German as a Jewish Problem
The Language Politics of Jewish Nationalism
Marc Volovici



In March 2008, German chancellor Angela Merkel visited the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Several Knesset members left the hall demonstratively when Merkel began her speech in German, to protest the use of German in an official speech in the Knesset. The most vocal opponent of the decision to allow Merkel to speak in her mother tongue was Arieh Eldad, a secular, right-wing politician who had stated a few days earlier, “It is extremely irritating to hear the German language from the podium of the Knesset.” In another interview, he said, “This was the language in which my grandfather and grandmother were murdered.”1 Objecting to Eldad’s stance, former speaker of the Knesset and Labor Party member Avraham Burg countered, “This was the language in which Mein Kampf was written, but [it was] also the language in which Herzl wrote.” Burg noted that his father, a German-born Religious Zionist and minister in the Israeli government, “did not object to speeches delivered in German, because languages are not guilty, only those speaking them.”2

This furor was only the latest in a series of controversies erupting in the Israeli media and political sphere since the early 2000s, when German leaders were about to deliver speeches in German in the Knesset. In 2005, Likud member Dani Naveh, the son of a Bergen-Belsen survivor, wrote in a letter to German president Horst Köhler before his planned visit: “Delivering your speech in the language in which the Nazi thuggish soldiers [kalgasim] hurried members of my people and of my family to the gas chambers would be a chilling reminder of those days.” At the same time, Ukrainian-born Roman Bronfman, a former Knesset member, argued that “German is not only the language of the Nazis, but also and above all the language of Einstein, Kafka, Herzl, and Heine.”3 Meanwhile, Amnon Dankner, the liberal-leaning chief editor of Maariv, rejected Naveh’s approach as “childish provincialism,” adding, “The Nazis do not own the language. They only used it until they vanished. Prior to and after the Nazi period it has been the language of a great, diverse, fascinating culture to which our ancestors contributed their share.” Dankner, who was born in Jerusalem in 1946, recalled that “German was the language in which my parents spoke to each other and to their friends and relatives. Not all of them were rooted in German culture—among them were Polish, German, Czech, Hungarian, and Romanian immigrants, but the language common to all of them was German.”4

What does the German language signify, to whom, and when? Is it the language of the German classics, of German Jewish writers and scientists, of Herzl and the Zionist movement, of East Central European Jewish culture, or of Hitler, Goebbels, and the German guards in Nazi concentration camps? The different answers to this question derive from different readings and interpretations of Jewish history. Indeed, the question of how Jews ought to understand the significance of German is an old one. Since the eighteenth century, German has held a momentous and multifaceted place in the history of European Jews, serving as a catalyst of secularization, emancipation, and assimilation in various Jewish communities within and without German-speaking areas. In the eyes of both Jewish proponents and opponents of the Enlightenment, German had the capacity to radically transform the worldview of Jews and the outlook of Jewish societies. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the German language played a key, if fraught, role in Jewish nationalist politics. The “Nazification” of the German language was but one stage in a long history of tensions, engagements, and disagreements over the image and function of German in Jewish societies. However, the history of the German language as an integral and contested part of the Jewish social landscape has been largely overshadowed by the catastrophic events that befell Jews under Nazi rule.

This book tells the Jewish history of the German language, focusing on German’s paradoxical place in Jewish nationalism. The paradox begins with the fact that German played an indispensable role in the formulation and dissemination of Jewish national ideologies, in particular Zionism, the movement advocating the establishment of Jewish self-government in Palestine. Beyond its practical merit, German served Jewish nationalists as a role model, owing to its place as a unifying national language in German history and its status as an international medium of culture, science, and politics. Moreover, the historical and linguistic influence of German on Ashkenazi Jewish cultures since the late Middle Ages makes the German language an essential element in any historical account of Jews as an ethnic, religious, and national collective.

Some early Jewish nationalists, though, associated German with historical currents that undermined the postulate of Jewish national unity. German stood at the heart of the ideology of the late eighteenth-century German Jewish Enlightenment (the Berlin Haskalah), which called upon Jews to embrace German as a vital step toward becoming equal, respectable members of society. Coupled with state-run reforms intended to transform the Jewish social order, German became a primary vehicle for Jewish modernization in Central and Eastern Europe. For many Jews, both religious and secular, this process seemed to enhance the withdrawal of Jews from their Jewish self-understanding. German was thus associated with liberal and assimilatory currents, but it was simultaneously a significant vehicle in the consolidation of Jewish national movements. German was part of the problem Jewish nationalists sought to address—but also part of the solution.

