A gentile touch

As Israel reaches 50, Jo Glanville reveals how a Victorian gentile, George Eliot, played a central part in the birth of its national language
May 19, 1998

When Theodor Herzl began the quest for a Jewish state, he did not for one moment imagine that its national language would be Hebrew. "Who amongst us knows enough Hebrew to buy a railway ticket?" he asked. As Israel celebrates 50 years of existence, few of its citizens do in fact buy railway tickets in Hebrew, but only because the country has no more than a token train service. Hebrew is, however, used to buy bus tickets, ice creams, newspapers and anything else required on a daily basis.

The words for such mundane items did not exist until a fanatical Lithuanian Jew, Eliezer Perelman, coined them. In 1881, years before Herzl turned his attention to the future of the Jews, Perelman moved to Palestine, changed his name to Ben Yehuda and set about reviving Hebrew as the vernacular of the Jewish people. Inspired by Bulgaria's fight for independence from Turkey, Ben Yehuda believed that the Jews could also become a nation. In order for this to succeed, he argued, they had to share a single language; and he felt that Hebrew, as the Jews' common heritage, was the obvious choice for unifying the diaspora into a nation. Like mediaeval Latin, Hebrew was the language of literature and worship, as well as a lingua franca, but it had ceased to be the language of the street and the home for almost 2,000 years.

It now appears that the decisive influence on Ben Yehuda's pro-gramme was a Victorian gentile-George Eliot. When Ben Yehuda was hatching his grand scheme, a friend gave him a Russian translation of Daniel Deronda. Eliot's romantic hero, who rediscovers his Jewish roots and emigrates to Palestine, was dismissed by FR Leavis as a stuffed shirt, but for Ben Yehuda he was an inspiration. "After I read the story a few times, I made up my mind and I acted," he wrote in his memoirs. The rest, as they say in Hebrew, is historia.

George Eliot's sensitivity to the stirrings of Jewish nationalism was remarkable and at times prophetic. In one of the notebooks which she kept when she was working on Daniel Deronda, she wrote: "Mother singing Hebrew prayers and texts over her sleeping infant. How a language may sleep & wake again!" In 1879, three years after Daniel Deronda was published, she wrote an essay in support of Jewish nationalism. To be without a nation, she argued, was a moral and spiritual deprivation and she envisaged a time when "...there may arise some men of instruction and ardent public spirit, some new Ezras, some modern Maccabees... [who] will steadfastly set their faces towards making their people once more one among the nations."

Yet Eliot had not always been such a philosemite. In 1848, irritated by Disraeli's novel Coningsby, she wrote to a friend, "everything specifically Jewish is of a low grade." She went on to describe Jewish history and its "early mythology" as "revolting." It appears, then, that Eliot must have experienced a conversion. Quite how this happened is unclear. But one of the greatest influences on her was Emmanuel Deutsch, whom she met in 1866. Deutsch, a scholar of Islam and Judaism, worked at the British Museum. He taught Eliot Hebrew and was a Jewish nationalist. Eliot's notebooks show that she put herself on a crash course of Jewish history, culture and religion. They contain statistics for the Jewish population of Europe, a list of dates and names, notes on Jewish mysticism and customs. There are even cuttings from the Jewish Chronicle which report on early Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine.

Another influence on Eliot might have been through her partner, GH Lewes, who is said to have met the Jewish nationalist Moses Hess in Paris. Eliot's biographer, Gordon Haight, has dismissed the story, but Isaiah Berlin thought that there was substance to it and that Hess may well have indirectly influenced Eliot. It is an intriguing possibility, for Hess was not only a pioneer in Zionist thought, he was also one of the first German communists. It was Hess who converted Engels to communism and he greatly admired Marx (the compliment was not returned).

Hess had originally believed that assimilation was the answer for the Jews, but two events appear to have changed his mind: the success of Italian nationalism and the anti-Jewish riots in Damascus in 1840. In his seminal work, Rome and Jerusalem, published in 1862, Hess declared that the Jews should follow Italy's example and become a nation. His arguments bear a striking resemblance to those later expressed by George Eliot. Hess believed, like Eliot, that there were moral repercussions for individuals who belonged to a race without a nation, "a man sinks to the status of a parasite, feeding on others."

Bernard Semmel has also pointed out the parallels between Hess's thought and the opinions expressed by Mordecai in Daniel Deronda: "What is the citizenship of him who walks among a people he has no hearty kindred and fellowship with, and has lost the sense of brotherhood with his own race?" asks Mordecai. "He is an alien in spirit, whatever he may be in form; he sucks the blood of mankind, he is not a man." Thus, Eliot's novel could have served as a conduit of early Zionist thought linking a German Jewish communist to an obscure Lithuanian Jew.

Ben Yehuda may have cast himself in the role of Daniel Deronda, but it is unlikely that George Eliot would have approved of him. Like one of Eliot's desiccated anti-heroes who steamroller her heroines into submission, Ben Yehuda sacrificed his nearest and dearest to realise his vision. He used his own family as guinea-pigs, forcing them to speak nothing but Hebrew at home. Since most of the basic domestic vocabulary did not exist, conversation must have been rather stilted. His children were forbidden to play with other children and were sent to bed when visitors came so that they would not be exposed to other languages. Ben Yehuda even objected to them hearing birdsong.

The eldest child, Ittamar, was still unable to speak at the age of three. In his autobiography, subtitled "Memories of the first Hebrew child," Ittamar reports that even one of his father's staunchest supporters, Yehiel Michal Pines, was horrified by Ben Yehuda's methods. Pines accused him of sacrificing his son, like Abraham, and asked what he would do if Ittamar remained an idiot all his life. Ben Yehuda's chilling response was that he would carry on with each of his children-he had 11-until he succeeded.

If you ask Israelis about Ben Yehuda, they will usually describe him as the inventor of their language; he has the status of one of the Zionist founding fathers. He certainly did dedicate his life to the revival of spoken Hebrew, labouring on a huge dictionary which he described as a living hell. But ultimately he played a limited role in establishing Hebrew as the vernacular. It was only when Hebrew began to be used as the language of instruction in schools that its usage became widespread. Ben Yehuda, at home in Jerusalem, was remote from the heart of the action in the agricultural settlements.

The Hebrew which Israelis now speak on the street is not, perhaps, what Ben Yehuda had envisaged. Although some of the words coined for modern inventions are successfully derived from Hebrew (such as machshev, computer, which comes from the same root as the verb "to think"), many are not. When Ben Yehuda was unable to coin new words from biblical and post-biblical sources, he would turn to the roots of Hebrew's fellow Semitic languages, particularly Arabic. Modern Israelis, however, have plundered Arabic mainly for its slang: ahlan is a trendier way of saying hello than shalom. Israelis even use the colloquial Arabic interjection ya'ani, which roughly translates as "I mean."

But the main influence on Hebrew (as with almost every other language on the planet) is American English. Some words are directly translated into Hebrew from English such as gal-mikro (the wave of micro). But there is also a tendency to swallow English expressions whole. Israelis talk about having a problem with the homelessim; some have even begun giving their children English names. The adoption of a Hebrew name was once an essential mark of an Israeli identity.

The dominance of the army in Israeli culture has also left its mark on the language. A lot of slang has a military source: for example, the acronym luz, which means schedule.

Whatever the state of the language, George Eliot would have been astonished to learn that she had played a part in its birth and that the centenary of Daniel Deronda's publication was celebrated at a symposium in Jerusalem.