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Chalav U'Dvash

Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought
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Volume 0, Number 0

Towards New Jewish Civilization

Competing in the Cultural Supermarket

By Jason Lustig

According to Jeff Hawkins, "consciousness is simply what it feels like to have a cortex."a In other words, it is the feeling of neurons and synapses firing off at real-life speed inside your skull. Similarly, society exhibits a sort of "cultural consciousness"—the phenomenon of its participants firing off one another, responding to one another's cultural creations. But what is culture? Culture can be defined many ways—as learned behaviors of a society, material artifacts, customs, and more.b Culture is the natural result of the existence of human society, since people create. For the purpose of this discussion, culture is anything that any person creates, whether it be material (music, literature, or consumer goods, for example) or nonmaterial (ideas, folkways, etc.). Self-identifying groups create culture within the context of their history and past cultural creations, to create the mythical "cultural consciousness." Through considering cultural consciousness, we can gain a better understanding of the issues surrounding the Jewish People, their Jewish State, and the viability of their Jewish Future.

First, we must consider the intrinsic nature of culture. Cultural creations and innovations do not exist within a vacuum, but emerge as responses to the lives of their creators, and inspire others towards cultural innovation. Cultural artifacts can have more than one inspiration; in fact, most cultural innovation comes from combining different cultural streams to make something new. The cultural creations themselves are momentary in their recognition by the society, but by constant reference to certain elements, pathways are created that place cultural tendencies into a "cultural memory." A culture's inspiration and its language are of particular importance, because they define who can understand it. Depending on the inspiration and its accessibility, different groups of people will appreciate culture in different ways and build on it in different directions. The inspiration for cultural artifacts places them within a societal context—another, broader type of language. These artifacts are not independent items but live within the cultural marketplace that not only defines our past, but also provides the stepping stones for future cultural advances.

In the economic arena, the new globalizing trend means that there is a growing market in which labor, goods, and services can compete freely. This trend extends into the cultural marketplace, where the array of cultural choices is staggering. In the past, people did not have access to foreign cultures, or they were intimidated by their own culture to not take part in other traditions. Today, this is not the case. In open societies such as America, a cultural exchange has developed that allows for a hybridization of cultures—where you can buy a bagel with ham and cheese at Dunkin Donuts, or celebrate "Chrismukka."

This openness to hybridization is threatening to many groups, who choose to exempt themselves from the cultural marketplace, removing themselves from the shelves of popular culture. However, the Jewish People should not be afraid of this new worldwide market because Jews can, should, and will be able to compete effectively. Jews will succeed not only in preserving the status quo, but also in further developing the Jewish Language.

What does "Jewish Language" have to do with all of this? Broader than Hebrew, the concept of a Jewish Language is an all-encompassing idea of Jewish life as a cultural context. People "speak" their language-culture through all aspects of their life, not just the words they choose in daily conversation. Jonathan Boyarin says "thinking in Jewish" can be thinking within the Jewish social context.c While he is thinking mostly of "the language otherwise known as Yiddish,"d this same idea can be applied to all of Jewish Language—Hebrew as well as Yiddish and Ladino, even if they have mostly fallen out of usage. As a Jew, my thought and actions are not free but are grounded in my social context as it is developed in our lives.

Few people are multilingual. However, even if they learn additional languages, people generally rely on their mother tongue, the language in which they can express themselves best and in which they feel most comfortable. Jewish education in the Diaspora means yet another language for children to learn—children who are often taxed heavily enough by their non-Jewish studies, and so are not able to exert the extra effort needed to become fluent in Jewish history, religion, and language.e And if Diaspora Jewry is not fluent in their own culture, how can they participate in it properly? This cultural gap represents an existential threat to the Jewish People's cultural unity and sovereignty in the Diaspora.