This book traces the shifting meanings of German in Jewish history between 1870 and the aftermath of the Holocaust, using it as a prism for understanding the historical, religious, and ideological tensions and contradictions embedded in Jewish nationalism. German is a valuable object of research precisely because it was a multifaceted signifier onto which a variety of ideas could be inscribed. To be sure, German was not at the center of Jewish nationalism’s ideological debates. Nationalists engaging in the “language question” were debating which language should be considered the Jewish national language: Hebrew, the historical language of Jewish learning and ritual, or Yiddish, the language spoken by the vast majority of Eastern European Jews. However, this book shows that it is impossible to understand the history of Jewish nationalism without examining German’s pivotal and deeply controversial presence within it.

German and the Boundaries of Jewish Nationhood

Scholars have paid considerable attention to questions of language in modern Jewish history.5 Several monographs offer in-depth histories of Yiddish and Hebrew, and scholars have produced important studies of Jewish multilingualism.6 Arieh Bruce Saposnik and Liora Halperin have explored the challenges that visionaries, functionaries, and ordinary men and women faced in their effort to advance the Hebrew language in the Jewish community in Palestine (Yishuv).7 Saposnik’s book focuses on the late Ottoman period and is particularly valuable in its unpacking of the idea of Hebrew culture. Halperin’s study, centered on the Yishuv under the British Mandate, investigates the Jewish community’s multilingual character, which persisted despite the Yishuv leadership’s efforts to consolidate a Hebrew-speaking society.

This book builds on Saposnik’s and Halperin’s lines of inquiry and takes seriously their call to situate the history of modern Hebrew within broader national and imperial contexts. However, I take a closer look at the internal hierarchies of Jewish multilingualism and probe the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish languages in the modern period. Theories of Jewish linguistic practices, such as those developed by Max Weinreich and Benjamin Harshav, tend to abide by the notion that even when Jews were proficient in a non-Jewish language they deemed it a “majority language” or “language of power,” as Harshav put it. Harshav conceded that there are good reasons to include Jewish writing in non-Jewish languages under the category of “Jewish literature,” but his underlying distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish languages remains.8 Weinreich famously distinguished between Jewish “internal bilingualism” (referring to Hebrew and Yiddish or other Jewish languages) and “external bilingualism” (referring to the use of majority languages). Here, too, the separation between the Jewish and the non-Jewish is firm.9

Evidently, this separation has been integral to Jewish history. It was embraced by many of the protagonists of this book, and it continues to play an important role in understandings of Jewish culture and nationhood to this day. And yet, as Naomi Seidman argues, it is difficult to uphold the division between an “internal” Jewish linguistic realm and an “external” non-Jewish one.10 In this book I demonstrate that the German language is an instructive case for critically examining this divide. I argue not that German was a “Jewish language,” but that the ways in which German permeated Jewish political, cultural, and religious life did much to blur the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish languages.

This is evident in the following excerpt from a memoir by Roman Zimand, a descendent of Galician Jews: “Father, who went only to heder [traditional Jewish elementary school] . . . knew five languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Polish, and Ukrainian. . . . No one thought of this as anything extraordinary. ‘True’ foreign languages were French and English. If you had asked my father before World War I, he would certainly have answered that he knew no foreign language.”11 Setting aside the question of what “knowing” these languages meant, this excerpt illustrates how perfectly normal it was for Habsburg Jews—as for other minorities in the empire—to use the languages of their surroundings. But it is telling that, according to Zimand’s account, none of these languages counted as “foreign.” Accounts of the place of German in Jewish religious life further challenge the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish languages. The Prague-born Jewish scholar Hugo Bergmann recalled in an autobiographical essay how one day his aunt returned home outraged from the synagogue, after the recently appointed young rabbi prayed in front of the Torah Ark in Czech, not in the customary language of Jewish ritual, German. For her and for people of her background, Bergmann wrote, “German had become a half-holy language.”12 Or consider this observation, made by Zionist writer Moshe Kleinman in 1909: “When modern ‘speakers’ enter a synagogue in Russia and speak in Russian, or when they enter a Polish synagogue and speak in Polish . . . , it appears as a desecration of the place, for they are speaking ‘goyish’ in a holy place. But when entering in the very same place and speaking German . . . , it appears as an entirely natural thing to do.”13 Kleinman attributed this to the fact that German was linguistically related to Yiddish and, as such, sounded less foreign to the Jewish listener. This may be correct, but the explanation is also interwoven with other factors that had turned German into a language that was both inside and outside the realm of Jewish languages. Jewish nationalists often argued that there was an essential difference between the two linguistic domains, yet precisely such arguments were indicative of the unsettled boundaries between them. By being more attentive to the porousness of the barrier between Jewish and non-Jewish languages, we can problematize the labels that are often ascribed to languages and the ideological assumptions that underlie them.

