state). Most importantly, perhaps, since the professors discussed above (and others) had, as I have noted, an idea of the Hebrew language as leading intrinsically to moral and idealistic conduct, they did not contribute towards developing a political understanding of the language, which would have demanded cultivating the vocabulary, concepts, repertoire of arguments and textual canons necessary for a language-based idea of citizenship. In fact, the local political community itself, rather than the dispersed organic national one, had to be imagined and given life in words so as to provide it with an opportunity to become a reality. Lastly, citizens needed a language fitting for deliberating judiciously among conflicting ethical and political demands, including the use of violence and its legitimate and illegitimate applications by the state. The outcome of this neglect was that, for the most part, the Israeli citizen was formed outside the university walls and that no significant alternative was offered to the models of human excellence that emerged from other social institutions such as Israeli public schools, youth movements, and especially the Israel Defense Forces within the new state. Since 1948, in any event, the Hebrew language was rarely used again in its own right, and due to its own intrinsic meanings as the foundation for political critique. An entire conception of this language, in fact, disappeared from the landscape of Israeli public and intellectual life.