Jewish identity and language politics: Hebrew, Yiddish and the contemporary debate on Zionism

The following is a section of my dissertation for my MA in Cultural Studies, which I completed in 2016 at SOAS, University of London.

There are aspects of it that I would have re-written today. I haven’t published it anywhere, so if anyone’s interested in doing so let me know. I would be willing to do further work on it depending on the requirements.

Note: for privacy reasons, I have not included Appendix II and III even though they’re referenced in the essay.


This dissertation discusses the conflictual relationship between Hebrew and Yiddish in the context of Jewish debates on Zionism and Diasporism. It explores the historical Kulturkampf, the ‘culture struggle’, between these two worldviews in modern Jewish thought and its lasting impact on Jewish identity. In particular, it explores the rise of Hebrew as a formerly ‘dead’ language to its status as the necessary ‘old-new’ language needed to form a new identity. Using various theorists writing on nationalism and diasporism, I argue that the rise of Zionism happened in unique conditions, leading it to forcefully embrace contradictions which put the movement in a perpetual state of instability and unease. Furthermore, I explore the importance of Yiddish in Jewish diasporic identity, the role it is playing today in Jewish opposition to Israel and what this means for the politics of internationalism.


In January of 1945, a well-known heroine of the anti-Nazi resistance in the Vilna ghetto, Ruzhka Korchack, was invited to a conference in what would become Israel to speak about her experience fighting the Nazis. Being a Jew from Lithuania, she spoke the language of Eastern European Jews: Yiddish. While her speech was well-received by the audience, another speaker came after her and complained of the language she spoke in, calling it “a foreign, grating language” in Hebrew (Harshav, 1993). So shocked were members of the audience, that that speaker was “prevented from finishing his speech by outrage in the auditorium” (Nelsen, 2006, p.145). This becomes all the more surprising when it is revealed that the man who seemed obsessed with an anti-Nazi Jewish partisan fighter’s choice of language, her native language and that of millions of Ashkenazi (of European origins) Jews, was none other than David Ben Gurion, Israel’s primary founder and first Prime Minister. Even more troubling is the fact that Ben Gurion, born David Grün in Płońsk, Poland, was himself a native Yiddish speaker. 

Ben Gurion wasn’t the only Zionist to have held such a negative view of the Yiddish language, or indeed even an exception. In his seminal book on the history of the Yiddish language ‘Words on Fire: the Unfinished Story of Yiddish’, Lithuanian-American scholar Dovid Katz argues that “the leaders of the Jewish settlement in Palestine and then Israel who succeeded in building the renewed Jewish state were almost unanimously driven to eradicate what they considered the greatest cultural threat to their plans: the third major language of Jewish history, Yiddish – their mother tongue” (Katz, 2004, p.237). So common was the conflict between the Hebraists, those advocating for the Hebrew language, and Yiddishists, those advocating for the Yiddish language, which often translated as Zionism versus anti-Zionism/Diasporism, that some scholars like the Israeli-American literary critic Hillel Halkin called it “one of the great Kulturkampf, the non-violent civil wars, of Jewish history” (Halkin, 2002). This provides us with an introduction to the first part of this thesis: contextualizing the historical debate between the Hebraists and the Yiddishists. To put it in the format of a question: Why choose a formerly ‘dead’ language, Hebrew, instead of the language of the majority of Jews before the Holocaust, Yiddish?

Language played a crucial role in defining the Zionist ideal. Many of those involved in advocating for Yiddish as a recognized language of the Jewish people saw their opponents as those advocating Hebrew as the sole language of the Jewish people, and vice versa. Given the context of pre-World War II politics, this also meant a certain intersection between these debates and debates on capitalism and socialism as well as diasporism, nationalism and internationalism. But what of today? What does the language Kulturkampf mean for contemporary debates on Zionism, and what do they allow us to conclude and how are they, or how can they be, used by Jewish activists in Israel and, especially, in the diaspora in the West who are struggling for justice in Israel-Palestine today? These questions give us a preview of the second part of this thesis. 

The aim of this thesis, therefore, is twofold: to trace the historical context of the conflictual relationship between Yiddish and Hebrew in debates surrounding Zionism and Jewish Identity in order to explore their relation within a politics of diasporism and internationalism today. 

The Great Kulturkampf

Linguistic Fascism in the Land of Zion

Ben-Gurion’s reaction to Korchack’s speech in Yiddish reflected a much wider phenomenon within the Zionist movement and then Israeli society with respect to Yiddish. Halkin recounts how, in his youth, his father got angry at a Jewish woman because she was speaking Yiddish. Halkin later understood that his father’s bitterness was part of a “language war between Hebrew and Yiddish, itself part of the great cultural and political conflict between Zionism and ‘Diasporism’ that sundered the Jewish world in the first decades of the 20th century, and that ended only when an even greater conflict left the European Diaspora in ruins beside a newborn state of Israel” (Halkin, 2002). He learned from his father that Yiddish, while “admitted to our home every morning with the milk bottles like a servant given the run of the house,” (Halkin, 2002) was his enemy despite the fact that multilingualism was a reality to most Jews in Palestine: “Jews of multiple professions and origins, and of differing relationships to the Zionist movement, found themselves in a society where the reality of multilingualism and language contact was persistent, inescapable, and in need of negotiation” (Halperin, 2015, p.5). 

