The Founders of Modern Hebrew Literature Faced Challenges Tolstoy and Dostoevsky Never Had to Contend With—and Triumphed

March 8 2021

Hillel Halkin’s The Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion comprises eleven essays—most of which appeared previously in Mosaic—on the founders of modern Hebrew literature, from the early 19th century up to the creation of the state of Israel. In his review, Adam Kirsch, calling the book “indispensable” and a “masterpiece,” writes:

The purpose of modern Hebrew literature, Halkin insists throughout the book, was to help bring about a Hebrew-speaking Jewish state, and he judges each of his subjects by how well they understood and furthered this mission.

Halkin pays intelligent, loving attention to [the works of] all of his subjects. His original translations show each writer to best advantage, while also serving as a running commentary on the evolution of modern Hebrew into a flexible literary instrument. Yet there’s always at least a hint of impatience in Halkin’s critical stance, a sense that none of these writers managed to solve the quandaries of modern Hebrew literature. Of course, that’s because they were insoluble. To write modern literature in an ancient language, secular literature in a religious language, national literature for a nation that didn’t yet exist—these were challenges that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky didn’t have to contend with. If they had, maybe they wouldn’t have become Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

For Halkin, the destiny of modern Hebrew writers wasn’t to produce masterpieces but to serve as a spiritual “government-in-exile” for the Jewish people—one that “seemed unlikely, to say the least, ever to have a land or a people to rule.” The emergence of a Hebrew-speaking Jewish community in Palestine isn’t directly attributable to these Hebrew writers—Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who did more than anyone to resurrect spoken Hebrew, appears in The Lady of Hebrew but isn’t one of Halkin’s main subjects. But it certainly wouldn’t have happened without them.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hillel Halkin, Jewish literature, Modern Hebrew literature, Zionism

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy