I had the distinct pleasure and honor of spending a few hours last week with the distinguished and prolific Israeli writer Amos Oz, who was in Cleveland for a brief two-day visit which included three public appearances. Among other topics we discussed the history of Hebrew literature and the role that early Hebrew writers played in the development of the language, whether scholars, philosophers, poets, or storytellers. Of course the rebirth of Hebrew as a modern spoken language after 2000 of disuse is in on the one hand in and of itself a phenomenon of monumental proportions (neither Latin nor ancient Greek have mounted such a return to both spoken and literary usage) and on the other hand the resurrection of Hebrew could be viewed as part and parcel of the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel and the re-creation of a sovereign state under Jewish rule in that land.
From a historical perspective the story of the Hebrew language and its connection to Jewish nationalist discourse makes me consider the teachings, musings, and journalistic diatribes of Ahad Ha-am - of the generation of late-19th/early-20th century Hebraists who set the stage for the return of Hebrew to the family of world languages.
Yet in seeking out a lesson for today, I would focus more broadly on the messages that Ahad Ha-am had for the people of his day, beyond the significance of the Hebrew language. This observation relates to a broader historical theory I have addressed in public, regarding the many ways in which the Palestinian nationalist movement has successfully replicated strategies and methods once employed by Zionist nationalists prior to 1948. Yet the case of Ahad Ha-am and his emphasis on cultural nationalism is one that has not been mirrored (or at least not effectively) by the Palestinian national movement and I would argue that lacuna has had significant implications in prolonging the Palestinian people's struggle for their own sovereignty.
In short Ahad Ha-am agued (among other things) for the primacy of Jewish (Hebraic) cultural revival as opposed to exclusive focus on the political and demographic tactics more commonly promoted by the Zionist leadership of his day. To paraphrase his work, he suggested that full sovereignty was not even desirable until such time as the people as a whole (and he did in fact believe in the basic tenet of Jewish nationalism that the Jews represented a distinct national entity akin to others in the world) had been effectively prepared, in cultural terms, for the responsibilities of national leadership that would fall upon a sovereign entity. That is to stay the work of teaching successive generations of what it means to be a Jew in cultural and spiritual terms - literature, history, tradition, philosophy - was much more important than teaching a nationalist ideology based on borders and international relations. And one can certainly make a case (the devotion of those who promoted Jewish sovereignty notwithstanding) that Ahad Ha-am's approach was taken to heart by Jews living in Palestine in the early 20th century - who created an entire national cutlure for the Jewish population of Palestine, and much infrastructure to support it - even as the same population addressed other issues such as underground military operations and international diplomacy.
I wonder how differently we might perceive the Palestinian national movement would there be a movement for cultural nationalism akin to that which Ahad Ha-am and his followers promoted among the Jewish population - both in the land of Israel and the Diaspora. While there is certainly a Palestinian national culture - one wonders the extent to which the national leadership embraces and nurtures the development of a rich autonomous culture as critical on the path towards state-building. As Amos Oz said to me - Israel is a country built on books as much or even more than it was built on more concrete displays of nationalism. How interesting it would be for Palestinian nationalism to mirror this element of the Zionist narrative.