I am not saying that Jewish culture is about to fade away—rather that this gap is the nature of living within an open, non-Jewish society. In America, no one is forced to give up their cultural identity, because as a free society, people can largely do as they wish. However, as Trude Weiss-Rosmarin argues in Jewish Existence in an Open Society, in order to "be happily integrated into the American fabric," Jews must immerse themselves fully into the general
culture.f Historically, Jews have immersed themselves in all open societies in which they have existed. The Roman Empire granted the Jews certain natural rights, recognizing Judaism as a legal religion, by the time of the Jewish rebellion in 66-70 CE. These were unique concessions in the empire, but were offered with a quid pro quo: like all other minority groups, Jews were expected to eventually "compromise their culture" and
assimilate.g In America, it is not government policy to encourage assimilation, but assimilation occurs naturally as a by-product of existing outside of a fully Jewish society. By the nature of the Diaspora, most Diaspora Jews are not fluent, let alone literate, in themselves, and are forced to resort to non-Jewish inspirations for their own cultural innovations. Because they do not speak the language of the Jews, Diaspora Jews are not able to unlock the living culture of the present which is being created in the State of Israel. This lack of cultural fluency, combined with the globalizing trend, represents a grave threat.

American thought today is that through globalization and exposure to "global" culture—which is more American than global—foreign countries will become more pacified to American economic and cultural interests. This logic was put forward during deliberations on China's "most favored nation" trading status in 1998. The belief was that Internet access—as the most intimate medium for interconnection with the outside world—would encourage the Chinese people to rebel against their government and abolish the Communist regime.h

The way in which this "global" culture is being created is very dangerous, mostly because of traits that globalization has inherited from the integration process of immigrants into American society. Traditionally, groups have been assimilated into American culture through a process dubbed by Evandro Camara "pressure-cooking assimilation." According to Camara, the host culture ("American" culture) actively assimilates desirable aspects of the client culture to maintain uniformity while suppressing those that it finds unassimilable.i This process is dangerous because on the global cultural scene, American culture has been dominant and continues to grow by assimilating positive aspects of other, minority cultures, destroying cultural diversity and increasing the power of global-American culture, a vicious cycle.

In Israel, this same crisis of Americanization and globalization is on the horizon and must not be ignored or marginalized as a problem of the galut (exile). The Jewish State may exist, but if it becomes too Americanized, what is the difference between Tel Aviv and New York, except that street signs are written in Hebrew? This problem was foreseen by the early Cultural Zionists, such as Haim Nahman Bialik. They saw a physical homeland as a necessity, but not as the entirety of the Zionist vision: they were afraid that the process of the revival of the Jewish commonwealth would overshadow the revival of the "Jewish ethos."j Today, though this "ethos" has not been overlooked, it is still not certain what the outcome of this aspect of the Zionist project will be.

Political Zionism arose out of European Jewry as a strategic solution to anti-Semitism—in contrast to previous solutions, such as assimilation or Messianism, which were neither strategic nor in the long-term interests of the Jewish People. With a Jewish State, the Jews would be able to extract themselves from areas of persecution and save themselves from physical destruction. With Israel in existence for over fifty years, Jews today must continue to think strategically in order to secure a continued existence—not only for another fifty years, but for the next five thousand. This strategy must include the issues of Cultural Zionism and Jewish culture.

A non-partisan think tank in Tel Aviv, the Re'ut Institute, believes that because of a weak parliamentary system, Israel's government cannot think strategically about the long-term—and aim to do it for them in absence of this dynamic. The Re'ut Institute argues that, among other things, one imperative is to develop distinctively Israeli companies and products to help build a marketable brand for Israel. Jewish culture and Zionism alongside it also face a similar problem. They must develop a uniquely Jewish culture, within the Jewish language, and be sufficiently innovative so as to compete in the modern world market of culture, successfully integrating foreign cultural elements without losing their Jewish character. Jewish culture can develop its own independent path, not directed by other cultures, thus determining its own future. Jewish culture can compete on the global market and hold its own.

