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  • Becoming Hebrew: The Creation of a Jewish National Culture in Ottoman Palestine
  • Donna Divine Robinson (bio)
Becoming Hebrew: The Creation of a Jewish National Culture in Ottoman Palestine, by Arieh Bruce Saposnik. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 254 pages. Notes to p. 303. Index to p. 314. $65.

Zionism is a more contested than understood phenomenon. Those enthralled by the notion of Jews seizing control of their political [End Page 328] and historical fate are matched by others inflamed by the idea of Zionism as simply another form of colonialism designed to embezzle resources and freedom from the rightful owners of the land of Israel. While some see Israel’s founding in 1948 as proof of Zionism’s unqualified success, others view it as part of a new form of Western hegemony depriving a people of its national rights. On the one side is a romantic belief in what Zionism presumably achieved while on the other what it purportedly destroyed.

But as Arieh Bruce Saposnik shows in his magnificent book, Becoming Hebrew, Zionism was both more than its critics contend and less than its adherents imagine. For it was an instrument and a symbol of Jewish creativity in the land of Israel before it had Western backing or international standing as a Jewish National Home or for that matter, before it commanded the financial resources sufficient for making a state. In deconstructing the Zionist notion that “the Jew has died and the Hebrew has been born” (p. 189), Saposnik concludes that “a Jewish National Culture” was created “in Ottoman Palestine.”

In Becoming Hebrew, Saposnik invokes the sometimes wild hopes and more frequent battle-weary realities of the Jewish community in the land of Israel during the two decades before the outbreak of World War I. He explains the impassioned engagement of Zionists with art and ideas; their concerns over education and what became their love affair with Hebrew.

What was special about Ottoman Palestine in its last decades was not simply that ordinary people were remaking their cultures — that is, of course, what ordinary people always do. What was distinctive was the shared obsession of many of its Zionist residents that creating a new Jewish culture started with building schools. The first institutions set up by the World Zionist Organization in Ottoman Palestine were the Herzliya Gymnasium and the Bezalel School of Art.

Saposnik interweaves ideology, literature, art, and linguistics in a human narrative that thrusts us into a complex history when almost every public activity was subject to intense debate. He explains how Zionists in Ottoman Palestine confronted one another as part of an attempt to take their lives into their own hands and to forge a common destiny. Expressing themselves in a recently acquired language, Zionists created many of the well-known traditions of contemporary Israeli culture — the tiyul, or knowing the land by walking across it; Jewish athletic contests; and parades to honor nature.

Saposnik tells a story not only of nation building but also of nation builders — the innovative creators of new traditions and of what would become a new society. This was a rich and exciting environment with intense discussions among people professing different views and seemingly always at each other’s throat because the stakes were cast as a matter of cultural life and death. Zionists such as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Menachem Ussishkin, Izhak Ben-Zvi, and many other men and women were expending their best energy on re-examining and reinterpreting every aspect of Jewish history and ritual: should Hanukkah be ignored because it marked the victory of religious fanaticism over the so-called enlightened proponents of Hellenism or was it rather to be celebrated as a class struggle, in Ben-Zvi’s words, and the triumph of a peasant underclass?

Zionists spoke in many voices — some in a plainspokenness and others in highly inflated rhetoric. What united them was the commitment to remaking Jewish culture and society. The new culture was, thus, many times imagined by individuals and by the community. The lasting subject of Saposnik’s work is the guiding metaphor of a clash of viewpoints that, if not greater than the sum of its...


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pp. 328-330
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