Could Israel have developed along similar lines if it had been based around the Yiddish language?
The answer is probably yes but it’s just hard to play these historical games. The Yiddish language was more than just a raft of vocabulary. It was nuanced, it has an ironic sense of humor. When I read -- and I can only read them in translation -- Yiddish writers, I feel like I’m being transported into a world which is a little like the world of blacks singing the blues. Could blacks who sing the blues create a tough national movement? We know that it’s possible. Look at the Black Panthers. People who sing the blues can be after some generations in a different space and a different experience and could use that language to reflect that different experience. But the Zionists always thought the Yiddish language would not lend itself to this.
It was the language of weakness.
Exactly. I remember Menachem Begin was filmed in an unscripted moment after he came to power in 1977. He was sitting around with a bunch of friends. I don’t know if he realized he was being filmed but I don’t know if he would be embarrassed if he knew he was. He was explaining how you could never run an army in Yiddish. “Could you imagine even if we had the Hebrew phrase Amod Dom (‘Stand at attention’) in the Ashkenazi pronunciation: Amoid Doim.” And he burst out laughing at the idea that these bent-over Ashkenazi, religious Yiddish types could ever conduct war in Yiddish. We know from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that of course they could have done so. So what Begin was reflecting was the whole supercilious attitude of the Zionists toward the whole Yiddishkeit. Because they saw themselves as the solution to Yiddishkeit. So you are asking me could a national life have evolved around Yiddish? Yes. Could it have been a tough national life? We know that it could under certain conditions. Was Yiddishkeit likely to produce the kind of national movement Zionism became? Well the answer is that it didn’t. It created the Bund and it created left-wing organizations, because it was a language that embodied the Jews as this sort of pushed-around minority culture around this larger framework.
May we point out that Ze'ev Jabotisnky formulated the first military words of command in Hebrew for the Jewish Legion in World War I. Perhaps Avishai misunderstood Begin's humor, if indeed, the incident occurred as he recalls.