- Language in Time of Revolution
In spite of their frequently internationalist rhetoric and explicitly antiparochial ideology, the conjunction of diverse movements we have come to think of as modernism were largely the creations of isolated, small coteries, made up of no more than a handful of women and men bound together by a conviction that their decisions would prove decisive for the culture as a whole. Today, when one reads the documents of even a few of these self-proclaimed vanguards, as different from one another as, for example, the Futurists, Freud’s Wednesday Circle, the Bolshevik Party in exile, the Worpswede Colony, and the Bloomsbury group, surely one of the most striking aspects is just how seriously they were able to take themselves (often in spite of an overt commitment to irony and skepticism), how fiercely they were willing to draw imaginary dividing lines and fix criteria of collective fidelity versus betrayal. The even greater surprise, of course, is how often their self-evaluation was later partially confirmed by the judgment of the larger society from which they at first had strategically withdrawn. It is no small component of Harshav’s success in this altogether fascinating book to have made clear the family resemblance between what is still regularly (and no doubt in the main justifiably) called “the almost miraculous revival of the Hebrew language” and the coterie movements of European high modernism in both politics and the arts.
Harshav focuses on the experience of Western Jewry both as a paradigmatic instance of the radical transition from pre-industrial to modern, urban, and secular civilization, and on the function of a reborn Hebrew “as the base language of a new, Hebrew society” (viii) that in turn made possible the creation of the state of Israel. In their rapidity, the depths of their challenge to traditional practices and ways of living, and in the ensuing internal tensions, the Jewish responses to modernization crystallize with particular vividness the situation of European culture as a whole. But because that transformation occurred amid conditions of political insecurity and in the face of increasingly violent resistance from the surrounding cultures, the position of the Jews was, from the outset, marked by a strong investment in questions of ideology, language, and cultural identity. As Harshav points out, if modernism is characterized by a wide-ranging fascination with the foundational power of language in philosophy, art, and the human sciences, the Hebrew revival was a still more radical linguistic event, since what it aimed at was to alter “not just the secondary language of ideology [or, one might add, of artistic practice] but the natural language of society itself” (viii). Indeed, Israeli statehood was, in Harshav’s lucid formulation, the end result of “an ideology that created a language that forged a society that became a State” (viii). And it is the interdependence of these terms, as well as the necessity of their specific sequence, that constitutes the core of Harshav’s study.
In the first part of the book’s two concentric essays, “The Modern Jewish Revolution,” Harshav subtly explores the diversity of Jewish reactions to modernization. He concentrates less on the cataclysmic events of public history than on the internal responses: the crises in ideology and self-consciousness that those events precipitated. Harshav is particularly careful to emphasize the diversity of ways that Jews reinterpreted their past and tried to find new options with which to determine their futures. Although his study is inevitably framed by the twin climaxes of the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel, he draws attention to the “massive influx of Jews into the national cultures of various countries and the question of a possible ‘Jewish’ contribution to general culture and science in the modern age” (ix), without [End Page 167] apologetics or anxiety at the very existence of the question. He can, that is, describe the moral urgency and historical persuasiveness of Zionism while still being able to imagine the numerous alternatives which European Jews imagined for themselves without pathologizing...