Between Miracle and Afterthought: Hebrew in MESAAS

My parents, native Israelis with wide and deep ties to the Hebrew language, insisted, always, on maintaining a Hebrew-speaking household in the U.S. so that my two sisters and I might carry on in the world with “a miracle” of a language at our disposal. I remember my father telling me excitedly that, “before 1948, no one made love in Hebrew!” I was fascinated by the thought of a language existing by virtue of some dedicated people carefully applying ancient, known words to their contemporary surroundings. I would imagine them staring at birds or one another in an attempt to string together some sounds and silences that might do justice to a subject’s fullest character.

But studying Hebrew literature in MESAAS has been one long attempt to bend my thinking to accommodate the reality that modern Hebrew literature is a contemporary Middle Eastern affair. Or is it? Hebrew literature and Israeli culture fits into MESAAS geographically; but Hebrew has long been a shared cultural language of the Jews that only in the 20th century became a spoken vernacular in Israel. A question of belonging arises: how does modern Hebrew literature fit into MESAAS when we look beyond basic points of contact, such as the Semitic origins of the Hebrew language or the many centuries of political-Zionist poetry?

The story of the Hebrew language which I eagerly and romantically adopted as a child is problematic, anachronistic and generally incorrect because it presupposes that Hebrew was dormant from the time of its birth as a Semitic language to an ancient Near Eastern people until the State of Israel was ratified in 1948. This view implies that modern Hebrew language has everything to do with a twentieth-century, Jewish political sovereignty in Israel, while neglecting the reality of Hebrew having been a vibrant cultural language throughout its supposed ‘sleep’ until 1948. We should not ignore its rich life as a language in which the Jews of many regions have been educated, practiced religion, communicated, conducted business and trade, wrote and thought.  For example, we might consider the Medieval Hebrew poetry from the Iberian Peninsula, or the 18th century’s German-Jewish journals and literary periodicals which discussed, in Hebrew, the aims of a good and proper Hebrew literature.  As these examples suggest, even before Hebrew became the language of Zionism, it was a meaningful point of contact between the Jews and “their” religio-historical traditions, enabling self-reflexive examinations of the psyche and the full range of possibilities afforded to an active, literary imagination. Hebrew has been a language of political action and national self-actualization, but has also served as a language of literary reflection and abstraction.

And yet in Europe and North America, I find Hebrew to be an ‘afterthought’ in anthologies of Arabic, Turkish, and Persian poetry from the Classical period through the 18th century. It is easy for me to read a twentieth-century Hebrew elegy by Yehuda Amichai alongside American theory about English elegiac forms. In Hebrew literature courses, however, recommended secondary reading lists most often exclude the theorists of other major MESAAS languages such as Hindi, Turkish, Persian- and even other Semitic languages such as Amharic or Arabic.

There is, of course, no comparison, in terms of volume, between Iraqi poetry written in Hebrew and Iraqi poetry composed in Arabic.  Similarities between modern Hebrew and other MESAAS literatures are often abstract. At best, they are manifest in theological parallel or devotional practice expressed in, say, Arabic and Hebrew poetry from a certain century or two, or in linguistic and grammatical structures. There is Palestinian and Arabic language influence in the modern literature, tremendous engagement with the facts of daily life taking place in the Middle East, meditations on the Occupation and poetry of protest. The possibility of a bilingual Hebrew-Arab population exists, but the reality of Israeli-Palestinian writers is bleak: Anton Shammas and, most recently, Sayed Kashua, have left the region.

I do not intend to be glib. It’s just that there is significant difference between Hebrew literatures and other MESAAS literatures, and I contend that this is because modern Hebrew literature is necessarily slanted to a “Jewish” cultural context (“Jewish” being that heavily-negotiated operative word) that spreads over the various host countries in which the Jews have thought and written, and into modern day Israel.

The modern Hebrew that was championed by Jewish intellectuals of the European Enlightenment and refined through Hebrew literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is only now beginning to display its non-European side through its varied responses to contemporary life in Israel and Palestine.

