From today’s Haaretz, a piece commemorating the notorious Uganda proposal of 1903, in which the British government offered the Zionist Organisation an opportunity to settle in British East Africa. The article is very good, but it doesn’t mention that unexpected support for the proposal came from none other than Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda despaired of creating a vibrant modern Hebrew culture in the Holy Land, whose Jewish community was at that time overwhelmingly Ultra-Orthodox, and he thought that Hebrew culture would have a better chance of flourishing in Africa, beyond the reach of rabbinic control.
Israel has created the flourishing Hebrew culture of Ben-Yehuda’s dreams, but that culture can also be found throughout the world, and not necessarily only within major Israeli diaspora enclaves like New York. “Israeli” and “Hebrew” culture are interrelated but not identical. True, non-Jews producing Hebrew culture are rare – the poet Robert Whitehill is a fascinating exception – but Hebrew has become a global language, Israelis travel everywhere, and bi-national, bilingual authors like Shelly Oria (whose stories include one called “New York 1, Tel Aviv 0”) are likely to become increasingly common in years to come.