This anti-Yiddish attitude translated itself into what Israeli scholar Avi Lang called “linguistic fascism in the land of Zion” (Lang, 2015). Lang notes that “family lore in most Ashkenazi households in Israel will almost inevitably include stories of grandparents and great-grandparents experiencing discrimination whenever they spoke Yiddish in the streets of 1940s and 1950s Tel Aviv” which included being “hit or spat at” (Lang, 2015). The American Yiddish scholar and translator Yehoash, who moved to Palestine in 1913, wrote in 1923 that “Yiddish [in Tel Aviv] is taboo. To speak Yiddish in public requires the utmost courage” (Yehoash, 1923, p.37; Kahan, 2016). And a flier in (ironically) Yiddish distributed in the late 1930s read: “Learn Hebrew! Every Jew in Palestine, whether he has just come or whether he is a longstanding resident, must speak and conduct all his business in the old-new language of the Jewish people: Hebrew” (Halperin, 2015, p.1). Even more notable was the presence of organizations dedicated to enforcing the Hebrew language on the streets of Palestine such as the “Battalion of the Defenders of the Hebrew Language” in the 1920s, the ‘Organization for the Enforcement of Hebrew” in the 1930s, the “Central Council for the Enforcement of Hebrew” in the 1940s as well as the “Cultural Committee of the Jewish National council” (Halperin, 2015, p.10; Helman, 2002, pp. 259-382). This confirms Hebrew and Arabic literature scholar Lital Levy’s assertion that “one could say that it was not even the state that created the language so much as the language that created the state”, making “the story of Modern Hebrew exceptional in the audacity of its vision and forcefulness of its realization” (Levi, 2014, p.27). Hebrew was not just a component of the Zionist state-building project, but one of its fundamental tenets.

In such an environment, it is no wonder that Yiddish in Israel today is, in the words of Israeli scholar and critic of Hebrew literature Gershon Shaked, “a dead language, used mostly in homes for the elderly and as a literary language by a few Holocaust survivors” (Shaked quoted in Grossman, 2000, p.10), although Shaked’s assertion was questioned by Yiddish scholar Dov-Ber Kerler as deeply problematic: “It remains [..] incomprehensible why the Yiddish-speaking inhabitants of homes for the elderly and the allegedly few Yiddish reading and writing Holocaust survivors should be buried alive by one of the leading experts on modern Hebrew literature” (Kerler, 1998, p.2). That being said, we can safely say that Yiddish today no longer holds the same centrality to (Ashkenazi) Jewish life as it did less than a century ago. But is this anti-Yiddish attitude, expressed here by Shaked, ‘incomprehensible’ as Kerler suggests? 

The Bund’s Diasporism versus the Zionists’ Nationalism

The conflict described as between Zionism and what Hillel and others call Diasporism can be indeed traced to the early decades of the 20th century when a dominant force within European Jewish politics was the largely Yiddish-speaking, largely anti-Zionist or non-Zionist, Jewish Labour Bund Movement, also known as the Bundists. When Bundists’ attitude towards the Hebrew language are examined, one thing comes across as striking: Bundists, American Jewish scholar Ezra Mendelsohn writes, were often “leftists [who] were likely to attack the holy language [Hebrew] as a tool of reactionary, obscurantist clerics” (Mendelsohn, 1993, p.17). Not only was the Bund movement associated with the global left at the time, it was in fact “one of the most important leftwing Jewish political organizations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries” (Mendes, 2013).

As David Slucki wrote for the Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, “the Bund was democratic-socialist, and was committed to fostering a Jewish secular culture that was rooted in Yiddish, the language most widely spoken by the Jews of Eastern Europe” (Slucki, 2010, p.350). The Bundist concept of ‘doikayt’, a Yiddish word meaning ‘here-ness’, was crucial in that it “called on Jews to foster Jewish culture wherever they live” (Slucki, 2010, p351). It can be argued that ‘doikayt’ was one of two ways of tackling the ‘Jewish question’, meaning the question of European antisemitism, that did not involve full assimilation. Mendelsohn writes: “Where is the Jewish question to be solved? The obvious answer was ‘here’ (in the lands of the Jewish dispersion), and not ‘there’ (in Palestine or in some other territory set aside for the Jews)” (Mendelsohn, 1993, p.10). But other Jewish thinkers saw the answer to the Jewish question as one which cannot be ‘here’. Their advocacy of a necessary ‘there-ness’ came to be known as Zionism. 

Highlighting Bundist-Zionist tensions seem all the more relevant given that both the Jewish Labour Bund and the First Zionist Congress were launched at the same time: 1897. The date is not coincidental: it came 3 years after the beginning of the now-infamous ‘Dreyfus Affair’ which lasted until 1906. The injustice imposed on Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish descent wrongfully accused of treason, is credited as being one of the factors which influenced Theodor Herzl, the political founder of the Zionist movement “which found [in the ‘Dreyfus Affair’] fertile ground for its emergence” (Morris, 1999, p.29). His position was expressed in his famous 1896 ‘The Jewish State’ pamphlet as such: “[I]f France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated” (Herzl quoted in Drouin, 2006). In other words, to Herzl and subsequent Zionists the only answer to the ‘Jewish question’ was emigration to another land and building a Jewish state there. 

We see the differences between class-oriented Bundism and nationalist-oriented Zionism early on. For example, the Bund defended the Palestinian riots of 1929 as an “anti-colonial uprising, rather than as anti-Semitic, as had been depicted by Zionists” (Aviram, 2012). Even the Bundists who ended up going to Israel-Palestine seemed to have done so out of necessity rather than conviction. As a 90 year old former Jewish Labour Bund member Yitzhak Luden said in a Yiddish Community Center in Tel Aviv in 2012: “I came to Israel in 1948 not as a Zionist, but as someone fleeing war-torn Europe […] and the few Bundists who came made clear our political position in support of Palestinians, and for a one state solution” (Luden quoted in Aviram, 2012). Today, with the exceptions of some small pockets in Europe, North America, Australia and Israel, the Bund, closely tied to the fate of Yiddish culture in general, is all but forgotten, “recognized by only small numbers of Jews and progressives (Mendes, 2013).”

Zionism’s ‘Other’: Contradictions and Paradoxes 

Whereas, similarly to other nationalisms, the “construction and development of a new Zionist Jewish identity also necessitated the presence of others to relate to” (Mendel and Ranta, 2016, p.8) as Yonathan Mendel and Ronald Ranta point out, the choice of which group to emulate and which group to discard will seem counterintuitive to us today. Indeed, the diaspora Jew, the Jew facing antisemitism in the West, was viewed as “culturally stagnant, passive and backward” whereas the European Gentile, the very source of the antisemitism that prompted Jews to turn to Zionism as a solution in the first place, “was viewed as antagonistic, but whom Zionists wished to resemble culturally” (Mendel and Ranta, 2016, p.8). Putting it in a different way, the oppressor was to be emulated while the oppressed was to be discarded as a weak and dying breed. This even took an extreme form with the idea of Jews dying in the Holocaust “like sheep to the slaughter” (Boteach, 2014) which endured, and especially in Israel itself (Retter, 2016; Cohen, 2013, p.266; Beit-Zvi, 1991).

One can argue that such attitudes were to be expected given the obsession with strength associated with early Zionism. Indeed, confronting the perceived ‘weakness’ of the Diaspora Jew was the idea of the ‘Sabra’, named after a desert cactus, the name used to describe all Jews born in Israel, around 70% of Israel’s Jewish population today (Ynet, 2010). Instead of being “weak and effeminate” like the Diaspora Jew, the Sabra Israeli Jew would be “an ideal of Jewish muscular masculinity” (Haywood and Ghaill, 2003, p.89). Some Zionists even suggested replacing the ‘weak’ word ‘Jew’ with the stronger-sounding ‘Hebrew man’ (Løkkegaard, Keck, Søndergaard and Wulff, 1990, p.399) reflecting the idea of “the creation of a New Hebrew Man as the driving force behind future settler-colonization of Palestine” (Masalha, 2014, p.39). This relation with masculinity will be discussed in the second section, and in particular how it’s being challenged today, as it points to the fact that “Zionism was not only a political project but also a sexual one” and, Israeli scholar Raz Yosef argues, “the main goal of the Zionist ideology was to redeem the Jews from their former representations and normalize the Jewish male body” (Suissa, 2010).

Redeeming the Jews required an ‘other’ through which Zionists could build and mold their own identity, not unlike how Europeans ‘othered’ the ‘Orient’ or the ‘East’ as explored by Edward Said in his seminal book ‘Orientalism’. That ‘other’ varied with time but nonetheless followed what Aziza Khazzoom called “the great chain of orientalism” (Khazzoom quoted in Mendel and Ranta, 2003, p.8). We see the construction of ‘the other’ in the following way: “Zionist Jews orientalised and essentialised the Ostjuden Jews (Jews from the Pale settlement) followed by the orientalisation of the Mizrahi Jews [Middle Eastern Jews], by among others Ostjuden, whom they encountered in Palestine/Israel; and finally in their process of becoming a ‘Western’ ‘European’ society, which participates in the Eurovision song contest and whose football teams compete in the European champions league, Jewish Israelis – Ashkenazi but also Mizrahi – could only become truly ‘western’ by orientalising the Arab-Palestinian people” (Khazzoom quoted in Mendel and Ranta, 2003, p.8). 

Arab Jewish scholar Ella Shohat reflected on this contradiction inherent to Zionism: rather than the supposed centrality of ‘the notion of a return to origins in the Middle East’, the paradox embodied in the State of Israel is that it is ‘ideologically and geopolitically oriented almost exclusively toward the West’ (Shohat, 1999, p.7). In other words, rather than “‘end a diaspora’ characterized by ritualistic nostalgia for the East” (Shohat, 1999, p.7), Zionism produced a state of permanent hostility towards the ‘East’. Just as the “denial of the Black self” could be argued to be necessary for the “embracement of the fabricated racial identity of the White Other” (Shahinaj, 2016) so did the denial of the Diaspora Jew (and the Arab, Jewish or not) anticipated and helped the creation of the Sabra man.

Erasing Palestine and ‘Hebraizing’ the Land: Building an ‘Image of Antiquity’ with the ‘Old-New’ Language

Furthermore, and especially for our purposes, the role of language in fostering national identity has been extensively documented and has been the subject of significant scholarly literature. In his analysis of nationalism, British historian Eric Hobsbawm famously declared that “nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not so” (Hobsbawm, 2012, p.12) and in order to cement the required belief, a common language served as a central ideological building block. This can be taken for granted if we accept the weak form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that “language not only reflects reality, but it also affects reality and makes changes to it” (Iwamoto, 2005, p. 105), a phenomenon we see at play in Benedict Anderson’s analysis of how print-languages, via print-capitalism, lead to, or greatly facilitated, the development of national consciousness (Anderson, 1983, pp.56-57).

This brings us to why Hebrew was ‘chosen’ over Yiddish as the language of Zionism and, within Zionist historiography, the true language of the Jewish people. Beyond its practicality as the lingua franca of a multilingual world jewry, Hebrew was also argued by Hebraists that it would allow Jews to start anew. Since they are changing their lives radically in order to build a new one in a new land, they argued, wouldn’t it make sense to have a ‘new’ language with it? And what could be more appropriate than the ‘old-new’ language of Hebrew, which can serve as both a link to a mythical past and the needs of the present, ‘building an image of antiquity’ as Anderson put it (Anderson, 1983, p.57). Indeed, this was seen at all social levels in the Yishuv (pre-Israel Jews in Palestine). “For some, the use of Hebrew on labels of products for export would constitute an important step in demonstrating to Jews and non-Jews abroad the image of the new Hebrew man in place of the persecuted Jew” (Halperin, 2014, p.87). “For early Israel,” Lang writes, “Yiddish stank of the ghetto; it was the demotic of the persecuted, the victim, the murdered” (Lang, 2015) in contrast to the ‘strong’ Hebrew-speaking Sabra. We see the contrast in perception between a ‘weak Yiddish’, now associated with the Holocaust and a defeated past, and a ‘strong Hebrew’, now associated with Zionism and a new beginning.