Many early Zionist thinkers waxed poetic on the idea of the "resurrection of the Jewish People" and the re-awakening of the Jewish national consciousness. Bialik and the other leaders of the Kinnus project hoped to collect the cultural remnants of the Jews of the Diaspora and help to fuse them into a new national "kultur" in Israel.k With the publishing of Sefer Ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends) in 1911, Bialik and Yehoshua Ravintsky hoped to make the aggadah accessible to the Jewish People.[1] For Bialik, aggadah was the embodiment of the Jewish national genius, and he hoped that the completed book would let the reader "grasp finally that worldview and perspective on life in whose spirit the aggadah was originally created"—become literate in this aspect of the Jewish language.l They hoped to provide the base for the rebirth of a vibrant Jewish culture which would re-awaken the Jewish People, and it is this successful re-awakening that makes Zionism a plausible long-term solution to the problem of Jewish existence.

In considering the idea of language-culture and its relationship to the Jewish problem, we must ask: what would happen if a cultural group, along with all their written records, were destroyed? Historically, we find that their language-culture would simply cease to exist, or at least cease to hold the nuances of meaning and
participation.m In many times and manifestations, this destruction has almost happened to the Jews. The possibility of the total destruction of the Hebrew language is doubtful; non-Jewish Bible scholars would most likely still use Hebrew in their research. However, Hebrew has been near extinction as a living language, a language that is used for new cultural creations as well as the organic Jewish cultural existence.

In complete contradistinction to this nightmare of cultural extermination is what the Jewish People is building today in Israel. By creating cultural artifacts—both material and nonmaterial—Israeli Jews are making incredible cultural progress. In Israel, the opportunity exists to create and enhance this Jewish social experience. Being a Jewish country, Israel can act as a staging ground for cultural research and development—not only by sifting the historical Jewish cultural tradition as in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, but by developing new cultural innovations solidly grounded in and inspired by that same Jewish cultural and historical basis. By developing this distinctly Jewish culture, they can create a "Jewish brand" that can be marketed as such, solving the problem of the global cultural marketplace. Jews will not be forced to consciously choose to partake in and engage in the Jewish cultural lifestyle. It simply will be the best choice for them and they will choose out of their own free will.

At the same time, Jews should endeavor to transmit the Jewish cultural language to other groups of people, not proselytizing but rather becoming a net culture exporter. People do not need to convert to the Jewish religion in order to enjoy bagels and lox, or music in Hebrew. There are non-Japanese who religiously watch anime cartoons, and certainly not all Beatles fans are British. Why are there not similar cultural junkies who surround the Jews? The Jewish cultural experience has not been put on the shelf for others to find, nor have its creators considered deeply enough from where their inspiration comes.

Yehezkel Dror, the winner of the 2005 Israel Prize in Public Administration, said: "The ability to compete is of fundamental importance ... Israel's ability to compete is imperative for its long-term prosperity."n The Jewish People's ability to compete on a cultural level is imperative for its long-term survival. Jews have competed successfully in the past, and will have to re-create that success in order to survive. The Jews were most successful at cultural competition during the Roman Empire, when the Jews and the Jewish religion received great amounts of non-Jewish sympathy. The Romans attempted to assimilate the Jews, but by the end of the Herodian dynasty, it was clear that the Jews were not assimilating as planned. Hellenistic culture was assimilated into Judaism, rather than the other way around, to create a civilization which was perhaps "more attractive in some ways than Hellenism itself."o Judaism was "a dynamic unassimilable alternative religious civilization," and represented a great threat to the Roman Empire's stability and character.p Within the context of this situation, the Roman fostering of Jewish rebellion arose naturally as a response to this cultural threat.q

