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Hebrew Language

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There is a trend in certain sections of Israeli society to repudiate everything Jewish. This isn’t new. There was a Canaanite movement in early Zionism that wanted to remove any Jewish element and replace it by emulating the early Canaanites (but not, I gather, their human sacrifices or temple prostitution)! They named themselves and their children either Canaanite names or after Biblical Israelite kings who adopted Canaanite customs. Like other fads in nonreligious Judaism, it came and went. In fact, many of the Canaanites left Israel. You can find some of them buried in the Anglican cemetery in St. Moritz, whilst the grandchildren of religious anti-Zionists are swarming back to the land of their forefathers, buying homes, setting up businesses, procreating, and in some cases fighting in the army.

In one way, the Canaanite movement has indeed survived. The current resurgence of Israeli self-rejection and submission is a direct heir of the Canaanite movement. The most extremely abusive and offensive language I have ever heard used against Israel has been from the mouths of Israelis (and I have heard some pretty hate-filled speeches from Arab sources in my time too). It is a way of repudiating Jewish identity.

New schools of archaeologists argue there has never been a Jewish presence in the land. The Bible is automatically discounted as false, whereas the flimsiest of pseudoscientific theories is given absolute credence. References to “The House of David” in non-Jewish sources nearly three thousand years ago are said to be misreadings. Of course one can argue about exact dates. The Bible itself disagrees. Check out King Hezekia’s reign as dated in Kings 2 and then compare with Chronicles and you’ll get nicely confused. And maybe King Solomon’s stables were built by Uzzia instead, and the gates of Hazor by Josiah, and some of David’s psalm were written by the waters of Babylon. But no one can dispute the objective evidence of a clearly definable Jewish settlement far longer than 2,000 years ago, unless you want to argue that Jesus was a Muslim.

Arthur Koestler claimed that the Jews who returned to Israel in the nineteenth century were really Russians of Caucasian origin. Only Muslim ideologues (or Noam Chomsky) take that seriously.

The latest in the fad of Israeli self-destruction is to argue that the Hebrew language, as “resurrected” by Eliezer Ben Yehuda in the nineteenth century, has absolutely nothing in common with the ancient Hebrew language, and really ought to be called Israeli, not Ivrit, Hebrew. It is true that when I was at school we studied Classical Hebrew, Post-Biblical Hebrew, as well as Modern Hebrew, but fluency in one certainly helped in the others. Classical Hebrew was a greater help in learning Ivrit than Latin was to Italian, or Ancient Greek to Modern!

Of course languages change over time. English students now need cribs to understand Chaucer or Shakespeare, and even Dickens. Americans speak a version that is difficult to understand by many native-born English speakers but then a Cockney (a Londoner born in earshot of Bows Bells) can make little sense out of his Glaswegian drinking partner. Australian is indeed sometimes called “Strine”, and I think what the Americans speak should be called “American”. But you cannot say they have no common origin.

In the fifties new words kept on emerging in Israel to give Hebrew-based equivalents of modern technological terms. And an interesting study could be made of why some new words stuck and others did not. In Hebrew they tried ram-kol (literally “Raise the Sound”), but “microphone” took over! In those days the command economy tried to dominate language too the way the French have desperately and pointlessly tried through the Academie to preserve the purity of French. Certain words resist, others just stick. In French “ordinateur” has resisted “computer”, but “internet” has won hands down.

But now I am beginning to wonder whether the Canaanite mentality has not in fact taken over. My brother sent me an article by Gershon Baskin in the Jerusalem Post which casts serious doubt on the motives of those who went to war against Hamas in Gaza. If it is true, it challenges the integrity of Israeli politicians. Going to war for war’s sake is a Canaanite way of looking at the world, not a Jewish way. It is indeed Jewish to defend and to attack in defence of one’s integrity, but not to wage war when peace might have been negotiated. What God did was His business, but the laws for ongoing human conflict were very specific (Deuteronomy 20:10). Pure physical aggression is just why the Canaanites failed and we who rejected such an ideology survived. I hope I am wrong and Baskin is not reliable. But still, the whole sorry mess of politics and materialism makes me wonder if even many Orthodox Jews are more Canaanite than Jewish. All the wrong values seem to be flourishing and the genuine spiritual ones are in retreat.

You cannot deep-freeze the past. The bodies we have today are very different to those we were born with. But if we want Jewish values to persist we need to constantly reinvigorate them and apply them. Because the dominant values all around us are Canaanite, whether East or West, we are in danger of losing our specifically Jewish souls.

8 thoughts on “Hebrew Language

  1. You wrote:

    “The latest in the fad of Israeli self-destruction is to argue that the Hebrew language, as “resurrected” by Eliezer Ben Yehuda in the nineteenth century, has absolutely nothing in common with the ancient Hebrew language, and really ought to be called Israeli, not Ivrit, Hebrew.”

    Who is it who says Ivrit has NOTHING in common with ancient Hebrew? According to the linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann, who argues in favor of the term “Israeli Hebrew”, the modern language is a “hybrid”, with Hebrew and Yiddish being its primary contributors, and Indo-Europeans languages being the secondary contributors. (See http://www.languagehat.com/archives/002025.php.)

  2. Here is what I have found at http://www.zuckermann.org/: Prof. Ghil’ad Zuckermann, a genius, suggests that Modern Hebrew is a hybrid language based on Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages spoken by revivalists.

    Zuckermann is neither a self-hating Jew not a Canaanite. On the contrary: as opposed to many Diaspora negating Zionists, he acknowledges and celebrates the continuity within Modern Hebrew of Yiddish, a Jewish language.

    The Jewish world and especially Israel need such sober thinkers. Shkoyech, Reb Zuckermann!

  3. For instance, Radio Islam used Paul Wexler’s research to bolster its point that “European-Descended Jews are Counterfeits and have no Blood line to Abraham”, and therefore Jews have no claim to “the land of Palestine”. Quoting the New York Times, they write:

    “More recently, Koestler’s controversial thesis has been revived and expanded in a 1993 book, The Ashkenazic ‘Jews’: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity (Slavica Publishers), by Dr. Paul Wexler, a Tel Aviv University linguist.

    “Wexler uses a reconstruction of Yiddish to argue that it began as a Slavic language whose vocabulary was largely replaced with German words. Going even further, he contends that the Ashkenazic Jews are predominantly converted Slavs and Turks who merged with a tiny population of Palestinian Jews from the Diaspora.”

    (http://www.radioislam.net/islam/english/toread/khazars.htm)

  4. After doing a bit more research on this question, I think the linguist Rabbi Rosen may be referring to is not Zuckerman, but Paul Wexler, who is more extreme in his theories and does seem to propose that modern Jews are not directly connected to ancient Hebrews.

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