While Hebrew writers in the 21st century still have little to say about Cairo or Beirut, let alone Bamiko or Tabrisi, the presence of Israel in the Middle East demands writers and its scholars to read and become versed in modern Arabic literatures, and consequently, its theorists.

We might examine, for example, the way Israeli poet Ra’aya Harnick relates to Beirut, and the 1982 war in her poem that responds to the death of her son, “I will not offer/ my first born son for sacrifice/ not I.” Harnick offers several entrances to a variety of readings, at once re-appropriating the biblical story of the Binding of Isaac, and blurs the boundaries between personal, collective, physical, spiritual and political trauma. Where do we draw the disciplinary lines?

The ways in which modern Hebrew literature is distinct (and sometimes not so) from the rest of the Middle Eastern languages is a point of tension ripe for exploration. We will benefit from confronting this literary condition and parsing out its many loose ends, allowing each writer to articulate their own origin story and to till their own imaginative fields.

— Edited by Gauri Wagle

About Aviv Becher

Aviv Becher is a second year MA student studying modern Hebrew literature in MESAAS. She is interested in Hebrew liturgical, and war poetry, and is studying modern Arabic language.

7 thoughts on “Between Miracle and Afterthought: Hebrew in MESAAS

  1. One way in which it’s distinct “in the Middle East”, is that it’s the language and literature of a settler colony built on an ongoing genocide. The European Jews that pioneered political Zionism and carried out the Nakba resurrected Hebrew for political purposes; their cultural lives were for the very most part in Yiddish prior to the rise of Zionist settlement in Palestine. Mizrahi Jews who were imported to Israel to replace Palestinian hands in the fields led cultural lives in Arabic, Spanish, etc prior to their absorption into the Zionist settler project. Hebrew for them was largely a religious language. To subsume this classed and raced project in this narrative of supposedly emergent bilingualism, and to allege continuity in modern Hebrew that is prior to, or separate from, the criminal racist Zionist project, is a deeply suspect and very crudely veiled form of historical and intellectual dishonesty.

    1. Open Rafah, your concerns raise some interesting questions for me (and I suspect for other members of the MESAAS community). First, while I recognize the political violence behind Zionism, I do not see the Hebrew language or Hebrew literature as distinctly racist. Just to offer one example to counter this idea that Hebrew is somehow exceptional, consider that the Arabic language has been a major facet of the criminal, racist project of Arabization/Islamization in Sudan since the late 1980s. Similar examples of the violent intersection of nationalism, language, and xenophobia, I am afraid, can be found in Mauritania, Western Sahara, and Eastern Turkey, just to name a few places. Placing the political violence of the Zionist project within a comparative regional frame can acknowledge the structural similarities (and inconsistencies) between different political, ethnic, and national conflicts in the broader Middle East.

      But I am no political scientist. I work on the history of Arabic literature in Sudan and Egypt, and hence, approach Hebrew as an interesting case of language modernization (much like modern Turkish, I think) and decidedly different from the experience of mid- to late-19th century neo-Classicism in the Arabic speaking world. To me, it seems like figures such as Nasif al-Yaziji in Lebanon, Ahmed Shouqi in Egypt, and al-Tijani Yousef Bashir in Sudan, to name just a handful, were all attempting to identify with a literary past as a form of modern revival at a time when Zionist philologists and litterateurs were attempting to free themselves from the archaic and burdensome conventions of ancient Hebrew.

      I would be very interested to hear from colleagues working on Hebrew literature about my above characterization. What was the significance of “tradition” in the modernization of Hebrew? Was there a later – and perhaps nostalgic – return to Hebrew literary tradition? When and what did it look like?

      1. A language is not “racist”, people and their political movements and systems are. The issue at stake is not comparative genealogies of genocide but of the political status of modern linguistic revivals. It’s a somewhat banal and easily acknowledged point that the nation-state involves to varying degrees the construction of national subjects and that central to this hegemony is the positive place and modification of language – Turkey and the construction of the Turk being just one more salient example in the region. My response was to Aviv Becher’s question about the difference specific to Hebrew; I’m arguing that this difference is directly tied to the character of settler-colonialism (that is, settler-capitalism); generalizing ‘the political violence’ behind modern national languages to cover the violence specific to modern Hebrew (a violence that affected Jews before it affected Palestinians) is disingenuous. Hebrew revival, both in its animating motives and its cumulative effects, was of a transformative European and anti-semitic character. This is not a question of scholasticism but of critical political attention; if you read Zionist thinkers even much earlier than the conventional markers of ‘political Zionism’ (qua Harzl, Jabotinsky, etc) and including those invested in ‘cultural Zionism’ including its liberal variants, you’ll find them speaking in transformative and culturalist rather than restorative or traditionalist terms.

  2. Since I was asked to comment: I have a handful of serious reservations about the equivocating, if not normalizing, tenor regarding “Israel” and its related cultural production in this post, but let me set these aside for a second. Aviv Becher raises some good points, but it’s not clear what the alternative archives are that she’s drawing on (or which Max Shmookler refers to) in her argument about continuity between modern Hebrew and pre-Zionist linguistic practices (for one thing I can confidently argue that any pre-19 C century usage differed substantially between European and non-European contexts; between religious and non-religious communities; was sometimes the object of hostility by assimilationists in Western Europe and elsewhere; was grammatically, lexically and syntactically of a substantially different nature, etc). In the absence of a more elaborated genealogy that accounts for this world-scale variety and difference, I have to echo the first comment in this thread. Modern Hebrew was and remains attenuated to a European nationalist and settler colonial project that accepted and internalized European antisemitism; I’m not sure how it can be otherwise as long as this project remains intact. The very idea of proposing a unified and dehistoricized “Hebrew literature” prior to the nineteenth century is a political statement because as far as I know, whatever Hebrew was used up to the eighteenth century was used for religious reasons or perhaps for highly specific and circumscribed cultural projects. It wasn’t the standardized European language of modern Hebrew. It would be interesting to read an intellectual history that provincializes Ben Yehuda and other political Zionists who led the production of modern Hebrew by shedding light on other visions and practices whether in Europe or elsewhere, but in both cases the historical specificity of these practices would have to be cautiously foregrounded within their own local contexts and not interpellated to some overarching linguistic umbrella. That intellectual history (or linguistic history) would be interesting. But that is all it would be. By contrast, collapsing history itself and diluting both linguistic and archival difference through the projection of a singular “Hebrew” simply reproduces Zionist narratives about continuity, and as we all know (I think…), these are deeply racialized narratives. Likewise, I don’t agree with Max Shmookler’s comparison of Hebrew and Arabic or even Hebrew and Turkish, first on linguistic grounds (as I said, I don’t believe there’s anything that qualifies as structural continuity between pre-19th C usages of Hebrew and the standardized, homogenized Modern Hebrew of Ben Yehuda et al which is a radically different language), and second and perhaps most importantly, on political grounds. Comparing Zionism to other nationalisms – however racist and genocidal, by degrees, they have been – is a common red herring among its proponents. As if modern Hebrew was revived by Palestinian Jews and not imposed by white settlers and campaigners through the British Mandate as part of the systematic theft, expulsion, displacement and mass murder of Palestinian Arabs — what Max Shmookler glosses as the “political violence behind Zionism” . The centrality of modern Hebrew to the Zionist project is worlds apart from the relationship between any other modern language and the imaginaries of development and nationalism that accompanied it, including the Turkish case. There is also the somewhat pertinent fact that “the violence behind Zionism” which is really the violence OF Zionism, is a violence still ongoing as we speak. I’m not sure that the American war machine that is the Jewish supremacist outpost called ‘Israel’ needs to have any kind of geographical or linguistic place – nevermind an equivocated one – in MESAAS or elsewhere. The best service that can be done to Hebrew as a language is to disaggregate its pre-modern archives entirely from its modern and contemporary usurpers. Good luck.

  3. I appreciate these comments and reflections, especially for the ways in which a central concern of mine has become increasingly evident: did I lose the right to read Hebrew literature because Modern Hebrew language is uniquely “directly tied to the character of settler-colonialism” ? Does everyone who reads Hebrew literature support a nationalist and settler colonial project that continues to accept and internalize European antisemitism? The answer to both these questions is, of course, “no”. Modern Hebrew literature does exist. It is not always political and does not always need to be read for its politics. Hebrew literature is worthy of literary-scholarly and critical-political attention alike. The two are not mutually exclusive.

    The comments to this piece focus almost entirely on the dangers of treating Modern Hebrew literature as any other MESAAS language. These messages of caution culminate in Sarah’s wondering whether or not Hebrew should have a right to exist at all. I suggest we consider that training scholars of Hebrew literature in departments like MESAAS ensures that studies of contemporary Hebrew literature will not lose sight of Hebrew language’s revival process nor of this process’ political status. Not training scholars of Hebrew literature at all, because Hebrew language and its Israeli context is a Jewish supremacist outpost for the American war machine, or directing these scholars to more insular departments of Jewish Studies, both neglects political issues that need attention and potentially rejects the very life of a language, its authors and its readers. There must be room to study Hebrew literature. Where else does study of modern Hebrew literature belong?

  4. In response to Aviv Becher’s statement that “Hebrew literature and Israeli culture fits into MESAAS geographically;”, this is what I said:

    “I’m not sure that the American war machine that is the Jewish supremacist outpost called ‘Israel’ needs to have any kind of geographical or linguistic place – nevermind an equivocated one – in MESAAS or elsewhere. The best service that can be done to Hebrew as a language is to disaggregate its pre-modern archives entirely from its modern and contemporary usurpers. Good luck.”

    I did not wonder “whether or not Hebrew should have a right to exist at all.” (I have no clue what a “right to exist” is, nor how it can be given/withdrawn or by what particular agent in this idiom) nor did I suggest that the study of Hebrew or Hebrew literature of any variety should not be conducted in MESAAS. I said that “Israel” and “Israeli culture” need not be normalized as such in order for these studies to be carried out (one of my research languages happens to be Hebrew, and I have for years been an avid consumer of Israeli cultural production). The project Aviv Becher gestured towards and which I caution against, is precisely the project of treating modern Hebrew as an ahistorical language continuous with pre-Zionist cultural production, and of treating the undifferentiated category of “Israeli” writers as ones who “belong geographically” in MESAAS. What I am suggesting is precisely that those who study modern Hebrew language and literature do so critically and not normatively. That begins by recognizing the historical specificity of modern Hebrew and its political status — not searching for continuity by collapsing politics altogether.

    1. In response to Sarah: Do you evaluate every art form in historical or political context? I would argue that any art form should have it’s own life and can definitely be evaluated almost a vacuum.

      Both your comments are severely tainted by your very obvious political views, and are based on quite a few wrong historical assumptions. One example can be “as I said, I don’t believe there’s anything that qualifies as structural continuity between pre-19th C usages of Hebrew and the standardized, homogenized Modern Hebrew of Ben Yehuda et al which is a radically different language” or “As if modern Hebrew was revived by Palestinian Jews and not imposed by white settlers and campaigners through the British Mandate as part of the systematic theft, expulsion, displacement and mass murder of Palestinian Arabs ” – both may be great political arguments or intellectual exercises but are factually inaccurate to say the list.

      And while you are stating that you “did not wonder whether or not Hebrew should have a right to exist at all” tends to hide a deeper intention of just that. Saying that “one of my research languages happens to be Hebrew, and I have for years been an avid consumer of Israeli cultural production” sounds very close to “some of my best friends are Jews”. It seems to me that your arguments (the unsubstantiated ones) tend to hide mostly a political agenda. Good Luck.

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