The Hebrew Language Marks the Greatest Divide between Israel and the Diaspora

August 1, 2019 | James Loeffler
About the author: James Loeffler, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and scholar-in-residence at Pro Musica Hebraica, is currently the Robert A. Savitt fellow at the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His “The Death of Jewish Culture” was the featured monthly essay in Mosaic for May 2014.

In 1950, when it had become apparent that there would be no mass immigration of American Jews to the new state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion voiced the conviction that the Hebrew language, along with Jewish scripture and support for the Zionist cause, would serve to maintain the connection between Israelis and their American co-religionists. Alas, writes James Loeffler, this has not come to pass, creating a gap between the two communities that is more profound than attitudes toward religion or politics:

In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth points out the radical nature of American Jewish monolingualism. American Jews, Roth writes, chose “to be Jews in a way no one had ever dared to be a Jew in our 3,000-year history: speaking and thinking American English, only American English, with all the apostasy that was bound to beget.” Roth is right that monolingualism itself is something of a modern American Jewish heresy. Multilingualism was ever a fact of Jewish life through history. But whatever language Jews spoke—Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Yiddish, Ladino—Hebrew remained at the core of their spiritual and cultural lives, especially for educated elites. In modern America, by contrast, Jews rejected multilingualism. Instead, they elevated the embrace of English to the level of an exclusive, ideological choice.

There is, however, an exception, to be found in the diaspora within a diaspora that Israeli expatriates constitute in America:

Estimates of the number of Israelis now settled in the United States range between 200,000 and 500,000 people. . . . What . . . will these Israeli Americans look like 20 or 30 years from now? It is not hard to imagine that we will see Israeli Americans split into two groups on the basis of their choices vis-à-vis Hebrew. One portion will treat Israeliness like an old-world identity and Hebrew like the language that went with it. Securing themselves with single citizenship, they will dissolve into the broader mass of American Jews with real but thinning ties to Israeli society.

The other Israeli Americans will place Hebrew at the core of their lives, cultivating a strong bilingualism. This Hebrew-speaking cohort, I suspect, will continue to identify closely with Israel and at the same time build themselves their own place within diasporic Jewish communal life. Frequent family travel to Israel and summer camps will keep them and their children rooted in Israeli society.

In short, these Jews will be set apart from the rest of American Jewry because they speak Hebrew.

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