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Creating a radical Hebrew culture — in the diaspora

Israeli artists and authors abroad are beginning to create an alternative Hebrew culture that challenges norms and national borders. Israeli politicians, on the other hand, aren’t so pleased.

By Mati Shemoelof

People walk by a mural depicting a combination of the Israeli and German flag on the Berlin wall, March 13, 2016. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

People walk by a mural depicting a combination of the Israeli and German flag on the Berlin wall, March 13, 2016. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Over the past few years we have been witnessing the growth of an alternative Hebrew culture, both independent and diverse, outside of Israel. Just recently two Hebrew-language publications have been published in Berlin: the bi-lingual magazine “Aviv,” edited by Hano Hanostein and Itamar Gov, and “Mikan V’Eilach,” dedicated to diasporic Hebrew and edited by Tal Hever-Chybowski. They join the relatively older magazine “Shpitz,” edited by Tal Alon, and a number of institutions such as Berlin’s Hebrew library and the Berlin Public Library.

Diasporic culture is slowly awakening in Israel as well. Examples include Itamar Orlev’s book “Bandit,” or Tomer Gardi’s new book, which was written in broken German and is currently making waves in Germany. The discourse is not defined by the physical location of the writers, but rather by their consciousness, which is the product of diaspora. In the global age it is difficult to feel obligated to national borders, the borders of language, or the borders dictated to the citizen by his nation.

I feel, however, that there is a need to make clear the cultural aspect of this diaspora, which includes a diverse cast of voices and takes place in so many places that it is actually bigger than Berlin (Berlin, of course, is a strategic place because of the history of the Holocaust). The paradox is that while Israel is closing its borders to the diaspora, it is also appropriating its works. For example, while the annual Sapir Prize for Literature was closed off to writers who live abroad, the State of Israel is monopolizing Jewish works of art and literature outside of Israel, as exemplified by the National Library of Israel’s attempt to take ownership of Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, for instance.

Over the past few years, more and more voices in Israel want to close the door to Hebrew, Jewish, and Israeli voices who live abroad, specifically because of the growing effect of the Hebrew diaspora. But this rejection only strengthens the diaspora. On the one hand, strengthening the mental border between border Israel and the diaspora leads to a deeper understanding that there is a need for creative independence and autonomy in the diaspora. On the other hand, there is a refusal to forgo a dialogue, whose goal is to go beyond these borders.

This reaction is reminiscent of the neoconservatism that we see in fundamentalist movements, which oppose globalization and freedom of information — and are explicitly against cosmopolitan identities. Is it even possible to create imaginary borders between Hebrew, Jewish, and Israeli works in the Internet age? It is wonderful to see that every conservative response is answered by an even more radical response by people who understand that their art is greater than the narrow imagination of politicians.

And the paradox lies before us: the more they try to strengthen the borders, the more culture will flourish and challenge these conservative positions by creating more cosmopolitan, independent diasporic structures. If we open these borders to other languages and places, we could become part of a never-ending stream of creativity. That way we can truly learn what is happening outside our national group.

Diasporic culture often criticizes Israel from both inside and outside. They put up an emotional wall to try and stop Israeli voices from developing this culture. This wall joins a long list of other walls that Israel builds. Israel tried to block out the diaspora, and the attempt to stop this new culture is yet another attempt to negate the Jewish diaspora. The emotional aspect, which seeks to ignore voices of lamentation, is reminiscent of the way Mizrahim and Palestinians are silenced. Instead of rejecting the laments, listen to them — they are not coincidental.

For many years Israelis left the country due to political, social, ethnic, and gender problems that were created by the state — and which the state never took responsibility for. The Mizrahim who immigrated to the U.S., Palestinian refugees who were thrown out of their country, Palestinian citizens who often feel like it’s better to be foreigners in foreign countries than foreigners in their homeland. The attempt to block out any criticism of Israel is a form of joining the masculine, militant stream of Israeli hasbara. Anti-Semitism and fascism created Israel, yet without criticism we return to these very constructs. We must listen to diasporic voices without building emotional and political barriers, ones that hide behind the idea of “patriotism,” which in itself is a continuation of oppression by other means.

Mati Shemoelof is an Israeli author, poet, editor, journalist and activist based in Berlin.