This is an important point worth developing further because this new identity, that of the ‘new Jew’ required certain pre-conditions to exist in addition to the existence/creation of an ‘Other’. Israeli historian Shlomo Sand writes that “to achieve their aim, the Zionists needed to erase existing ethnographic textures, forget specific histories, and take a flying leap backward to an ancient, mythological and religious past” (Sand, 2009, p.255). This did not just involve the hegemony of the Hebrew language as the sole language of the Jewish people, but it notably included the practice of archeology in the service of the nation state. As Edward Said wrote in his ‘Freud and the non-European’ (2003), “we will find that when Jewish identity has been consecrated by the establishment of Israel, it is the science of archeology that is summoned to the task of consolidating that identity in secular time; the rabbis, as well as the scholars specializing in ‘biblical archaeology’, are given sacred history as their domain” (Said, 2003, p.45). Said concludes: “thus archeology becomes the royal road to Jewish-Israeli identity, one in which the claim is repeatedly made that in the present-day land of Israel the Bible is materially realized thanks to archaeology, history is given flesh and bones, the past is recovered and put in dynastic order” (Said, 2003, p.46).

In addition, the new identity had to be consolidated through the national education system. For example, the way Palestine is portrayed in Israeli School books is one in which the very existence of a historical Palestine is denied, a fact which parallels the way in which archeology is used. In her 2012 study “Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education”, Nurit Peled-Elhanan argued that the textbooks she studied “harness the past to the benefit of the Israeli policy of expansion, whether they were published during leftist or right-wing [education] ministries” (Peled-Elhanan, 2012, p.224). She discovered that, despite analyzing dozens of textbooks, she could not find a single “photograph of a human being who is Palestinian” (Peled-Elhanan quoted in AlternateFocus, 2011). Instead, all that can be found are Palestinians as “the problems and threats Israel considers them to be”, portrayed as “terrorists, face-covered figures; or as primitive farmers; or in racist cartoons” (Peled-Elhanan quoted in AlternateFocus, 2011). This policy can be seen as part of the wider ethnic cleansing of Palestine from its inhabitants which reached its peak in the 1948 ‘Nakba’, or catastrophe in Arabic, the date Israel declared independence and which saw the mass expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians into neighboring lands and countries. 

I can personally confirm Peled-Elhana’s assessment after taking the ‘Modern Hebrew Language: Elementary’ (Appendix I) course at SOAS this year. Analyzing the ‘Hebrew from Scratch: Part 1’ textbook is beyond the scope of this essay, but looking at the maps alone is very revealing for the simple reason that, according to the Israeli Ministry of Education, “schools will choose textbooks for their students exclusively from the list of approved textbooks” (Israeli Education Ministry, 2016). In other words, the maps shown are government-approved. In the six instances in which the map of what should officially be the State of Israel and the State of Palestine is shown, the latter is completely absent (Appendix I). In page 71 of the textbook, one can see Jericho and the Mount of Olives, both in the Israeli-occupied West Bank (Playfair, 1992, p.396), as well as Jerusalem (no nuance is made between the Israeli West of Jerusalem and the Palestinian East) as part of Israeli territory, and the Gaza strip is absent altogether (Appendix I). When compared to an official map of the region (Appendix I), the differences are striking. Indeed, the maps give the impression that Palestine never existed and, by extension, neither did Palestinians, echoing Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s now-infamous statement that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” (Meir quoted in Caplan, 2010). This line, incidentally, has been repeated many times within both American and Israeli Zionist discourse (AP, 2011; Brinker, 2015; AFP, 2016). 

This need to deny Palestinian-ness should be understood as part of Zionism’s inherent ‘obsession’ with demographics. This means that while the ‘product’ of Palestinian-ness can be utilized, it can only be done by denying its origins. Israeli scholars Haim Yacobi and Hadas Shadar even argue that we can see this principle in Jewish-Zionist imagining of ‘the Arab village’: “the Arab village, we would argue, became an object, a source of colonial imagination in the Israeli architectural culture, which sought the ‘local’ in order to establish a national identity, without associating it with its creator, the Arab society” (Yacobi and Shadar, 2014). To this day, we see the effects of this ‘Judaizing’ principle. For example, the ‘Israel Land Fund’, which erases both Gaza and the West Bank on its website (Israel Land Fund, 2016), encourages purchasing properties in (Arab-majority) East Jerusalem “for the purpose of settling Jews there” (Prusher, 2013). The politics of ‘Judaizing’ the land lead to scholars such as Oren Yiftachel describing Israel as an ‘ethnocracy’, a phenomenon he described in three political-historical processes: “the formation of a (colonial) settler society; the mobilizing power of ethno-nationalism; and the ‘ethnic logic’ of capital”  (Yiftachel, 1999, p.365). 

