Ever wonder why English is the language of both air traffic control and the Internet ? After all, far more people in the world speak Chinese, Arabic, Spanish and other languages. One factor might be that Americans created both (I think a former Vice-President brought us the Internet), or that Americans are also notoriously monolingual. But there is a more fundamental reason: America is a cultural hegemonist (I prefer that word to “imperialist”) and the world’s trendsetter. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Israel. American English is a second language in Israel, but even that does not convey the extent of its infiltration into Israeli society. It is not that you can get by without speaking Hebrew; indeed, it is difficult to embrace the society without speaking Hebrew. But English idioms have become commonplace in Israeli speech – and not just the “ya” endings of yesteryear (televizya, protektsiya). Listen to any Israeli speak – an ordinary citizen or media personality – and they will sprinkle their sentences with words or phrases like “why not, time, time out, so what, picnic, shopping, reform, focus, center, fight, loser, campaign, OK, activist, forum, compliment, chance, conflict” (pronounced con-FLICT, plural con-FLICT-im), not to mention technical terms like “internet, e-mail, fax, high-definition” and literally hundreds of other words. These words are all transliterated into Hebrew in the press. No doubt this is partly the influence of globalization, here known of course as “globalizatzya.” Rather than grasp for a Hebrew word, it is often easier just to say it in English, with the occasional conversionary suffixes. Preparing for a public speech a few weeks ago, I looked up the word “speculative”. I need not have; the Hebrew is “speculativi”. Occasionally, the pronunciations and etymologies are humorous. Liat Collins, who writes a language column in the Jerusalem Post, reported on an argument she had with her commander in the army many years ago, who gave her an “ool-ti-mah-tum” (ultimatum) claiming it was a Hebrew word and correcting her (she is British) when she insisted on pronouncing it “ul-ti-mah-tum”. (Of course, they were both wrong; ul-ti-may-tum). There is such a thing as the Academy for the Hebrew Language, but if it is not defunct, it is certainly moribund and irrelevant. On this subject, part of me wishes that “Saturday” would enter the Israeli lexicon in order to avoid hearing such non sequiturs as “On Shabbat, we drove to the Galil for a picnic”. Another part of me feels that at least use of the word “Shabbat” helps keep the idea of Shabbat alive, even if it is not observed properly. And if language in Israel is an amalgam of Hebrew, English and a little Arabic (my time here has been both achla and sababa), the culture itself is dominated by America and American entertainment. The reality TV craze in America has hit Israel with full force – the shows with the amateur survivors, singers, dancers, models, etc. are featured prominently and achieve high “ratings” (also a “Hebrew” word). Full disclosure: I have never watched any of those shows, either Israeli or American versions, but I have read about them. The most amusing American template that I have seen is “Ha-laila”, Israel’s Tonight Show. (“From Kikar Dizengoff in Tel Avivvvvv, it’s Halaila – starring Lior Schleiiiiiiiiin”!). It is rank mimicry of the late night talk shows in America – featuring the host, the monologue (I never would have thought that Asara B’Tevet could be mined for comic material!), the desk, the backdrop (Tel Aviv, instead of New York City or Hollywood), the sofa chairs, the band and the banter with the bandleader. (The celebrities are a little third-tier. A singer performing at a kiosk in Ashkelon ?) No institution in society is spared the comic barbs of the amiable host – politicians, the army, the Haredim, the Arabs, even the Tel Avivians. But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then America, consider yourself flattered, and then some. The penetration of all things American (including glitzy political campaigns that mask inept and often corrupt politicians) certainly enables American olim to make an easier adjustment. The comfort level with English and American culture is such that living in Israel can have quite a familiar feel. (I even watch Fox News Channel here.) I wonder though at what cost, and whether indeed olim – especially religious olim – are looking to find the 51st State here. I think most are not, and not only because of the occasional decadence of Western culture but rather because of a desire to develop and immerse themselves in an indigenous Israeli, or religious-Jewish culture, befitting a Jewish state. Certainly, the culture as it is has little general appeal to the more traditional elements in society. Religious Jews have begun in the last decade or so to fashion purely religious cultural offerings – literature and movies – and of course religious music has been a powerhouse for several decades already. And religious Jews are blessed with a plethora of shiurim¬ – every night of the week, and on an immense variety of topics – in almost every community in the country. (I do wish Israelis had a keener sense of time. It is not atypical for an evening shiur to start 15-45 minutes after the scheduled time, almost like a Syrian-Jewish wedding. I have begun asking Rabbanim if their shiurim are starting “on time” or “on Israel time.” One answered: “Well, we are in Israel.” Major exception: I attended this week the World Conference of Orthodox Rabbis, under the auspices of the WZO, and it ran like clockwork.) But it is very difficult to combat a cultural behemoth like the United States. The revolution against Greek culture during the second Bet HaMikdash era began right here in Modiin. Yet, it is worth recalling that despite the Chanuka success, Shimon the Maccabee’s own great-grandsons (less than 100 years later) bore the fine Greek names Hyrkonus and Aristobolus, fought each other for the throne, and self-destructed. Even the Chashmonaim succumbed in the end to Greek cultural dominance, and with it, their kingdom fell and their legacy was tarnished. That Israel sees itself as living in the cultural shadow of America – even, at times, as America’s step-child – often has grave political ramifications. There is almost a palpable fear – completely unwarranted, I think – of denying almost any American request, as if the child Israel must always have the approval of the parent America. Israeli politicians loathe saying “no” to the United States; no other country in the world today has such hesitation. PM Netanuyahu, to his credit, is learning but the potential for recidivism always exists. Israelis speak of “American pressure” as if it is impossible to resist, and politicians routinely contrive “American pressure” to justify their own poor decisions. “Please, twist my arm, please?!”(For example, the United States was uninvolved in the Oslo process at the beginning, and President Bush opposed the “Gaza Expulsion Plan” for the better part of two years.) A country with its own culture shapes its own destiny, and develops a strong sense of national pride. American culture may be a dominant world power, but, in truth, it is scarcely felt in countries like Russia or China which have a rich cultural tradition of their own. There is an indigenous Israeli culture, but it is overwhelmed by America’s. Israelis write books, but the bookstores are mainly filled with Hebrew translations of American best-sellers. In time, and given the right circumstances, Israel will surely develop a culture that is uniquely Jewish and that touches the mind, heart and soul. Witnessing the national mourning on Yom HaShoah, and seeing the preparations for Yom Haatzmaut to come, one realizes that there is an Israel unto itself, with which outsiders scarcely identify. That is all part of building a state, liberating the Jewish spirit from centuries of exile, and shaping the national character that will engender “a kingdom of priests and a holy people.”
Shalom from Israel !