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    1. R5

      Guess what guys!!! We don’t need the State of Israel to preserve Hebrew culture because “radical” folks are doing in the Diaspora and are totally never going to assimilate!!! I know that Yiddish has virtually disappeared from American Jewish life in less than two generations, but we have these two super rad Hebrew zines in Germany and they’re never gonna close like the Yiddish Forward did. So seriously just forget the residents of Israel and leave them to their fate. They may have built modern Hebrew culture from scratch but now they’re dicks now, and together with my buddies we can seriously confront those bullies who are trying to steal Kafka and all of the Jewish culture that us diaspora radicals are in a much better position to save for posterity. Real talk.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Jimmy

      You are hilarious. Your diasporic Hebrew culture has the lifespan of your audience’s willingness to base their identities and cultural consumption on the particularism of the place they have left. Given that by your own admission the diasporic culture is globalist in nature that is not very long. Your children will speak German and bad Hebrew. Your fellow “Israelis” in Berlin will gradually learn German, and be absorbed in German and global culture. You have nothing to contribute to Israeli Hebrew culture because your sub-culture by definition and design leads to a dead-end due to cultural extinction. There is nothing to learn from you for someone growing up and living in the reality of Israel, which has nothing in common with your reality in Berlin.

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    3. Tommy Goldberg

      Guess what, guys? Humans don’t owe allegiance to the tribes of their ancestors. As long as we don’t infringe on anybody else’s rights, we’re free to pursue happiness as we see fit. That’s basically become the consensus among people in free societies throughout the world.

      But yeah, granting people agency in such ways is a hard pill to swallow for conformist, tribalist regimes — whether their leader rule from Riyadh or Jerusalem.

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    4. R5

      Tommy: the entire Western world that apparently looks to you like a free and multicultural sort of place is actually a hegemonic bully that burns most of the world’s resources so you and I can live comfortable lives. Being American, Canadian, British, etc. means being part of a very very exclusive tribe among dozens of miserable, oppressed tribes. Just by being a consumer and living under the protection of your national government, you are reaping a gigantic windfall from your membership card. You are benefiting much, much more from allegiance to the tribe of your ancestors than any Israeli, and most Saudis. Just because you see a bit of cultural diversity where you live doesn’t mean you’re a progressive, borderless citizen of the world. Your preaching is pure hypocrisy. Surrender your Passport and move to Guinea, and maybe you’d have the moral standing to make your point.

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    5. i_like_ike52

      I know of numerous Israelis who made YERIDAH (i.e. fled Israel), most of those that have children see that their children speak Hebrew poorly if at all and have little interest in Israel. They are like the Jews in general living outside Israel. They are assimilating to the local culture.
      There was once a thriving “diaspora” Jewish/Yiddish culture that also emphasized socialism and universalism. It more or less evaporated after just one generation. The same will happen with this “Hebrew diaspora” unless it completely reconnects with Judaism, Zionism and the real, physical Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Lewis from Afula

      These Israelis living in Berlin will return home when the German economy starts imploding. After 2020, those German boomers will start retiring en masse, leaving them with a shrinking working population. Having 1 kid per family may create a prosperity for a while until it starts to reverse itself.

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    7. i_like_ike52

      This reminds me of a clip available on YOUTUBE of a meeting a few years ago of anti-Zionist Bundists in Tel Aviv. They join in a feeble rendition of the “Internationale” which I think was is Yiddish. Yossi Sarid was present (wasn’t he a Zionist?) . He was then about 70 years old and he was the youngest person there. This “radical Diaspora Hebrew” political culture will end up the same way.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mitch

      Hello – this was an interesting article, but could you please provide specific examples of Israeli politicians or “voices in Israel” who want “to close the door to Hebrew, Jewish, and Israeli voices who live abroad” or a refusal to forgo dialogue? In addition to the Sapir prize controversy of course.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Margalit Ez

      Dear author, poet, editor, journalist and activist,

      what risk are you taking when writing about your radicalism? What actually is so radical about your postmodern multiculturalism that is accepted by neo-liberal mainstream media in the whole world?

      While Tel Aviv is a Jewish bubble, Berlin is the bubble of a multiculturalism that nowhere exists, only in the minds of the people that escaped from their mono-cultural German villages, from the struggle in their homelands they got tired of, from apartment prices in N.Y., Paris, Stockholm, Tel Aviv considered as too high, and in most cases from traumata stricken, unhappy families. What Berlin really makes a diverse city is not the invasion of hipsters coming from everywhere but rather the refugee flows and a huge Turkish community. Both groups are not making a big fuss about it.

      To be a radical means to take risks, the risk to get in jail, the risk to get expelled from your jobs (author, poet, editor, journalist), or from the country, to get separated from your family. It is nothing bad about not being a radical, but to claim to be a radical while conducting a bourgeois kind of life style adapted to the very conventions of Western culture and not touching the taboos of it, is doing grave injustice to those who are true activists and risk their existence when publishing an article.

      If you want to be a radical, then do it there, where you live now and don’t play the Jewish card in German public. It is all to easy to get famous as a Jew in Germany because everybody feels guilty there, even the unborn babies (only they don’t yet know about it..). Germany urgently needs radical thought to influence culture politics, to question the “eia-popeia” of the left, the aporias of the multicultural pattern, and last but not least Germany’s affirmative Israel politics.

