Hebrew in America as a Zionist Enterprise

[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]

By Rabbi David Gedzelman

In 1921, Aaron David Gordon, the spiritual leader of the Second Aliyah and an inspiration to the founders of Labor Zionism, published a call to action in the American Zionist Hebrew language weekly, Ha-Ivri, entitled, “The Work of Revival in the Lands of the Diaspora.” The mandate that Gordon espoused in this essay was not about working around the world in building avenues for Aliyah or about negating the future of Jewish Life in the Diaspora. Gordon argued that the same pillars of revival he advocated for as essential to a renewed Jewish life in the land of Israel – a return to nature, working the land in an authentic way, and the revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken and primary means of communication – should be embraced by Jews who choose to create renewed Jewish community in the lands of the Diaspora. Writing in Hebrew for an American Zionist audience, Gordon put forward the idea that when Jews outside of Israel begin to explore these possibilities where they live, the lands of their residence will cease to be lands of exile, and they will gain a new level of Jewish integrity and authenticity. He imagines the global Jewish people in this scenario as a living tree whose roots need to be struck and laid down in the land of Israel in order to bring forth life-giving waters for the tree to live, but sees renewed Jewish life outside of the land of Israel as the bough of that tree bringing necessary air and sunlight back to the center where the tree is rooted. Mutuality is essential to his vision. He rejects the classic Zionist notion of negation of the Diaspora and calls on Diaspora Jews to revolutionize their reality in the same measure that such a revolution is necessary in building the Yishuv in Israel.

Gordon’s emphasis on Hebrew as the primary vehicle for renewed Jewish life in the Diaspora is clear in this essay. He writes: “It is necessary, therefore, as much in the Diaspora as in the Land of Israel to garner all of our strength to make the Hebrew language the spoken language of the Jewish people and the medium of thought for every Jew.… Doing so will provide the most powerful living connection between the Jewish people in the land of Israel and the Jewish people living in other lands and the most secure shield against assimilation.” (Aharon David Gordon, Selected Writings, Publishing House of the World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem 1982, pp. 277-278)

It is certainly not news that the revitalization of Hebrew as a primary language of communication was central to the Zionist enterprise of building a new Jewish society in the land of Israel and the nascent state. But it is not widely known that one of Zionism’s great thought leaders from the Second Aliyah prescribed the same for World Jewry. Close to 100 years later, those of us engaged in developing Hebrew immersion programs for teaching Modern Hebrew in North America take solace in knowing that there is a direct line that connects our work to the aspirations of Zionism at its beginnings. Certainly, we do not imagine autonomous Hebrew speaking Jewish communities in the United States as Gordon did, but we hope that the ability to internalize Modern Hebrew language and communicate in it can give American Jews and others a deep connection to Israeli life and culture; we see this work as a Zionist enterprise. Israel’s revolutionary success in establishing a culture of Hebrew can inspire us all to rededicate ourselves to realizing Gordon’s vision. Indeed, the State of Israel is ideally suited to be a leader in this process by adopting the promotion of Hebrew language acquisition worldwide as a strategic priority. Israel can become the greatest proponent for a renewed commitment to bringing proficiency in the Hebrew language to world Jewish communities, especially to North Americans.

It is interesting to note that a number of foreign governments invest in promoting the study of their languages in the United States but that, so far, the government of Israel is not among them. According to research we pursued at The Steinhardt Foundation, those Governments most active in supporting the study of their languages in the United States are Qatar, China, France, South Korea, Italy, and Greece. Obviously, these countries support the learning of their languages, and through them their cultures, not only to reach people who have an ethnic affiliation with them. Rather, each of these governments understands that this support will lead to a better appreciation of their country, its language, and its culture. The Qatar Foundation International provides millions of dollars to public schools and universities in the United States to promote “the learning of Arabic and for students to become familiar with the Arab world’s history and culture.” The total investment by the Qatar Foundation International is difficult to determine but it is clear that over a period of four years the Qataris spent between $300,000 and $350,000 in each public school they support. From Freedom of Information requests, we’ve determined that they have done so in at least 26 schools. The Italian government expended approximately $1 million for the College Board to reinstitute and develop an Advanced Placement course and exam in Italian language and culture. The French government continues to support the Alliance Français worldwide.

It is our hope at The Steinhardt Foundation that leadership in the Israeli Government will remember the importance of the revitalization of the Hebrew language to the Zionist enterprise and hear A.D. Gordon’s voice promoting a vision of Diaspora Jewry gaining the ability to speak, understand, read, and write in Modern Israeli Hebrew. Likewise, if Arab governments see the value of promoting the learning of Arabic in the United States, if the South Korean Government understands the value of promoting Korean in the United States, etc., why shouldn’t the government of Israel understand that the most organic way to endear Americans in general to the life and culture of Israeli society, to its rhythms and texture, is to promote the learning of Hebrew as a spoken living language? The benefits are two-fold: connecting Jews to a deeper, more authentic Jewish life, and connecting Americans in general to a real appreciation for Israel’s lifeblood, its ancient yet new and reborn language, Hebrew.

Rabbi David Gedzelman is President and CEO of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.