Scholars of German Jewish culture have shown how German-speaking Jews were rooted in the German language, without it necessarily contradicting their Jewish self-understanding.14 Similar sentiments may readily be found in Jews’ relationship to Russian, Polish, Spanish, and other languages. Indeed, Russian Jewish reformers in the mid-nineteenth century saw the acquisition of Russian as key to the social advancement of Jews. French likewise carried the image of a cultivating language for Jews residing in France and its colonies. The relationship of Jews to languages of their surroundings could be as existential and enduring as their relation to Hebrew and Yiddish, if not more so. What distinguished German from other languages, however, was the fact that it played a central role—socially, linguistically, and ideologically—in the transformation of Jewish societies well beyond German-speaking lands.15

Eric Hobsbawm asserted that in the age of emancipation, “German was the pathway to modernity,” and that “the road . . . from provincialism to the wider world was paved with German letters.”16 As hyperbolic as it may sound, this statement reflected a commonplace perception among European Jews in the long nineteenth century. To be sure, processes of departure from Jewish tradition could occur with or without the help of German. However, German did acquire the symbolic status of a language with a considerable power to transform the lives of Jews and to grant them access to universal and secular knowledge. This had been the experience of Jews in Eastern Europe, and it appeared in various literary pieces. In Mordekhai Ze’ev Feierberg’s 1898 novella Whither?, for example, the reader follows the life and consciousness of Nahman in his shift from a traditional Eastern European life to an identification with Jewish nationalist ideas. At a certain point, Nahman’s wife encourages him to wean himself from his “bestiality” by working with a language tutor, who clandestinely teaches him “the language of the state and the language of Ashkenaz [German].” After being introduced to Western texts, “everything that had been part of him, all of his thoughts, his methods of inquiry, were uprooted from his heart . . . he thinks now novel thoughts, he aspires for new worlds, his heart is filled with thunder and strong emotions.”17

The idea that German encapsulated high culture and universal knowledge was part and parcel of the Jewish imagination, and as such it had an actual historical force. This has been studied thoroughly by historians of German Jewry and by scholars of the Eastern European Haskalah and Yiddish literature.18 At the turn of the twentieth century, Western Europeans (Jewish and non-Jewish) often emphasized the respectable stature of German to contrast it with Yiddish and with Eastern European Jews as a whole, describing them as uneducated, parochial individuals who speak only the languages of the “ghetto.”19 Jewish nationalists, however, often mobilized precisely this factor to present Western European Jews as illiterate from a Jewish nationalist perspective, thus reversing the conventional dichotomy of the acculturated Westjude and the backward Ostjude. At the same time, numerous Eastern European Jewish nationalists were immersed in German literature, lived for extensive periods in German-speaking lands, and mobilized German as a carrier of their ideas. German thus occupied a profoundly ambivalent role, reinforcing opposing currents in Jewish nationalism.

Exploring the presence of German across borders makes it important to draw a distinction: the use of the category “German-speaking Jews” can be misleading because it assumes a level of knowledge and active use that usually did not apply to those living outside German-speaking areas. Instead, this book points to the category of “German-reading Jews,” a geographically broader group, ranging from Russia to the Americas and to Palestine, and including individuals who acquired German at some stage of their lives without it necessarily being central to their self-understanding. Many of them were active consumers of German literature and political debates, and some of them even took part in such debates, while seeking to distinguish between the functional and the ideological significance of German. It was this scattered collective of German-reading Jews that imbued German with many of the symbolic meanings it has acquired in Jewish culture since the late eighteenth century. The history of Jewish nationalism has been directly informed by this linguistic predicament: Jewish nationalists mobilized the transnational quality of German in Jewish societies to advance their cause while combating the ubiquity of German. The question of whether diminishing German’s centrality in Jewish societies was possible, and if so, whether it was desirable, would hover in the background of various debates in the history of Jewish nationalism. As Jewish nationalists navigated between the ideological significance and the functional merit of German—which, as this book demonstrates, were often not easily separable—key questions of the modern Jewish diasporic condition came to the surface.


1. Shahar Ilan, “Merkel tin’am be’germanit, eldad yakum veyetse,” Haaretz, March 11, 2008; Amnon Meranda, “Merkel tin’am be’germanit ba’kneset. Ariel: Ze amalek,” Ynet, March 11, 2008.

2. “Yoshev rosh ha-kneset le’she’avar, Avraham Burg: Be’germanit anu mevakshim ksafim le’nitsoley ha-shoa,” Globes, March 9, 2008.