      But when you say “diaspora”, you also say “eretz israel”. Or do I mistaken when assuming that the notions origin from the Bible and that they are splattered by its Zionist usage? Would this not implicate that the Zionist pattern still remains the reference point of your sayings? There were true radicals in Israeli history who turned the pair of notions upside down and talked about Israel as the “diaspora”. That was radical. And there are those who prefer to not use these categories at all when talking about Israel. They are executing a very decent revolution that nonetheless is a very radical one. Of course, in most cases they are not getting famous with their non-sayings. But the question is, what do we need more: Another famous Mati Shemoelof or to make a change in this world?

      In solidarity with all true radicals of the past, the present, and the future,
      Margalit Ez

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ralph

      A very interesting and beautiful perspective.

      Political discourse in Israel is very loudmouthed, so your point of view will not be consider till you scream it, nothing to do about it 🙂

      But the ideas are there. A certain percentage of yordim or their children wishes to return to Israel and there are friends, family connections, cultural contact with Israel.

      Now there are 8.5 million people in Israel. The place is overcrowded. Why should the taboo of yerida remain? In fact considering that cultured people are more likely to move all over the world, a globalist attitude should be encouraged since it can please scholars and intellectuals and encourage the exchange of ideas. Accidentally the diasporic Jewish community has always been very cosmopolitan and this has been its strength. It is only natural that this should continue

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    11. Ralph

      And why should a radical say what *you* want to hear?

      Reply to Comment
    12. Average American

      I don’t think anyone minds a people keeping their own culture. Israel is very obviously keeping it’s culture. It is The Jewish State. It was created for Jews by very hard-line Zionists and a very big bank. It’s prime ministers have all been Zionists. It’s flag has the Jewish symbol on it. I just think alot of people bristle at the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist culture’s reasons for not assimilating. They are taught to not weaken Jewish blood by mixing with non-Jewish blood, keep the bloodline pure. (Since this article refers to Germany, I can refer to the Aryans wanting to keep their bloodline pure.) Another of their reasons for not assimilating is they are taught non-Jews are amusing gullible pets unfit to touch their wine glasses. Obviously in the diaspora no other culture is going to go for that attitude, and maybe Jews in the diaspora learn that and assimilate.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Margalit Ez

      I have nothing against yeridot, the opposite, I’m very much in favor of it. But it is the same here: Why to call it yerida? You also call the ’48 Palestinian refugees yordim? No, you don’t! cause they are not Jews. So, all what I say is that the terminology still fits the Zionist paradigm.. diaspora, yerida, etc. And in fact, yeridot have never been a taboo, since the end of world war II people have always left the country forever (and some heros even during the war). The taboo is to speak about it in political terms. So, when I think think through it once again, probably it is right to scream it out loudly. But still, why to call it radical? Nobody who is doing something truly radical needs to explain that (s)he is doing something radical. People will know it. Because (s)he has broken a longstanding, powerful taboo.. And to do so will most likely come along with the withdrawal of some common civil liberties the radical has enjoyed so far. So it’s not about me, or what I want to hear. It’s about modesty.

      Reply to Comment
    14. i_like_ike52

      Ralph-
      A correction-You stated ” the diasporic Jewish community has always been very cosmopolitan and this has been its strength. It is only natural that this should continue”
      I am sorry to have to remind you but the “cosmopolitan diasporic Jewish community” in Europe was almost completely annihilated not so long ago. Therefore, those who are dreaming of attempting to recreate such a thing, which doesn’t really exist today (yes, there are Jews living in the diaspora, but they are not really relevant in a Jewish context), has to keep in mind that there future is not only dependent on what these diaspora Jews do, but on what their non-Jewish neighbors plan to do as well. For instance, ask the Jews of France how well they are doing in their “cosmopolitan diasporic community”.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Margalit, what you say is obviously true, but as an outsider to Israel and Jewish culture, I suppose it all comes down to the sort of schyzophrenia you can expect in Israelis who do not want to adjust to the Zionist paradigm. I do not criticise them, and actually it is very commendable that they fight against the injustice that is being exerted against Palestinians e. a. But their cultural identity is Israeli and Hebrew nonetheless, and they yearn for an Israeli / Hebrew identity that is not tainted by the Zionist enterprise. Of course this Hebrew “diaspora” will most probably assimilate and disappear in one or two generations (at most), but it gives them the chance of feeling part of a “tribe” which is no more that of Netanyahu and Bennett, but they can feel as their own. And of course there is nothing truly “radical” about it. But the truth is that a progressive Hebrew culture can only exist in Israel, and it’s up to Israelis to créate it (if they are interested in it, of course)

      Reply to Comment
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