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Hebrew and Zionism: A Discourse Analytic Cultural Study (review)

From: Israel Studies
Volume 7, Number 3, Fall 2002
pp. 157-159 | 10.1353/is.2003.0002

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Israel Studies 7.3 (2002) 157-159

Ron Kuzar—Hebrew and Zionism: A Discourse Analytic Cultural Study (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2001)

Ron Kuzar's book is a scholarly piece that contains numerous illuminating analyses pertaining to the development of Hebrew studies in Israel. At the same time, it is also one more example of the intellectually problematic "critical" fashion prevailing these days in a large part of the Israeli social sciences. It starts from the assumption that "linguistic texts are informed, not only by scientific methodology, but also by the social, political, and cultural ideologies" held by researchers (p. 1). This contention is anything but new, but while, for this critique, it imposes on the researcher special efforts to try to remain as "objective" as possible, for Ron Kuzar, this means that a scholar is to put a priori his or her scientific work at the service of a cause. This parti-pris philosophy downgrades the value of the book and accounts for its many weaknesses.

The author argues against the mainstream of Hebrew studies in Israel, which has always accepted that the emergence of Hebrew at the turn of the 20th Century is best understood as the revival of a dead language. It is Kuzar's point that this outlook is rooted in Zionist ideology. He himself is committed to a conflicting political-ideological project, namely, the "normalization" of Israel as a democratic, secular and multicultural state where Jewishness is "de-politicized." Hence, Kuzar looks for any fragment of theory and hypothesis that would deny that the emergence of modern Hebrew as a spoken language might be described as the revival of ancient Hebrew, the original language of the Jews. In this perspective, Kuzar dedicates numerous, very interesting, pages to the role of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man popularly known as the prophet and instigator of the revival of Hebrew. His quite convincing conclusion is that "Ben-Yehuda's significant role in placing the issue of Hebrew speech on the agenda of the emergent Jewish national movement and his actual contributions to vocabulary expansion and to organizational activity, such as the Hebrew language committee, do not suffice to explain how Hebrew emerged (p. 120)."

Kuzar accepts that, to the extent native speech is the benchmark of vitality, Hebrew was a dead language until Zionism. He refers, however, to a suggestion by Shlomo Izre'el that the emergence of Hebrew might be viewed as a pidgin-creole formation. In accordance with this theory, Hebrew was the creation of a new language, and not the revival of a dead one, and might be accounted for by the absence of a previous common language among Jews in this country. It is then proposed that this process started from a kind of simplistic Hebrew that crystallized during the nineteenth century under the form of a local lingua franca, and was to become a major element in the formation of Hebrew. This formation occurred when a generation of parents committed to the language sent their children to Hebrew schools under the ideological pressures of teachers. It was this community of children, in turn, that "nativized" Hebrew.

What this reasoning fails to explain, however, is the very commitment of a generation of immigrants—the Eastern European Jews who arrived in the Yishuv during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth—that made possible the emergence of Hebrew as a spoken language, in spite of the fact that they already shared a common language—Yiddish. The historical fact is—and this is what makes the emergence of Hebrew a unique event in the history of languages—that these immigrants deliberately "left out" their common language, with all the moral comfort that only a mother tongue offers to its locators. They did so—and the testimonies are here quite unanimous—because they perceived the Yiddish language to be a symbol of the Diasporic condition, while embracing Hebrew represented a return to the sources of Judaism. Kuzar does not discuss this aspect at all, seemingly because it confirms that "something" in the Zionist enterprise was exceptional. Kuzar's main merit here is that he raises, together with many others&#8212...



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