3. Arik Bender, “Se’ara ba’kneset: Eikh tin’am Merkel?,” NRG, March 4, 2008.

4. Amnon Dankner, “Ken be’germanit,” Maariv, January 18, 2005.

5. On the merit of historicizing Jewish language politics, see Eli Lederhendler, Jewish Responses to Modernity: New Voices in America and Eastern Europe (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 9–22; Guy Miron, “A People between Languages: Toward a Jewish History of Concepts,” Contributions to the History of Concepts 7, no. 2 (Winter 2012): 1–27.

6. Dovid Katz, Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (New York: Basic Books, 2004); Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, trans. Shlomo Noble (1973; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); Lewis Glinert, The Story of Hebrew (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017); Bernard Spolsky, The Languages of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Benjamin Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Jeffrey Veidlinger, Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009); Kenneth B. Moss, Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Scott Spector, Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Kafka’s Fin de Siècle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

7. Bruce Arieh Saposnik, Becoming Hebrew: The Creation of a Jewish National Culture in Ottoman Palestine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Liora R. Halperin, Babel in Zion: Jews, Nationalism, and Language Diversity in Palestine, 1920–1948 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).

8. Benjamin Harshav, “Multilingualism,” in The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, ed. Gershon David Hundert (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 1:991–96.

9. Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, 1:247–314. For useful discussions of typologies and definitions of Jewish languages, see Paul Wexler, “Jewish Interlinguistics: Facts and Conceptual Framework,” Language 57, no. 1 (March 1981): 99–149; Sarah Bunin Benor, “Toward a New Understanding of Jewish Language in the Twenty-First Century,” Religion Compass 2, no. 6 (2008): 1062–80.

10. According to Seidman, this separation is the psychological-linguistic dimension of a broader ideological apparatus, propagated by some members of the Jewish Enlightenment, which perceives the modern Jewish self as divided between an internal-Jewish and an external-non-Jewish realm. Naomi Seidman, “The Linguistic Architecture of the Modern Jewish Self” (lecture, Harvard University, March 20, 2017). See also Anita Norich and Joshua L. Miller, “Introduction: Where Are Jewish Languages?,” in Languages of Modern Jewish Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, ed. Joshua L. Miller and Anita Norich (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), 1–12.

11. Roman Zimand, “Gatunek: Podróż (Dok.),” Kultura 11 (1983): 24. See Chone Shmeruk, “Hebrew-Yiddish-Polish: A Trilingual Jewish Culture,” in The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman, Ezra Mendelsohn, Chone Shmeruk, and Jehuda Reinharz (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1989), 289.

12. Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, Ba’mish’ol (Tel-Aviv: Am oved, 1976), 9–10. My thanks to Adi Gordon for referring me to this text.

13. Moshe Kleinman, Unzer natsyonal-shprakh (Odessa: Tsienistishe kopike-bibliotek, 1909), 8.

14. Stephan Braese, Eine europäische Sprache: deutsche Sprachkultur von Juden 1760–1930 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010); Arndt Kremer, Deutsche Juden, deutsche Sprache: Jüdische und judenfeindliche Sprachkonzepte und -konflikte (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007).

15. Dan Diner, “Imperiale Residuen: Zur paradigmatischen Bedeutung transterritorialer jüdischer Erfahrung für eine gesamteuropäische Geschichte,” in Figuren des Europäischen: Kulturgeschichtliche Perspektiven, ed. Daniel Weidner (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2006), 259–74.

16. Eric Hobsbawm, “Benefits of Diaspora,” London Review of Books, October 20, 2005, 16–19.

17. Mordekhai Ze’ev Feierberg, Ketavim (1898; Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1965), 134–35.

18. For work by historians of German Jewry, see Steven E. Aschheim, Brothers and Strangers: The East European Jew in German and German Jewish Consciousness, 1800–1923 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982); Michael Brenner, The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996); Trude Maurer, Ostjuden in Deutschland, 1918–1933 (Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag, 1986); Jack Wertheimer, Unwelcome Strangers: East European Jews in Imperial Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). For that by scholars of the Eastern European Haskalah and Yiddish literature, see Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised: A Study in the Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Schocken Books, 1973); Delphine Bechtel, La renaissance culturelle juive en Europe centrale et orientale, 1897–1930: Langue, littérature et construction nationale (Paris: Belin, 2002); Israel Bartal, Letaken am: Ne’orut ule’umiyut be’mizrah eropa (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2013); Nancy Sinkoff, Out of the Shtetl: Making Jews Modern in the Polish Borderlands (Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies, 2008); Robert Adler Peckerar, The Allure of Germanness in Modern Ashkenazi Literature: 1833–1933 (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2009); Rachel Seelig, Strangers in Berlin: Modern Jewish Literature between East and West, 1919–1933 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016).

19. Jeffrey A. Grossman, The Discourse on Yiddish in Germany: From the Enlightenment to the Second Empire (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000); Sander Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).