The idea of a global culture is very attractive, but it represents an existential threat to the Jewish People. The idea of "one world" which would bring peace, because we would all think on the same cultural wavelength, is a very nice one. The one-world cultural idea championed by writers such as Karl Marx and Roy Weatherford has not yet come to pass. However, we must still consider: what will a "global culture" mean for minority cultures, such as the Jews? Consider Marx's bold picture of global culture in communist society: Marx had an anti-nationalist vision, in which national divisions would disappear and the proletariat would rise up against the bourgeoisie. All "local attachments"—including religion—would also dissolve. A universal language and world literature would develop and people would live in a "brotherhood of man."r Marxist thought is very utopian, and while many have tried to develop some form of "universal language"—most famously Esperanto, which combined facets of many European languages into one—so far they have all failed. Today there are Esperanto societies in which people study the language in this hope, but it is more realistic that American English will become this "international" language. In contrast, Latouche argues that one of the key aspects of the "Western steamroller" is "nationalitarianism," which he describes as the "process of constructing rootless, mimetic states intended to create an artificial nation and manage its economy."s This argument is used by many to equate language dominance with cultural imperialism. Westernization consists of many trends, including the spread of styles of dress, eating habits, architectural and musical styles, cultural attitudes, and values; in other words, language-culture.t This is simply cultural diffusion, and can be seen as another type of language dominance—that of the pressure-cooked American language-culture dominating other language-cultures.

How can a plan best be enacted to combat this existential threat? I propose the creation of a corporation—or a group of independent corporations—to encourage this movement, focusing on three aspects of cultural life: education, cultural industry, and marketing.

Education is the catalyst for future developments and so is the most important. First, this "Jewish Civilization Corporation" (JCC) must establish a series of public libraries in Israel. A public library system is key to the development of natural Jewish culture in Israel because all people must have free access to Jewish cultural artifacts. These libraries will archive cultural artifacts created in the Jewish language-culture, such as poetry, novels, historical accounts, Jewish religious texts, art, etc. It will not be restricted to Hebrew texts—though it will translate all texts into Hebrew—and the goal will be to enable public access to these materials. Additionally, the JCC will write curricula to be integrated into Israeli public schools. These curricula will be designed to develop the creative minds of the next generation within the framework of an independent and vibrant Jewish civilization. They will teach students how to value, identify and place Jewish cultural artifacts—both material and nonmaterial—within the greater Jewish cultural and historical social context.

Within the "cultural industry," the JCC will bring together the best Jewish minds and encourage them to develop and innovate new culture based on the Jewish language-culture. They will encourage and be patrons for artists and academics to create new cultural artifacts that are firmly based on and inspired by Jewish language. They will create movie studios, music labels, book publishers, etc., with the express purpose of developing Jewish culture. They will not only generate "art," but also, for example, specifically Jewish styles of clothing and new Jewish foods. The possibilities are endless and the potential enormous. The goal would not necessarily be to generate the highest possible profit but rather the highest possible cultural innovation. At the same time, this endeavor is not purely philanthropic. While it is created to help the Jewish People move forward, it is meant to create viable culture that can stand on its own, culturally and economically. Ideally, the cultural fellows at the JCC will make diverse new innovations in many areas that will appeal to many people and they will purchase it just like everyone else in the culture industry. The JCC will capitalize on its education system to harvest the most culturally innovative minds and encourage them to collaborate in creating beautiful things.

The JCC will need to compete on the world market. The key is to develop a "Jewish" brand together with the "Israeli" brand, and market these new innovations around the world. It will distribute its movies to American theatres and get Israeli music sold on the iTunes Music Store. Through marketing campaigns targeting both Jews and non-Jews and focusing on Israel as the source of these innovations, it will build the Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli brands into something that people identify with these innovations.

In addition to this, the JCC will develop an initiative to establish Israeli-style ulpanim (intensive Hebrew language schools) in the Diaspora to educate both Jews and non-Jews in modern Hebrew to enable them to participate both as consumers and producers within the Jewish cultural sphere. It will educate students in Jewish-Hebrew language-culture by exposing them to a diverse collection of materials from Jewish culture. Jews in the Diaspora will thus be able to join in the cultural exchange, which will be developed and enhanced by the JCC. This is the true goal of all of the JCC's activities—to develop the alternative, independent Jewish civilization and promote it both in Israel and in the Diaspora. This will solve the problem of Zionism's appeal to the Jewish People today—in Israel with the problem of emigration, and in the Diaspora with Jews who do not feel a connection with Israel. As Gidi Grinstein says, "The ultimate answer is Israel. The better it looks, the better Zionism looks."u As a corollary, the better Jewish civilization looks, the better Israel looks, and so the better Zionism looks.

Some may argue that I am an isolationist, and reactionary in my treatment and thought on the problem of globalization and global culture as it pertains to the future of the Jewish People. Why should Jews focus on themselves, when there are so many other problems in the world, and why should they specifically try to draw their inspiration from their own sources rather than from the interethnic exchange? At the beginning of his famous pamphlet Auto-Emancipation (1882), early Zionist thinker Leon Pinsker attempts to fire off his argument by quoting Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?"v It is interesting to note that he omitted the "central" portion of the quote: "If I am only for myself, what am I?" What can be learnt from Pinsker's intentional misquotation? Jews must not think only about themselves, but they must remain cognizant of their own existential threats. I believe that by developing the Jewish culture, language and civilization, Jews do more for the world at-large than they—as a relatively small band of people—could ever do by simply contributing to the mass, ever-homogenizing global culture and disappearing off the shelves as their own brand. By strengthening themselves and contributing to the whole, while maintaining their own original roots and inspiration, Jews will diversify the cultural market—and through the synergies and anticomplementarities within that dynamic, enrich everyone.

Today we live in a Pax Americana, which fosters assimilation into a worldwide global culture, but also provides us with another large cultural marketplace—as in the Roman Empire before the end of the Second Temple Period. The difference this time is that America is actually democratic. America will not invade Israel and destroy the modern Jewish State because it represents a rival culture. In fact, this establishment of a competitive culture can best be accomplished on the modern worldwide market, and the Jews are almost assured of our success, so long as we continue to be hypercreative as a group. Consistently, Jews have produced a very high amount of culture per capita. Within the tiny State of Israel, smaller than New Jersey, and with population less than many mid-sized cities around the world, a cultural revolution has been occurring for the past hundred-plus years. If Jews can recreate their own Hebrew language, what can they not accomplish? By strengthening Jewish language in all aspects of Israeli society, a basis will be established on which Jewish culture can build the next wonder of the modern world—and the people who woke from a two-thousand-year coma can once again shake the foundations of the world.

[1] Aggadah (literally "legend") is the collection of stories, legends and other non-legal teachings of the early Rabbinic leaders.


Works Cited

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Boyarin, Jonathin. Thinking in Jewish. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Camara, Evandro. The Cultural One or the Racial Many: Religion, Culture and the Interethnic Experience. Brookfield: Ashgate.

Elman, Ya'akov; Gershon, Israel, eds. Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and Cultural Diffusion. London: Yale University Press, 2000.

Grinstein, Gidi. Personal correspondence. 22 Jan. 2006.

Grinstein, Gidi. Ma'aleh Chamisha, Israel. 2 Jan. 2006.

Hawkins, Jeff. On Intelligence. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004.

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Pustejovsky, James. "Topics in Computational Linguistics." Brandeis University, Waltham. 23 Jan. 2006.

Stern, David. Introduction. The Book of Legends (Sefer Ha-Aggadah): Legends from the Talmud and Midrash. Ed. Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitsky. Translated by William G. Braude. New York: Shocken Books, 1992.

Tomlinson, John. Globalization and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1972.

United States. Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives. U.S.-China Trade Relations and Renewal of China's Most-Favored-Nation Status. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1999.

Weatherford, Roy. World Peace and the Human Family. London: Routledge, 1993.

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Chalav U'Dvash: Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought (Print ISSN 1559-1069, Online ISSN 1559-1077) is an independent forum for discussion relating to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish People and is a recognized club by the Brandeis Student Union. We publish a journal twice per semester, and copies are available free-of-charge to Brandeis students. Contact us to request copies.

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