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

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East