Again, we see the discriminatory and demographics-obsessed policies of Zionism at play. As Fouad Moughrabi and Munir Akash noted, “the settler-colonial quality of the Zionist movement is no where better illustrated than in Jerusalem and vicinity. The process of disposession, displacement, dismemberment, disenfranchisement and dispersal, which was savagely applied to the Palestinians in 1948, was reenacted systematically after 1967. For Jerusalem and its surroundings, the objective was to create a huge Jewish metropolis that would disrupt the existing territorial continuity of the West Bank and preempt any sovereign existence for the Palestinians’ (Moughrabi and Akash, 2005, p.131). Indeed, the Israeli governmnent’s policy could be seen as an extension of its ‘Judaization’ or ‘Hebraicization’. As Lital Levy writes, “in tandem with its policy of expropriating Palestinian lands, the state systematically Hebraicized the nation through policies of renaming and through Hebrew signage, a policy she called “a translational cartography that masked the pricess of converting historic Palestine into the new State of Israel” (Levy, 2014, pp.49-50). 

As for why Yiddish couldn’t serve the role of ‘Yiddishizing’ the land, it may have to do with the fact that Yiddish did not have this ‘old-new’ property that Hebrew did which allowed it to build a new identity from the ‘ancient, mythological and religious past’ discussed above. Indeed, in the eyes of Zionists, Yiddish could only be ‘old’, a characteristic which, paradoxically, makes it attractive to many Ashkenazi Jews seeking alternatives to Zionist hegemony today as we’ll see in the next section. Finally, the repercussions of the Yiddish-Hebrew Kulturkampf can still be seen to this day and reveals some interesting implications for the future of Jewish politics, particularly among Jews in the USA, the UK and Israel, beyond, but not separate to, its original ideological battles.

Contemporary Context

A New Kulturkampf? Zionism versus Diasporism Today

In 2009, the Moses Mendelssohn Centre in Berlin hosted a conference entitled ‘European Jewry: A New Jewish Centre in the Making?’. In it, two possible future for Western Jews were listed: Diasporism, “which sees European Jewry as cosmopolitan and outward-looking, comprising an autonomous cluster of very diverse, mainly city-based centres of Jewish life, which are experiencing a dynamic revival of Jewish cultural activity,” or Cultural Zionism, which “acknowledges Israel as the centre of Jewish life and the only source of spiritual, cultural and religious inspiration that can unite the Jewish people in a Europe that has become increasingly hostile to Jews and Israel” (Lerman, 2009). We can even say that these two competing alternatives represent a modern Kulturkampf, though not by any means the only one. Fundamentally, the two positions differ greatly on the relationship between Jews and non-Jews (goyim). Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) recently wrote: “I maintain that […] [Diaspora Jews] created a situation in which the goy can be my father and my mother and my son and my partner. The goy [in the West] is not hostile but embracing. And as a result, what emerges is a Jewish experience of integration, not separation. Not segregation. I find those things lacking [in Israel]. Here the goy is what he was in the ghetto: confrontational and hostile” (Burg quoted in Arkush, 2009).

Just as Zionism had to ‘embrace’ a number of contradictions to survive in uncertain conditions, so do many Jews rejecting Zionism today. Avi Lang described this as “semiotic dichotomy” which, he argues, “has led so many left-wing Jews in recent years to embrace the study of Yiddish” (Lang, 2015). The logic behind this is relatively straightforward: Just as Hebrew became synonymous with Zionism and the creation of a ‘new Jew’ in what ended up becoming the only Jewish State, so did Yiddish come to represent the language of anti-Zionism and Jewish diasporism, often entering the realm of internationalism. So what Yiddish really ‘is’ – debateable, in any case – is not as pertinent as how it is perceived by a growing number of young and disillusioned left-leaning Jews. This is why, for many, learning Yiddish is a political statement of defiance. “Yiddish has come to represent the opposite [of what Modern Hebrew represents]”, Lang continues. “While Hebrew is the language of a nation, Yiddish is the language of the diaspora; where Hebrew is the language of power, Yiddish is the language of pacifism, and where Hebrew stands for Zionism, Yiddish stands for internationalism” (Lang, 2015). 

The Growing Rift between Israeli and American Jews

The recent phenomenon of (non-Orthodox) Ashkenazi Jews learning Yiddish is in many ways the result of a growing rift between the Israeli government’s policies and the politics of primarily young American Jews, the country with the largest population of Ashkenazi Jews (exceeding Israel’s Ashkenazi population). If we compare trends in Israeli politics with the progressive tendency among young American Jews, we notice striking differences. A 2013 Pew Research Center Study showed that 25 percent of young American Jews argue that the United States is far too supportive of the Israeli government, which is higher than the national average of 22 percent (Liu, 2013). Furthermore, when, in 2003, a pollster was hired by several prominent Jewish philanthropists “to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel” he was shocked to discover that “these Jewish youth used the word ‘they’ [to refer to Israel] rather than ‘us’” (Beinart, 2010). This was correlated by studies by Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis and Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College which concluded that “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders” (Kelman and Cohen quoted in Beinart, 2010). In his analysis of that study, political commentator Beinart concludes: “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead” (Beinart, 2010). 

While its domestic policy is often criticized – although ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ depends on whether one considers the Occupation of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank as external government policy or as an extension of domestic policy – it is Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank that has provoked the largest Jewish opposition. Indeed, Netanyahu’s government has been accused by many American Jews of turning even more to the political Right in recent years, now commonly called the “most right-wing nationalist government” in the State’s history (Beaumont, 2016a), which includes notorious politicians such as Avigdor Lieberman, founder of the right-wing nationalist party “Yisrael Beiteinu” or “Israel is Our Home” known for his anti-Arab remarks, including against Israel’s own Palestinian citizens (Haaretz Editorial, 2014).

