Does It Sound Better in German?

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“And in German, no less,” Naftali Bennett ended his squad-commander speech in the Knesset. To him, German is a harsh language; to me, it is a magical one.

The secret language of my late parents, the language of high art employed by Heinrich Heine, the language of Vienna in which Freud created psychoanalysis and Herzl Zionism.

The language of the sciences through which Einstein shaped the 20th century. It is also the language in which the biggest crimes against humanity in general, and Jewish humanity in particular, were carried out.

From this it follows that it’s not the language that is guilty, but rather its users and what they expressed with it.

To me, Hebrew is a beautiful language, a many-splendored love. Only through it can the hidden treasures of Jewish culture, its concepts and ideas be expressed.

This all-encompassing Hebrew cannot be unacceptable simply because it was used in the past to express horrific, intolerable ideas such as the commandment to blot out all the males of Amalek, death by stoning and the laws of sotah that were applied to women suspected of adultery. Or because it is used to celebrate the holiday celebrating the genocide of the Persian people – known here as Purim. Or because Bennett speaks in that language.

The problem, as we have said, is not the language but rather some of its speakers, such as MKs Moti Yogev and Ayelet Shaked (both Habayit Hayehudi); not the language on their tongues, but rather the ideas in their heads. And the unacceptable idea in the heads of their party colleagues Bennett and Uri Orbach is the national Israeli concept in its current format.

The breadth of the discussion of nationalism is very broad indeed, encompassing various concepts of the nation as they developed since this organizing principle in the lives of peoples, tribes and states first began. But it seems as though this type never existed before. Israeli nationalism (to be more precise, Israeli-Jewish nationalism) is a fusion of five fundamentals: territory, sovereignty, language, power and religion.

It is very difficult, if not genuinely impossible, to define the modern Israeli in the absence of one of these five. One is insufficient, and even four are not enough. Either all five or none at all. It’s not for nothing that we “Jews” (the descendants of the tribe of Judah and the kingdom of Judea) do not manage to withdraw from the portion of the kingdom of Israel and the lands of the Philistines that were never truly ours.

Over this broad territory we apply one sovereignty to the members of the chosen people and flatly reject any expression of sovereignty by others among us and surrounding us (not a genuine partnership in government to Palestinian Israelis, and no government at all to the Palestinians of Palestine).

In this vast space, the Hebrew language in its Israeli version rules complete. The sovereignty, territory and space are backed up by the institutional, monopolistic state religion, and all these are supported by unprecedented force and a power-based mentality that knows no borders and has no restraints.

Try to take one component of all these. For example, say a word in English next to Avshalom Kor, and all the waves of Army Radio will be rocked in a tsunami of the holy tongue. As if the Babylonian Talmud were written in the modern Hebrew of Ben-Yehuda and the Kaddish prayer were not in fluent Aramaic.

Or try to separate sovereignty from territory – and we’re not talking about sovereignty in Madagascar or Uganda. Just try to propose to an Israeli that he settle for half of the local territory, and you are immediately denounced publicly as a traitor to national patriotism.

It’s no wonder, then, that the aspiration to separate religion, state and the occupied territories can be considered very suicidal in certain circles. And above all these hovers in the heavens the sacred cow (a sort of Picasso abstract) of force. Or by way of euphemism, the Israel Defense Forces.

The army. A ravenous, budget-devouring cow that shapes psychologies and psychoses. It is the external pretext for holding on to the territories in the name of the Moloch of security, its fingers reaching into all areas of identity and belonging. And without that cow, many people feel the entire idea of sovereignty would fall apart. (Did you ever consider the theological meaning of “IDF converts”? Or the religious implications of the IDF Chief Rabbinate defining military missions for IDF soldiers?)

In the past, we had parts of the above-mentioned quintet. Sometimes we had sovereignty, but only over part of the territory. At other times we had power, but we spoke other languages. And in other eras, religion ruled in our lives but without defined geographic borders or the military sword to guarantee its existence. We never had all five together, certainly not in such perfect, indivisible fusion.

For that idea – of nationalism that is religion and state, language and territory, brute force combined with populist politics – there is actually a word in Hebrew: ultranationalism. Similar but different.

Nationalism generally developed along two paths. The first, positive path is that of civil nationalism, as in Canada, the United States and France, based on the principle that all citizens and legal residents are part of the nation, equal partners in a unifying cultural and civil framework.

The second path is that of a nation based on blood ties, as in Germany, where ethnic and genetic identity is the basis of the nation, and belonging is not a matter of choice.

There’s a reason why concepts of religious “chosenness” developed in such nations, of racial superiority, sanctifying the collective at the expense of the individual, the worship of power, the adversarial and the militant.

And now we’ll say it in Hebrew: Bennett’s concept of nationalism, expressed in such meaningless Hebrew, is a nationalism of blood and race, not of liberty and equality. Does that sound better in Hebrew?

Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem, February 3, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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