I come from Poland. Under communism, in my history school textbook Jews appeared just before the Holocaust, as a jack out of the box, and then were gone, completely. But in the conversations of adults around me Jews were constantly present. I gave little thought to this schizophrenia then, the mysteries of which became clearer to me when I began to research the history of language politics in Central Europe. How languages were standardized and shaped by the joint iron rule of official state-approved grammar, dictionary, script and orthography. Jews, living across the length and width of Central Europe, contributed to this process significantly, especially in the northern half of the region, where the idea of writing, recording the spoken word on parchment, was introduced in the wake of Christianization between the ninth and fourteenth centuries.
Jews had preserved their Hebrew-script literacy since Antiquity, ensconced in the Pentateuch, the Torah, which accompanied them wherever they went. Even the poorest of them adorned the door of their modest lodgings with the mezuzah containing a piece of paper with a calligraphed and rabbinicaly approved quotation from the Holy Book. Jan Hus, the prophet of religious and social renewal in early fifteenth-century Bohemia, used the local Slavic language (today’s Czech) in liturgy and dared to translate fragments of the Vulgate into it. (What bore on his decision was also Slavonic written in Glagolitic letters that had remained In Bohemia, vis-à-vis Latin, a parallel language of Catholic liturgy since the times of Greater Moravia.) For this, a century later he was seen to be the forerunner of the Reformation on a par with John Wycliffe. But in his own times, Hus’s views, interpreted by the Catholic hierarchy as intolerable heresy, led to him being burnt at the stake.
Before his death, Hus proposed doing away with two letters for writing the single sound of his Slavic language ([cz] for the sound /ch/, or [sz] for the sound /sh/). In Hus’s orthography, each sound of this language was to be represented by one letter only. As there are too few letters in the Latin alphabet to do the job, Hus doubled some of them by adorning the additional letters with a dot above it (for instance [e] yielding [ė], or [c] transformed into [ċ]). He took the dot-style diacritic from Hebrew yeshiva primers. In the Hebrew script, due to it being an abjad (consonantry), vowels are not marked. Dots and their combinations (known as niqqud for ‘dotting’) above and below Hebrew letters mark where vowels should be pronounced and which ones, thus helping the learner acquire the skill of writing and reading in this consonantry (the same is true of Arabic).
With time, Hus’s dotted letters became, for example, [ě] and [č], with the so-called háček (caron, literally ‘small hook’) above them, while the long vowels are distinguished in modern Czech by the acute accent ([á] or [é]), instead of the Hussite dot. Earlier the Jewish influence was felt in Central European literacy when the Glagolitic script was developed for writing Slavic in the ninth-century polity of Greater Moravia by the two Byzantine brother missionaries, Cyril and Methodius. Apparently, they based some Glagolitic letters on Hebrew ones. In early Poland, at the turn of the eleventh century, the first mint-masters were Jews, so the coins produced by them bear inscriptions in Slavic, but rendered in Hebrew characters.
Later, when printing was invented in the West and seized Western and Central Europe by storm, its progress stalled in the Ottoman Empire (including Europe’s Balkans). Writing and copying by hand, for religious and ideological reasons, were preferred there well into the nineteenth century, as it was also the case among Eastern Europe’s Orthodox Christians. But Jews who thrived in the Ottoman Empire, after having been expelled from the re-Christianized Iberian Peninsula at the turn of the sixteenth century, developed their own printeries, producing books in Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino (Spanyol) or Karaim (Karaite), all invariably in Hebrew characters. The spread of Jewish printing shops spanned all of Europe, as we define it nowadays, quite bravely across the religious and political cleavages that even today appear to many as insurmountable.
Almost each Jewish boy has had a command of some literacy since ‘time immemorial.’ But their peers in Central Europe (unless sons of nobles) were illiterate until the nineteenth century in Prussia and the Austrian half of Austria-Hungary, when compulsory elementary education for all was introduced and enforced there. The same development entered the rest of the region after the communist takeover at the end of the Second World War.