The growing rift between American Jews and the State of Israel was highlighted during the 2016 American presidential race. As many commentators have noted, the only major Jewish candidate was largely credited with having the most progressive positions on Israel-Palestine of either parties (Gautney, 2016; The Conversation, 2016). Indeed, Bernie Sanders, “the most successful Jewish presidential candidate in American history” (Rosenberg, 2016) was the only candidate among Democrats and Republicans not go to the highly mediatized American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 conference because “he apparently saw little benefit in appearing at a forum that features few of his progressive constituents and might not be receptive to his positions on Israel” (LoBianco and Diamond, 2016). A reporter for CNN wrote that Sanders “upended a long-standing tenet of American politics: that unflinching support for Israel is non-negotiable” (Diamond, 2016). David Katz, Dean of Labor Studies at National Labor College and member of the ‘Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’ group, recently penned an article attributing Sanders’ progressivism to what he called ‘Yiddish Socialism’ (Katz, 2016). 

Another striking point is how often ads produced by the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption are criticized by the American Jewish community. In 2011, the Ministry released an ad “intended to tug at the heartstrings of Israelis living outside the Jewish state” but instead provoked outrage for its hostile depiction of relationship between Jews and non-Jews (NationalPost, 2011). The ad showed a girl talking to her grandparents in Israel in Hebrew when her grandmother asked what holiday it is. To everyone’s disappointment, she replied ‘Christmas’ despite having a Hannukah menorah in the background. The message is clear: Israeli Jews outside of the state of Israel forget what it means to be Jewish and can only be reminded by going back. This belief is perfectly exemplified by the word used to describe Jews immigrating to Israel, namely Aliyah which means ‘ascent’ in Hebrew. Jews who leave Israel to settle elsewhere are said to make Yerida, or descent. Taken literally, this would mean that any Jew not living in the land of Israel is at a lower level than those who do. When comparing this hostility towards the Jewish diaspora with Burg’s statement that in the West, the goy is embracing, the difference is striking.

This anti-diasporism was further explored in a documentary by Israeli-French director Eyal Sivan entitled “Izkor, Slaves of Memory”, an excerpt of which is available online (‘Eyal Sivan’s Films’, 2013). One synopsis of the documentary reads: “In Israel during the month of April feast days and celebrations take place one after another. School children of all ages prepare to pay tribute to their country’s past. The collective memory becomes a terribly efficient tool for the training of young minds” (Paul, 2010). Sivan takes us through the Israeli education system from the very young up to the time students graduate and join the Israeli army. Throughout their education, we see the constant presence of a ‘fear’ that is being reproduced in each history class, the fear of the state of diaspora. The teacher featured in the excerpt tells her students that only by ‘ascending’/immigrating to Israel can Jews find freedom. Here, we see history being used to serve the purpose of ‘nation-building’ by going back to this ‘ancient, mythological and religious past’. By combining Sivan’s documentary with Peled-Elhana’s scholarship, we can see what Khazzoom called the ‘great chain of orientalism’, and in particular the ‘othering’ or denial of Palestinian-ness, as well as the need to ‘other-ize’ or deny the importance of diasporist culture as inherent components of the Zionist settler-colonial project which continues to this day.

Diasporism and the Potential for Radical Politics: The Case of Alternative Hebrew Schools

A group I would argue is aware of the politics of the Hebrew language and is attempting to struggle against what it views as its current dominant oppressive dimension is the Tel Aviv-based ‘This is not an ulpan’ (TINAU) group. The name itself reveals a lot given the fact that the ulpan, an institute or school dedicated to the intensive study of Hebrew and, for Jewish immigrants to Palestine, “acted as a first step toward navigating their way through a foreign country and integrating into a new society” (Seltz, 2016), a role it still serves today. Indeed, according to the group’s website, “we don’t learn Hebrew, we learn in Hebrew” (This is Not an Ulpan, 2012). What they mean by that is that they advocate learning Hebrew as a language stripped of its usual compulsive ideological component. When I interviewed one of TINAU’s co-founders, Daniel Roth, he explains simply that “this refers to the idea that each of our classes is ‘about something else.’ So, for example, we will learn about Israeli politics in Hebrew, thereby learning about politics and gaining experience listening, reading and debating in Hebrew” (Roth, 2016). 

These Hebrew-language schools challenging the Zionist narrative are relatively new which explains why scholarship on the topic is still light. But the phenomenon has been picked up by a number of publications and websites. In an article published in June of 2016, +972mag published an article entitled “the new Hebrew language schools challenging Zionist narratives” which centers around TINAU. In it, Roth explains that he was looking for an alternative to the typical ulpan method of learning Hebrew because “they were not critical at all towards nationalistic narratives or what’s happening in the society. We wanted to shape society and not just the learner” (Roth quoted in Selz, 2016). TINAU itself adopts a critical pedagogic approach which means “small classes, anti-authoritarian teaching, and critical content” inspired by “postmodern linguistics” (Selz, 2016). Interestingly, TINAU also gives classes in Arabic, one of which is a course named ‘Navigating Jerusalem’ and is “inherently political, partly taught while walking though the city” (Selz, 2016). The article, interviewing several teachers and students, repeatedly emphasizes the importance of postmodern linguistics and, namely, the impact it has on revealing the politics of language. As Daniel Roth told me: “Learning Hebrew, Arabic and about the cultures of this place and the peoples who call it home through a critical lens necessarily means challenging and breaking down the frameworks for education and society that diminish human potential, freedom, and equality, while raising up the frameworks for education and society that make us all more free” (Appendix II). 

This critical pedagogic approach is also used by the London-based, TINAU-inspired, language school ‘Babel’s Blessing’. I spoke with Daniel Hayeem, a Hebrew teacher at Babel’s Blessing and a member of the Jewdas collective to get his thoughts on the matter (Appendix III). Describing it as “first and foremost a radical language school that seeks to be a space where languages can be taught in exciting and unorthodox ways”, Hayeem explained their methodology in the following way: “Our approach emphasises critical pedagogy, inspired by the likes of Paolo Freire, where education is not simply the dictating of information to students who are supposed to be mere receptacles of knowledge passed down from on high, but rather an active participatory process involving both teachers and learners on an equal playing field. The aim as always is for people to learn new things in a manner that instills a critical consciousness” (Appendix III). 

