Esperanto and the Jewish Brand of Universalism that Produced It

Oct. 31 2016

In the 1880s, Ludwik Leyzer Zamenhof, a Jewish ophthalmologist in Bialystok who had become disillusioned with Zionism, concluded that the problems of anti-Semitism, prejudice, racism, and war could all be solved were mankind to adopt a universal language. He proceeded to create Esperanto, a simplified tongue based primarily on the Romance languages but with heavy doses of German, Slavic, and even Yiddish. Soon there were publications and annual conferences. Both still exist today, though the movement never achieved the success Zamenhoff hoped for—as Esther Schor recounts in Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language. David Mikics writes in his review:

Zamenhof . . . wrote that “my Jewishness has been the main reason why, from earliest childhood, I gave myself completely to one crucial idea, one dream—the dream of the unity of humankind.” . . .

In 1901, Zamenhof unveiled a universal ethics he called “Hillelism,” to be spread by Esperanto speakers. . . Like those contemporary American Jews who define Jewishness as the devotion to social justice, Zamenhof was straddling a fence. If Jewish tradition was an anachronism, [as Zamenhof firmly believed], why name his universal ethics after the sage Hillel? Judaism could only conquer if the Jews themselves disappeared qua Jews, Zamenhof seemed to be implying. . . . He thought that non-Jews would adopt Jewish moral seriousness if only Jews could divest themselves of nationhood, religion, and cultural identity. To put it mildly, the 20th century did not validate this highly paradoxical fantasy. Zamenhof’s own daughters were murdered in Auschwitz. . . .

[Zamenhof] lived long enough to see anti-Semitic polemics appear in a Polish Esperanto journal called Pola Esperantisto. Zamenhof wrote a letter to the editor condemning the articles, in which he remarked that “the entire sin of the Jews consists only in this, that Jews also want to live and have human rights.” But the editor rejected Zamenhof’s letter and continued on his path of Jew-hatred.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, East European Jewry, History & Ideas, Language, Universalism

The Struggle for Iraq, and What It Means for Israel

Oct. 17 2018

Almost immediately after the 2003 invasion, Iraq became a battleground between the U.S. and Iran, as the latter sent troops, money, and arms to foment and support an insurgency. The war on Islamic State, along with the Obama administration’s effort to align itself with the Islamic Republic, led to a temporary truce, but also gave Tehran-backed militias a great deal of power. Iran has also established a major conduit of supplies through Iraq to support its efforts in Syria. Meanwhile, it is hard to say if the recent elections have brought a government to Baghdad that will be pro-American or pro-Iranian. Eldad Shavit and Raz Zimmt comment how these developments might affect Israel:

Although statements by the U.S. administration have addressed Iran’s overall activity in the region, they appear to emphasize the potential for confrontation in Iraq. First and foremost, this [emphasis] stems from the U.S. perception of this arena as posing the greatest danger, in light of the extensive presence of U.S. military and civilian personnel operating throughout the country, and in light of past experience, which saw many American soldiers attacked by Shiite militias under Iranian supervision. The American media have reported that U.S. intelligence possesses information indicating that the Shiite militias and other elements under Iranian auspices intend to carry out attacks against American targets and interests. . . .

In light of Iran’s intensifying confrontation with the United States and its mounting economic crisis, Tehran finds it essential to maintain its influence in Iraq, particularly in the event of a future clash with the United States. The Iranian leadership has striven to send a message of deterrence to the United States regarding the implications of a military clash. . . .

A recently published report also indicates that Iran transferred ballistic missiles to the Shiite militias it supports in Iraq. Although Iran has denied this report, it might indeed attempt to transfer advanced military equipment to the Shiite militias in order to improve their capabilities in the event of a military confrontation between Iran and the United States and/or Israel, or a confrontation between [the militias] and the central government in Baghdad.

From Israel’s perspective, after years when the Iraqi arena received little attention from Israeli decision makers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have mentioned the possibility of Israel’s taking action against Iranian targets in Iraq. In this context, and particularly in light of the possibility that Iraq could become an arena of greater conflict between the United States and Iran, it is critical that there be full coordination between Israel and the United States. This is of particular importance due to [the American estimation of] stability in Iraq as a major element of the the campaign against Islamic State, which, though declared a success, is not yet complete.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Iraq, ISIS, Israel & Zionism, U.S. Foreign policy