The Jewish Roots of the Universal Language

Feb. 11 2022

At the beginning of the last century, the belief that one day a universal language could replace all others, and put an end to national rivalries and animosity, was by no means considered a fringe one. And there was little doubt that if such a scheme were to triumph, that language would be Esperanto—the invention of a Jewish ophthalmologist from Russian Poland named Leyzer (Ludwik) Zamenhof. Unlike many other Jewish champions of universalism, Zamenhof never turned his back on his people and their particularistic concerns. James R. Russell tells his story:

Sympathetic in his youth to Zionism, in 1882 Leyzer opened a local Warsaw chapter of Ḥov’vey Tsiyyon (“Lovers of Zion”) in the wake of the pogroms that swept the Russian empire. He even met his future wife, Klara Silbernik, at a clandestine meeting of the group. Though in his later years Zamenhof ceased to champion Zionism actively, he never actively opposed it.

Esperanto emerged in the conditions of the Jewish Diaspora, addressed its concerns, was suffused with its hopes, and was shaped by its linguistic environment. It attracted a disproportionately large number of Jewish adherents and its enemies attacked it as a Jewish language. In many ways, it was and continues to be.

[F]or the first two decades or so of the existence of Esperanto, about 90 percent of the movement’s subscribers and supporters were subjects of the Russian Empire. A majority of those were Jews as well, and though statistics are hard to come by, it might be fair to estimate that perhaps as much as a quarter of the present Esperantist community is Jewish.

The fate of the international language under fascism was grim. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had condemned Esperanto as part of the Jewish world conspiracy, and [his] regime outlawed the international language in Germany. To the east, the situation was little better: Esperanto had flourished in the young Soviet Union, where it was seen as a means of getting the workers of the world to unite. But there, too, the Stalin regime, suspicious of its cosmopolitanism and the contacts it facilitated between Soviet citizens and foreigners, banned it, and executed numerous Esperantists.

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More about: Adolf Hitler, Esperanto, Joseph Stalin, Universalism

Reforms to Israel’s Judiciary Must Be Carefully Calibrated

The central topic of debate in Israel now is the new coalition government’s proposed reforms of the nation’s judiciary and unwritten constitution. Peter Berkowitz agrees that reform is necessary, but that “the proper scope and pace of reform, however, are open to debate and must be carefully calibrated.”

In particular, Berkowitz argues,

to preserve political cohesiveness, substantial changes to the structure of the Israeli regime must earn support that extends beyond these partisan divisions.

In a deft analysis of the conservative spirit in Israel, bestselling author Micah Goodman warns in the Hebrew language newspaper Makor Rishon that unintended consequences flowing from the constitutional counterrevolution are likely to intensify political instability. When a center-left coalition returns to power, Goodman points out, it may well repeal through a simple majority vote the major changes Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition seeks to enact. Or it may use the legislature’s expanded powers, say, to ram through laws that impair the religious liberty of the ultra-Orthodox. Either way, in a torn nation, constitutional counterrevolution amplifies division.

Conservatives make a compelling case that balance must be restored to the separation of powers in Israel. A prudent concern for the need to harmonize Israel’s free, democratic, and Jewish character counsels deliberation in the pursuit of necessary constitutional reform.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Judicial Reform