Babel’s Blessing started by asking itself a number of crucial questions: “could a space be set up where Hebrew could be taught in a way that is neither wedded to the standardised, bureaucratised language that is taught in Ulpanim – and thus bound up with the Israeli state’s nation-building needs and other assorted raisons d’état – nor just another course geared towards religious training? Beyond this, what does it mean to tap into the rich diasporic history of Hebrew, divorced from the state of Israel, where it regularly interfaced with other languages, whether through the medieval Cairo Geniza or the formation of a plethora of Hebrew-influenced languages, from Yiddish to Judaeo-Malayalam? And finally, how can language learning be an act of decolonisation?” (Appendix III). 

So can learning Hebrew be a different experience if learned in a diasporist non-Zionist context because it means “learning a Hebrew outside of the realm of its participation in erasure and dispossession in Palestine, while at the same time deeply engaging with those processes from an oppositional standpoint (Appendix III). Hebrew, the language of the oppressors, becomes the language of those wishing to resist it from within, a sort of ‘linguistic resistance’. So when Hayeem hear Palestinians speak of Hebrew as ‘the language of occupation’, he “can only nod in agreement, for this is their lived experience of a language that was forced on them” and when Jews say that they want to learn Hebrew in a different way “they are expressing their critique of Zionism and interest in diasporic Hebrew culture, which very much can go hand in hand” (Appendix III). One may argue that what the impetus behind this linguistic resistance represents a defacto ideological alliance with the politics of internationalism. In any case, this inherent rejection of Zionism is opening up a ‘new’ – or reborn – political space which facilitates internationalist frameworks.

Interestingly, both Roth’s and Hayeem’s answers were echoed in a 35 minutes-long discussion I had with five students taking part in “Ot Azoy 2016” (Appendix IV), the London-based Jewish Music Institute’s (JMI) week-long “full immersion courses in Yiddish Language, Song and Culture for people of all ages, levels and backgrounds” (JMI, 2016) University College London. The tone of the discussion was informal and was essentially a simple exchange between six people passionate about Yiddish. Whereas the conversation did not always revolve around the specific issues raised in this essay, one comment by Paris-raised Joshua Margulies particularly stood out. When I had mentioned that many of the activists I had researched were negotiating ways of looking for alternative ways of identifying as Jewish without Zionism, he said: “I find myself very much in this situation. I’m not happy with the politics of Israel right now and I think that I find myself better learning Yiddish than Hebrew. I felt myself much more when I was learning Yiddish for some reason” (Margulies, 2016). 

He continued: “When you speak Yiddish you always think about the past, [whereas] when you speak Hebrew you think about the present. It’s a very ‘everyday language’. Yiddish is the language which got fixated in the past with the Holocaust, and there is always this longing of going back and thinking about going in the past, in the shtetl [a small Jewish town or village in eastern Europe] and all of that. Hebrew doesn’t capture this longing for the past” (Margulies, 2016). Hayeem saw something similar among his students: “I find in many cases that when Jews learn Arabic, Yiddish, and Hebrew in a decolonial, diasporist context, as well as with anti-authoritarian teaching techniques, it not only correlates with them having views that are critical of Zionism but also facilitates exploring their own Jewish identities from different angles and in new, stimulating ways” (Hayeem, 2016). 

We can see from our examples that what connects both Hayeem and Margulies is not necessarily the language spoken, although both speak Hebrew and Yiddish, but rather how that language is taught, stressing the importance of a diasporist framework. This does not necessarily point towards a direct link between Jewish diasporism and internationalism as this would erase the complexities associated with any form of identity politics. Indeed, even trying to link identity politics with internationalism would be an endeavour in and of itself and there are theorists who discourage it. African American scholar Adolph Reed, for example, called it “a disconnection of the notion of social justice from economic inequality and economic security” (Reed, 2016). But given that so much of today’s attempts to celebrate Jewish diasporism is done in the context of a critical reappraisal of the politics of Israel and Zionist Nationalism in general, the resulting opening up of a new political space, as we have seen above, can greatly facilitate the transition from a more ‘specific’ identity politics (being Jewish while rejecting Israel’s supremacy over Jewish identity) to a more ‘general’ solidarity-based internationalism (supporting Palestinians). 

The very act of deconstructing Zionist hegemony is in itself an act of rebellion, as gender theorist Judith Butler, who defines herself as both Queer and Jewish, explains: “[by] showing that there are not only bona fide but imperative Jewish traditions that oppose state violence and modes of colonial expulsion and containment”, one succeeds “in affirming a different Jewishness than the one in whose name the Israeli state claims to speak” (Butler, 2012, p.2). While none of the scholars, or indeed the activists and journalists, I spoked with believe that Yiddish will claim again its centrality to (non-Orthodox) Ashkenazi Jewish life, what is evident is that an alternative radical Hebrew culture is developing out of the same frustrations with Israeli government’s politics. 

Another point, which Margulies made during our exchange, relates to the politics of gender. He mentioned how common it was to see Yiddish associated with the female body, in contrast with the ‘strong’ masculine Hebrew body, in Israeli literature (Appendix IV), which I would add is also present in Israeli cinema. This, the ‘inherent masculinity’ of Zionism, was extensively explored by Raz Yosef in his work on ‘Queer Masculinities and Nationalism in Israeli Cinema’. In his study, he writes that “the New Israeli, the Sabra, was imagined as strong, healthy, hardworking and very masculine”, arguing that “the Zionist chose the Ashkenazi (European Jew) as a universal signifier on which the Israeli society had to base their imagination” (Suissa, 2010). Indeed, much of pre-Israel Zionist cinema was “obsessed with the creation of a new ideal image of the male Jew: tall, handsome, muscular, tanned, strong, brave” (Yosef, 2004, p.22) which, Yosef notes, also required an ‘Other’: “Unlike the passive, ugly, femme diasporic Jewish male, the new Zionist man would engage in manual labor, athletics, and war, becoming the colonialist-explorer in touch with the land and with his body” (Yosef, 2004, p.2). 

This opens up a new space for those resisting Zionist hegemony from a specifically gendered perspective. Indeed, whereas “the Zionist promotion of muscular masculinity has become a dominant feature of Israeli society and has been closely aligned with militarism (Haywood and Ghaill, 2003, p.89), the growing tendency for Queer theoreticians such as Butler to link American LGBTQ opposition to the Israeli occupation with the concept for intersectionality (Butler, 2015) is allowing those exploring alternative ways of being in a patriarchy-dominated space to form alliances with those exploring alternative ways of being in a dominant Zionist space. Indeed, this intersectionality of struggles can be manifestly observed in the growing American Jewish and/or American LGBTQ opposition to pinkwashing, the act of “trumpeting a country’s excellent record on LGBT rights as a form of propaganda” (Michaelson, 2014). As one Queer anti-pinkwashing activist and ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ member put it, “pinkwashing erases queer Palestinians, or uses them as props for a narrative in which Israel becomes a savior, while intentionally distracting from the oppression, violence and racism all Palestinians face” (Pasche, 2016).

At its heart, this movement comes from a growing awareness of how, in Butler’s words, “those who are subjugated nevertheless find means for resistance, and also in trying to show how tacit schemes of inequality condition a great deal of public discourse on the question” (Butler, 2014). We can see such actions as attempts in what African-American activist and scholar Angela Davis described as practising ‘intersectionality of struggles’ (Davis, 2016). While Davis was writing more specifically on the growing African American-Palestinian solidarity (Younis, 2015), one can apply the same principles to Queer opposition to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. And one should note that this intersectionality of struggles in practice was launched in Israel itself with groups such as ‘Black Laundry’ (Gross, 2010) and ‘Anarchists Against the Wall’ (Lakoff and Yossi, 2005) as well as, crucially, the activities of Queer Palestinians within both Israel and the Occupied Territories (Goldman, 2015; Hilal, 2013). 

It is as if the Kulturkampf took a different, unexpected turn: rather than it being strictly about the favored language, it morphed into a larger struggle between nationalism and diasporism, both largely in Hebrew, a belated ode to the earliest Kulturkampf between the Yiddishist Internationalists and the Hebraist Nationalists/Zionists. As Israeli poet Mati Shemoelof wrote in August 2016, “over the past few years we have been witnessing the growth of an alternative Hebrew culture, both independent and diverse, outside of Israel” (Shemoelof, 2016). Most importantly, he attributed this to diasporic culture: “The discourse is not defined by the physical location of the writers, but rather by their consciousness, which is the product of diaspora. In the global age it is difficult to feel obligated to national borders, the borders of language, or the borders dictated to the citizen by his nation” (Shemoelof, 2016). This fits well with the position argued by those proposing a ‘post-Zionist’ framework, people like the Israeli-American historian Daniel Boyarin who argue “that a Jewish culture was initially constructed in the diaspora” (Cohen, 2008) and can therefore recreate itself in a post-Zionist space.


In conclusion, the historical Yiddish-Hebrew Kulturkampf, itself part of a wider ideological conflict between Diasporism and Zionism, had wide-ranging repercussions on Jewish identity and politics that can still be felt to this day. The Zionist need to create a ‘new’ identity with the ‘old-new’ Hebrew language at its center was at odds with the Yiddish concept of ‘doikayt’, or ‘here-ness’, as promoted by the Jewish Labour Bund in the past. The Zionist project shared a central characteristic with other nationalist movements, namely the need to have an ‘Other’ against which the ‘in’ identity would be constructed. Unlike other nationalisms however, that ‘Other’ wasn’t just the native of the land to emigrate to (the Palestinian Arab) or the persecutor to escape from (the European anti-semite), but the figure of the Diaspora Jew as well. In many ways, it was an act of ‘self-Otherization’, necessary to create the new ‘Sabra’ identity in an otherwise foreign land. Furthermore, the land itself had to be modified through what scholars called ‘Judaization’ and ‘Hebraicization’ to facilitate this need to start anew. 

Whereas one can argue that Zionism ‘won’ the Yiddish-Hebrew Kulturkampf, we see that another one is already taking place today. Rather than the inherent hostility towards the non-Jew associated with Zionism, a more inclusive attitude is being proposed by anti-Zionists and post-Zionists advocating for a diasporist framework, itself in many ways a belated ode to the concept of ‘Doikayt’. There is a conscience effort to promote Jewish diasporist identity which, in practice, means rejecting at least two of the four principles of Zionism as defined by Grabski: “The primacy of the Jewish community in Israel over Jewish communities around the world” and “attributing to Hebrew the status of being the main or even only national language in Palestine”. Whether the third principle, “the elevation of ethnic-religious conflicts over class conflicts”, is being challenged, and therefore linking diasporism to a more class-conscious internationalism, will depend on whether the rejection of Zionism is always coupled with an explicit politics of solidarity with Palestinians oppressed by the State of Israel. If so, this would mean the defacto rejection of Dr. Grabski’s last principle of Zionism: “the primacy of Jews over Palestinian Arabs within the borders of the former colonial mandate in Palestine”. In any case, the Kulturkampf continues.