These meandering ways of literacy in Central Europe, intertwined with day-to-day politics, and the lesser or bigger participation of Jews in the process, made me look keenly forward to the prospect of delivering two lectures at the University of Tel Aviv; one on the politics of script in Central Europe, and another on the ethnolinguistic nature of the region’s nationalisms. It was possible, courtesy of the exchange program between this university and the University of St Andrews, as established over two decades ago by Miriam Eliav-Feldon. She had happened to do research at the St Andrews and liked the people and place so much that she had decided the experience should become available to her colleagues, as well. In return many scholars from St Andrews have enjoyed the rare privilege of visiting Israel.
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I entered Israel by the way of the Ben-Gurion Airport. And from the first sight I realized that Israel, in many ways, was a part of Central Europe, expelled wholesale by the black tradition of European anti-Semitism to the Middle East. The airport’s main building is constructed from solid sandstone, lovingly finished, and built to last, unlike many modern structures in Britain. This drive for the structural solidity of buildings says much about the political and social instability shared by Israel with Central Europe. When one cannot count on the powers that be to provide stability, one’s yearning for it translates into making one’s home as durable as possible so that it could survive the fires and high winds of wars, revolutions and border changes.
At times it turns out to be a counterproductive tactic, as nice houses, farm buildings and workshops attract the unwanted attention of predators, who by crook or hook, seize them from the rightful owners. Then it is time to move on in order to rebuild one’s life where one can be the decision-maker in one’s own house. That was the lode star of Zionists going to Palestine. Among their number was David Ben-Gurion, the future first prime minister of Israel. But prior to Hebricizing his name, he was a David Grün from the small Polish town of Płońsk. He left for Ottoman Palestine in 1906, when his town of birth was still located in the Russian Empire.
I visited Ben-Gurion’s unpretentious house in Tel-Aviv, now turned into a museum. It looks like any ‘one-family house’ (dom jednorodzinny) in a Czech or Polish town, fit for the family of a local teacher or medical doctor. The museum is full of Ben-Gurion’s books in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, French or Russian, but nothing – as far as I could see – in Polish. As if he had not attended the University of Warsaw, as if the Central European past was a mistake, the memory of which had to be erased. The same applies to the numerous photos showing Ben-Gurion with family and friends or on state visits. Only one or two date back to his Płońsk times, as though the period had never been.
The official language of New Hebrew, Ivrit, through the medium of which Ben-Gurion ruled and communicated, was created by another fellow Central European, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He came to Palestine a generation earlier than Ben-Gurion, in 1881. But from the very same country, the Russian Empire. Back there, Ben-Yehuda was known as Eliezer Perlman. He stemmed from the small shtetl of Luzhki, not far from Vil’na (or today’s Lithunian capital of Vilnius). Local nobles referred to his home village in Polish as Łużki, which nowadays is located in northern Belarus. Ben-Yehuda’s home languages were Russian and the unpopular Yiddish, then disparagingly referred to as ‘jargon.’
He believed that Jews to become ‘the Jews,’ a modern nation worthy of its name, they could not share their national language with another nation, be it the Russian language of the Russians, or Yiddish, which was, according to many, a ‘corrupted form’ of the German language of the Germans, just written in Heberew letters. No, the Jewish nation to arise, to be reawakened from the two millennia of its slumber, as the dominant topos of Central European nationalism had it, the Jewish nation had to return to its original language, Hebrew. This language was preserved until the modern times as a ‘holy-cum-commercial male language,’ transmitted to the successive generations of young boys in yeshivas.
Ben-Yehuda undertook the titanic task of single-handedly modernizing the idiom, so all the aspects of modern life could be described and effectively run through its medium. Hebrew was confined to the synagogue and business correspondence, but Ivrit was to become as flexible and wide-ranging as German or Russian. Before departing for Palestine in the Ottoman Empire, Ben-Yehuda married, but with the all-important caveat in the marriage contract providing that the couple’s firstborn son would be raised talking Hebrew only. And he was, which today would amount to unwarranted cruelty and prompt the social services to take away the boy from his parents hell-bent on running a sociolinguistic experiment on their child.
The father isolated Ben-Zion (or ‘son of Zion’) from his mother prone to singing lullabies to him in Russian. Unhappy, she paid for her participation in this experiment with a nervous break-down and died of tuberculosis in 1891. Obviously, Ben-Zion was not permitted to mix with anybody else either, because exclusively his father as the founder and codifier of Ivrit was the sole competent speaker of this language then. And even he, posed with some finer points of home life and linguistic expression, had to leave his son alone for hours on end in order to develop appropriate words and sentence combinations for expressing such meanings. Ben-Zion’s first friend was the family dog that did not speak any offensive language, which could ‘pollute’ the firstborn’s Ivrit. Not surprisingly, Ben-Zion did not talk until he was seven, but turned out to be the first native-speaker of Ivrit. A success, indeed, but perhaps not for the boy himself.
It did not mean at all that Ben-Yehuda’s Ivrit would become the language of choice and national identification of Jews, as it is today in Israel. The first half of the twentieth century was marked in British Palestine (seized by London from the Ottomans at the end of the Great War) by the little known ‘language wars.’ Proponents of Ivrit coaxed the new aliyahs (‘ascents,’ that is ‘waves’) of arrivals from Europe to adopt Ivrit, or else. The veiled threat meant beating up sellers of Yiddish publications, burning offices of Yiddish-language newspapers and publishers, boycotting and booing speakers daring to lecture in this ‘despicable jargon.’ Nowadays, Yiddish remains, as the ‘holy tongue,’ the preserve of the Haredim (‘those who are anxious and fearful of the Almighty’), or the most conservative Hassidic communities who account for over ten per cent of the Jewish population in Israel. They do not accept the existence of the State of Israel, because its creation was not the work of the Messiah, the second coming of whom they are still awaiting. Likewise, for the same Haredim talking in Hebrew, the Holy Tongue of the Torah, amounts to sacrilege. On the other hand, the Haredim do not have much need for literacy in Yiddish, either, beyond an odd poster and religious books for women.
So far Ben-Yehuda has been victorious in the linguistic struggle. One of the most fashionable streets in Tel-Aviv bears his name. Guests frequenting the exquisite restaurants and pastry-cafes there speak and text in Ivrit, read Ivrit-language newspapers and menus, and switch between standard Ivrit and Ivrit slang. Not even Ben-Yhuda’s son managed to derail his father’s project.
Ben-Zion proposed to switch to writing Ivrit in Latin characters, or at least to introduce letters for vowels in the Hebrew script for noting the language. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Latin alphabet spread by the Western imperial powers to each nook all over the world, seemed to be the sign and instrument of the inevitable modernization. The Latinization of the writing systems of the languages in interwar Soviet Union and the switch from the Arabic abjad to the Latin alphabet for writing Turkish in 1928, were thought to amply prove and justify this belief.
But Ben-Zion’s endeavors were to no avail, the tradition of not mentioning vowels in writing prevailed. Too much of a change could water down the essence of Jewishness, leaving Jews not undifferent from their Central European neighbors, or ‘gentiles,’ remaining on the northern shores of the Mediterranean in this ‘largest Jewish cemetery’ created by the Holocaust. Ben-Zion relented. Following the death of Ben-Yehuda, Ben-Zion’s younger brother, Ehud, completed editing and publishing their father’s authoritative dictionary of Ivrit in Hebrew characters only. But the ‘old country’ of Central Europe left its imprint on the authoritative eight-volume work, as the editors thought it indispensible to supply on the dictionary’s frontispiece the parallel titles given in the three lingua francas and main official languages of Central Europe until the nineteenth century, that is, in Latin, French and German: Thesaurus totius hebraitatis et veteris et recentioris, Dictionnaire complet de la langue hébraique ancienne et moderne, and Gesamtwörterbuch der alt- und neuhebräischen Sprache.
In line with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, London promised Jews a nation-state in Palestine then freshly seized by the British troops from the Ottomans. As I discovered during my all too brief a stay in Jerusalem, the British imperial push into the Near East was endowed with a distinctive Scottish flavour. On the account of the sociolinguist Bernard Spolsky’s advice, I stayed in the St Andrew’s Scottish Guesthouse of the Scottish Church (in brief ‘the Scottie’), run by Arab-speaking Christians, or as the political parlance of nowadays has it, Palestinians. But I like to think about them as Melkites, Arab-speakers who stuck to Christianity and remained loyal to the Byzantine Emperor, or Malka (‘King’) in Syriac, after his lands had been overrun by the Caliph’s armies of Islam.
How was it that a piece of Scotland serendipitously (or not) found itself in the midst of Palestine? Bernard, who until a year ago lived in the Old City of Jerusalem, patiently explained this matter, among many others, showing me around, taking steep steps and following circuitous lanes, hidden from view, known only to the locals. But it was when we were back at the guesthouse that he delivered a coup de grace. The guesthouse – as cold and austere as any bed and breakfast establishment in Scotland itself (though the varied and sumptuous Mediterranean more than made up for this deficiency) – is attached to the towering church, a veritable miniature of a crusader castle. Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, all kinds of Christian Churches from the West, supported by their home states, fought for a foothold in Jerusalem. But this Middle Eastern outpost of the Church of Scotland made good on its late joining in the competition for a place in the Holy City. It towers on a hill nearby the Old City, the prominent Scottish flag aloft, clearly visible from afar.
All this courtesy of General Edmund Allenby, the commander of Britain’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force that pushed into Ottoman Syria. The plaque to which Bernard pointed to announced that the general and his Scottish battalions ‘liberated Jerusalem’ in 1917. Coming from Poland, one third of whose territory had belonged to Germany before 1945, my knee-jerk question was, ‘Liberated from whom, for whom?’ Bernard just laughed, his succinct reply, ‘Imperialism, imperialism, ugh…’ In short, Allenby seized Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire for Britain, and now the main commercial thoroughfare in Tel-Aviv, a prolongation of Ben-Yehuda Street, is named after him (with a modest nod toward Central Europe in the form of the restaurant Little Prague that offers the glories of Mitteleuropäische cuisine in its Czech-, English- and Hebrew-language menu). To an uninitiated to the intricacies of the Middle Eastern history, it looks as if Allenby had been a Jewish hero, who at the head of his Zionist troops defeated the Sultan and won freedom for a Jewish state. But wasn’t it Ben-Gurion who proclaimed the independence of Israel in 1948? (During his term in office, between 1948 and 1963, there were two states in the world ruled by people born in Poland, namely, Israel and Poland itself.)
Strange, isn’t it? Or not at all. It is enough to recall the case of present-day Poland’s western and northern territories, more popularly known under its ideological sobriquet of the ‘Recovered Territories.’ The biggest city there, Wrocław, was German Breslau until 1945. But the Soviet-Polish capturing of the city and its subsequent incorporation into postwar Poland under Soviet tutelage, followed by the expulsion of Breslau’s invariably German-speaking inhabitants, until recently, was quite unreflectively summarized as ‘liberation.’ If history were different that is history’s problems, historians in the pay of their nation-state tend to follow the government’s wishes and take cue from their co-nationals’ emotional needs. Because what were these Poles to do who were expelled to Wrocław from Wilno, turned into Soviet-Lithuanian Vilnius, or from Lwów already changed into Soviet-Ukrainian Lviv?
But to return to the piece of Central Europe in the Middle East, about which I was to concern myself: In order to make good on the promise of a Jewish state, two years after the founding of a British Mandate of Palestine (1920), London announced Ivrit an official language in the territory, alongside English and Arabic. The three languages are written in their three distinctive writing systems: Hebrew, Latin and Arabic. So unusual a practice in Western Europe where the Latin alphabet rules supreme, but not unlike in Central Europe, where even today three official scripts brush sides, that is, Cyrillic and the Greek alphabet, besides the seemingly obvious Latin letters.
However, the three official writing systems of today’s Central Europe do not mix with one another, kept separate, at an arm’s length, in the region’s nation-states, for instance, the Greek alphabet in eponymous Greece, Cyrillic in Bulgaria, and the Latin script in Hungary. Scriptural apartheid rules the day. The polities espouse only one out of the three alphabets as their official writing system. In the nineteenth century, and in small ways also during the interwar years, more than one script could be employed in official capacity in a single state. But the sole polity that equalled British Palestine and modern-day Israel in their official tri-‘scripturality’ was interwar Soviet Belarus. The Soviet socialist republic enjoyed four official languages, Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish; written in three writing systems, that is, Cyrillic, Hebrew and Latin.
After the Second World War surviving Jews were intermittently allowed to leave or were expelled from the Soviet bloc countries in Central Europe. On the other hand, in the Soviet Eastern European heartland, where many Jews had escaped the Holocaust, shielded from the Einsatzgruppen and the Wehrmacht by the Red Army, they became hostages of the Cold War confrontation. The Soviet Union banned ‘its’ Jews from leaving for the ‘rotten capitalist’ West or for Zionist Israel, repeatedly victorious over the Kremlin’s Arab allies. All that changed under Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist administration in the latter half of the 1980s, and the last barriers to emigration fell in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up. Around one million Russian-speaking Jews and their non-Jewish spouses and family members left for Israel. Nowadays they account for over one fifth of the state’s Jewish population.
Russian is not an official language in Israel, but for all practical reasons it is. One third of conversations in the streets of Tel-Aviv on which I eavesdropped were in Russian. Iris Rachamimov, Head of the Cummings Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Tel-Aviv, took care of the practical arrangements of my stay. I was put up in the Park Plaza Orchid Hotel at the city’s relaxed beachfront. Next to the hotel there is the Aliyah memorial, that in form of ship hulks and stylized waves commemorates the arrivals of the successive groups of settlers from Europe between the late nineteenth century and 1948.
No monument to the immigrants from the post-Soviet states is to be seen anywhere. Yet, during the last two decades Israel has thrived economically thanks to their youth and energy, when in the wake of the two intifadas hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers were sacked as a ‘security risk,’ and subsequently walled off in the ever-diminishing territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. I took the hotel lift to the underground parking at street level. It was enough to cross the street, and I found myself on the promenade extending all the way north to the marina, and further south to Jaffa. I stood on the beach bedecked in flour-like dazzlingly white sand. Indeed, this was the Mediterranean at its mildest, as anywhere in North Africa. To my Northern eye a spot of true summer in mid-January. At noon it was well above twenty degrees Celsius in full sunshine.
In the café on the beach I ordered a Turkish coffee and relaxed in a plastic deck chair. Waves were lazily lapping the shore line. In front of me English-speaking boys were horsing around and getting amorous with the girls at their table. A thick-set and jovial masseur played his trade, massaging a girl’s feet and calves tense and painful, perhaps, after dancing an all-nighter. Out of the blue a horse rider appeared sending a ripple of apprehension in the clientele. But he controlled his stallion admiringly, and the horse danced to the rider’s slightest moves, as if it were a Lizzipaner straight from the imperial stables at the Vienna Hof. We clapped, what a show.
My coffee arrived, with the hefty price tag of fifteen shekels, or two pounds and sixty pence. It was ground coffee in a small glass tumbler, made with boiling water poured straight into it. Not a genuine item, but that is what ‘Turkish coffee’ means in the Czech Republic, Poland or Slovakia. Another trace of ‘Middle Europe’ in the Middle East.
I took a stroll, and a couple asked me to take their photo against the backdrop of the sea and the pier. With each other they spoke Russian. I switched into this language, too, which left them a bit disconcerted. Probably, they did not know what to make of my non-standard pronunciation, which on another occasion in the past had led to the interpretation that I must be from the Pribalitika, or one of the three post-Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
English and its Latin letters ‘linger’ on road and information signs and in everyday conversations, despite the banning of this language in 1948 after the founding of Israel. The special link which Israel enjoys with the United States, thanks to the American Jewry, does allow English to continue as a semi-official language. The Jewish state is officially bilingual, with Hebrew and Arabic. But the one-million-strong Russian-speakers carved a space for themselves by the very weight of their demographic presence. Libraries and bookshops established Russian book sections for them, local publishers produce maps and information brochures in Russian, a vibrant Russian-language press arose in Israel, including the daily Vesti (founded in 1992), and since 2002 the Russian-language Channel 9 (Television Plus) has been broadcasting (with Hebrew subtitles). Nowadays Russian-language radio stations, websites and internet portals joined the competition. Israel’s Russian-speakers enjoy most novels and stories by Dina Rubina. She left the Soviet Union in 1990 but continued writing in Russian. This decision and the break-up of her communist patria let the author make her career international, as she is now one of the most beloved popular Russian-language writers in the post-Soviet states and in Israel, or across half the globe.
De facto Russian is Israel’s third language after Hebrew and English, while provisions for upholding the official status of Arabic is observed lukewarmly at best. Languages continue to be a touchy subject, on which one can easily wrongfoot one’s interlocutor. Not unlike in Central Europe. The sociolinguist, Paul Wexler, from the University of Tel-Aviv proposes to consider the possibility that Yiddish is a Slavic language, the vocabulary of which was gradually ‘relexified’ (replaced) with Germanic words, and that many Jews speaking this tongue (or nowadays their descendants) may be of other ethnic origins than the Jewish one. Cultures are spawned into being by human imagination that shapes them through and in the medium of language. They are in no way pegged on the genetic make-up of human groups. Ethnic groups continue with individuals constantly joining and leaving them, as in the case of the American (or more correctly, US) nation, a member of which one can become after having been conferred with US citizenship.
In the United States of America most do not split a hair about the varied ethnic origins of the Americans, though the divisive issue of race continues to grate. However, the approach is different in Central Europe, where the ethno-historic and linguistic purity of the nation and of the origin of its today’s members is made into the foundational myth that legitimates the nation’s existence and right to its own national polity. But few see it as a myth, and many would get quite worked up and emotional to ensure that the belief stands as ‘the truest truth,’ even despite the facts on the ground. In Israel, too.
Although Yiddish has no official standing in the state, and proponents of Ivrit still tend to smirk at it, somehow these Ivrit-speakers, with no Yiddish word to their soul, prefer to see Yiddish as a member of the group of Germanic languages. Somehow, facts to the contrary and the tragedy of the Holocaust are overlooked in this case, and the possibility of Yiddish being one of the Slavic languages must be avoided. Paul proposes that this attitude is an effect of the unreflectively espoused belief, exported from Central Europe, of the civilizational and cultural superiority of the ‘language of Goethe’ over the ‘lower’ and ‘near-barbaric’ idioms of the Slavs.
When Paul and his wife, Carol, were kindly showing me around the leafy Tel-Aviv alleys lined with exquisite Bauhaus buildings, I asked him whether the case of English could be used to argue for the serial, Slavic and then Germanic, character of Yiddish. English of the Angle, Jute and Saxon invaders began as a through and through Germanic tongue. But in 1066 Romancephone Normans conquered Britain and ushered French as the high prestige and official language in the country. French remained the language of British courts until the late seventeenth century. The processes left English with a Germanic syntax but overwhelmingly Romance vocabulary. Hence, it is a Romance-cum-Germanic language. Origins tend to be cumulative in their character, not exclusive.
Paul sighed in reply, as we continued in the direction of Jaffa. To cheer him up I pointed to a brand-new manhole cover under which the canal with optical fiber cables runs hidden from the view. The inscription on the cover, ‘Caution Optical Fiber!’ was provided in four languages and their four different scripts, namely, in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and… hear, hear… Russian. Quite an indication to be seen by all, that de facto, if not yet on the legal books, Russian has indeed become Israel’s another official language. It is a Slavic idiom, and Russian-speakers as a group are not going to fade away among the Israeli population anytime soon. So there is a hope that social attitudes will catch up with Paul’s theory. Isn’t it so that Russian is the language of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky?
I asked Paul why, in variance to the booming presence of Russian, the Amharic language of Ethiopian Jews (or Beta Israel) was nowhere to be seen, though they moved to Israel in the 1990s, or at the same time when the Jews from the post-Soviet states arrived. Perhaps, Amharic was spoken around me, but having no knowledge of Ethiopic languages, I could not discern between it and Hebrew or Arabic spoken in the streets. Paul replied that the explanation of the absence of posters, books or public notes in Amharic was the relatively small number of the aliyah from Ethiopia, about sixty thousand people. Most were illiterate and besides Amharic tended to speak a plethora of other Ethiopia’s languages. But his face brightened when I showed to him a state-sponsored ad in my copy of Vesti that information on the forthcoming elections to the Knesset in late January 2013 could be obtained in Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, English, Spanish and Russian by calling the indicated telephone numbers.
The old Ottoman port of Jaffa saw the founding of Tel-Aviv in 1906 on the barren costal dunes north of it, and in the latter half of the twentieth century was engulfed by the rapidly growing Jewish city. In the wake of the fighting that followed the declaration of the independence of Israel, the majority of the Arab inhabitants of Jaffa left, fearing for their lives. They hoped to return after the fighting was over, as it had happened in the case of the past wars. But they were not allowed back. The port town still has not regained the size of its pre-1948 population, and Jews constitute the majority accounting for two-thirds of the inhabitants.
Until recently Jaffa was the preserve of Tel-Aviv’s bohemians and artists, and of impoverished Arab fishermen, who continued as their forefathers to set out to the sea, bringing frutti di mare galore to the shore shortly after at the sunrise. Now with the Tel-Aviv sky-scrapers looming high over the port town, the relentless gentrification set in. Jaffa’s decrepit buildings are restored to their previous (or imagined) glory, and the remaining Arab inhabitants are priced out from the area. Jaffa, an attractive Ottoman port at the Mediterranean is lovingly preserved, less its Ottoman population of Arabs.
‘What an irony,’ I thought recollecting the gentrification of Kazimierz, Cracow’s historical Jewish quarter, beautified so much at the turn of the twenty-first century. The quarter’s Jewish past is remembered and fondly cherished, now when Kazimierz is denuded of Jews, its original inhabitants dead or the survivors and their descendants ‘safely tucked away’ in distant Israel or the United States. The duty of cherishing is fulfilled and done over once a year during a week in early July, when this post-Jewish and postmodern Kazimierz hosts the Jewish Culture Festival. The postmodern, post-ethnic cleansing fate of Kazimierz is so eerily reminiscent of that of Jaffa.
I was leaving the hotel in the early morning on Saturday to catch my return flight to Scotland. The lift’s door was open, the sumptuous armchair, placed against the mosaic representing an orchid in full bloom, welcoming a religious traveler or flâneur. I walked in and sat in the armchair. Nothing was happening, the lift was audibly buzzing and being patient. The floor buttons disregarded my nervous fingers pushing them in. No reply was forthcoming in the usual light flashing from the button representing the floor to which I intended to go. I disembarked and took a different lift, fast and efficient as on every work day.
I should have known better, it was Sabbath. ‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.’ The old rule, despite the modernity and post-religiosity of Tel-Aviv, was kept in the city’s ‘best four-star hotel.’ Mezuzahs attached on the right to the door frame of each hotel room were a give-away that I had failed to register. Valiant rabbis do not despair, a modernity comes and goes, the Lord’s word remains, because it is eternal. God’s commandments must be observed, geography and changing times are not an excuse enough. No work on Sabbath; and you still observe the commandment, when you just happen by chance to enter the Sabbath lift and travel from one floor to another at the leisurely pace of stopping for long intervals at each floor. No need to hurry on the holy day. The armchair is plush and cosy, the world is too fast, I wish the plane would wait for me. But I rush, a self-sacrificing offering to the gods of modernity, guilty like hell of breaching the first commandment.
The empty armchair in the Sabbath lift, disregarded by travellers, stands so symbolic of the echoing absences in today’s Kazimierz and Jaffa. The old Central Europe, the old Ottoman Near East all irretrievably gone, erased from the memories, forgotten in the records of the past. Who recollects now the year 1968 and the expulsion of the remaining Jews from communist Poland? It was the year of students’ protests in France and West Germany. The Red Army supported by the Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia that wanted socialism with a human face. What about Polish Jews? They can’t be. You can be either a Pole or a Jew. The two do not mix. That is why ubiquitous Polish-language publications on the Polish diaspora (dubbed ‘Polonia’) with a presence in almost each of the world’s states, astoundingly failed to notice any in Israel. But until the 2004 enlargement of the European Union, in the wake of which over two million Poles have left for Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherland or Sweden; the biggest market for the Polish-language book and press outside Poland was in Israel.
But according to their compatriots in Poland, there are still, no Poles, no Polish minority in Israel. How sad, how much in breach of the multi-ethnic tradition of Austria-Hungary’s make-shift and squeaking but to the bone practical, ‘live-and-let-live’ tolerance. The ultra-modern, sleek and metallically-sounding orthodoxy of homogenous purity of nation and language keeps postmodern Central Europe’s inhabitants enthralled. History is no teacher, the poisonous fruits of the region’s twentieth-century ideologies are still with us, resoundingly condemned. Yet they are cherished nevertheless in their exorcised, seemingly less lethal strains, while retaining their politically and socially sought-for virulence that infects all.
One of my favourite pastimes when I worked in the civil service of the Polish region of Opole was to probe, off the cuff, the region’s parliamentarians on what the constitutional definition of the Polish nation is. They smiled apologetically and hurried to leave having more time to spend talking, or tactically changed the subject. Not a single one of them was capable of recalling that the Polish postcommunist Constitution of 1997, in its very Preamble, equates the Polish nation with all citizens of the Republic of Poland. Those few MPs who continued talking with me were flabbergasted at the ‘revelation.’ With the caveat that they would double-check this unbelievable piece of information, they proposed I was wrong, because to be a Pole one, at least, needs to speak Polish. But in the case of Polish-speaking Jews in Israel, anyway, it was not enough to earn them the distinction of being part of Polonia. Neither Polish citizenship nor excellent command of the Polish language – so amply proved by Poland’s most beloved children’s poet, Jan Brzechwa (vel Jan Wiktor Lesman) – prevented the expulsion of Jews from Poland in 1968.
After the exquisite Tel-Aviv-style vegan dinner, prepared by Paul’s Wife, Carol, we took a taxi home. My Wife, Beata, and I talked about the day’s impressions, which was a give-away. The thirty-odd-year-old taxi driver asked us in English whether we were from Poland. Indeed, we were, and we asked back, ‘How did you know? Do you speak Polish?’
‘No, no,’ chuckled the driver. ‘Last year I was in Wrocław, so I can recognize Polish when it is spoken.’
‘How did you like the city.’
‘A great place, the size of Tel-Aviv but better organized, safer.’
‘Did you go there to see some Jewish monuments?’
‘No, the economic situation in Israel is difficult for young people, and the weather is not too good in Europe.’
‘Well, to collect my Polish citizenship documents and passport.’
‘I am happy to hear that we are compatriots (rodacy in Polish) now.’ I extended my arm to him, and we shook hands. It felt good to be a Pole, it was worth waiting for this moment to see that the Polish Constitution does work in spite of all the ignorance displayed by Polish politicians and lawmakers.
‘When did your parents leave Poland?,’ I continued our serendipitous conversation.
‘It was my father. In 1968.’
‘You mean he was expelled.’
‘Yes, all his family. My granny, called him “Heniu,” which is Polish for “Henry”. That’s what I know of Polish,’ the driver laughed.
‘Are you going back to Poland soon? I’ve heard Israeli doctors emigrate there, because in Polish hospitals they can count on better salaries than in Israel.’
‘No, not to Poland. I plan to find a job in Britain.’
‘I understand, I live in Scotland,’ I replied.
Both of us Europeans, trusting in the EU citizenship.
Dundee, February 2013