For European author, Hebrew culture existed outside Zionism

Where is the center of Jewish identity? Israel or the Diaspora? Can we have a thriving Hebrew language and culture without a Jewish majority country?

World Jewry seems to be standing at a critical junction in history. While more than half of us still remain in the Diaspora, intermarriage will probably tip the balance towards Israel in the next two decades. Ironically, Israel is pursuing expansionist and settlement policies that will most likely result in one state, where Jews will be a minority, the Palestinian population the majority.

At the same time, the discourse surrounding Israel’s history vis a vis the Palestinians (including the Nakba), its current policies of expansion and occupation, as well as Israel’s poor treatment of Palestinians and other non-Jews is growing increasingly heated. Nowhere is this truer than in the Diaspora, where many Jews consider Israel the symbol of Judaism and the representative body of the Jewish people—politically and culturally—taking any criticism of the country as an attack on Judaism itself. Such a conversation is one-dimensional: being Jewish equals being Israeli or supporting Israel.

In his latest piece for Tablet, journalist Joseph Dana reminds us that there are other ways of being Jewish and developing Hebrew and Jewish culture without living in or pledging allegiance to a Jewish majority state.

Dana uses the life and work of the Russian-born Jewish writer David Vogel as a lens. Vogel left the Pale of Settlement as a young man and ended up in Vienna. There he eked out a living while writing poetry, novellas, and novels in Hebrew. Although he wrote in what would become Israel’s national language, and despite the historical moment he found himself in—Vogel would die in a Nazi concentration camp—he was not a Zionist. He spent a year in Palestine only to return to Europe.

Vogel’s life story runs counter to the insistence that a Jewish-majority Israel is the logical center of Jewish and Hebrew culture and thought. As Dana points out, a number of academics consider Vogel’s work—which was written in the Diaspora and steered clear of nationalist themes—critical to the revival of the Hebrew language as well as the progression of Hebrew literature.

In light of this Diaspora Jew’s central role in the evolution of the Israeli national language, bold statements like A.B. Yehoshua’s claim that he is a “complete Jew” while those of us in the Diaspora are only “partial” Jews seem confused and short-sighted. Speaking to Dana, Shachar Pinsker, a professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Michigan, described Vogel as a writer who bore some similarities to:

…an early Woody Allen. He was introverted, consumed with sexual hang-ups and lived as a perpetual outsider, a character closer to an American Jew than a Zionist pioneer.

So where does the focal point of Jewish identity lie? Do we need to decide?

What is clear is that Hebrew language and culture does not necessarily need to exist inside a Jewish majority country to thrive — they simply need people like Vogel who are willing to engage with it, develop it, and push it in new directions. Vogel’s work serves as a reminder to those who have yet to embrace the inevitable one-state solution that, yes, we can retain a unique, rich identity even as a minority group.