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Haredi Language Choice and Political Identity in Israel - Heather Munro

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The Politics of Language: Haredi Language Choice and Political Identity in Israel - Heather Munro, University of Durham

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Over the past century, Yiddish has rapidly been disappearing as a colloquial language of daily use in Jewish homes. The one exception to this is in parts of the Haredi world, where Yiddish remains in the vernacular. In Haredi communities in Israel, speaking Yiddish has taken on a political significance, as it is one of the subtle ways in which certain communities resist participating in the state and in the Zionist project, of which Modern Hebrew is perceived to be a part. Certain Hasidic groups, and some very strict Lithuanian Haredi Jews, speak Yiddish, while others have adopted Modern Hebrew. These choices illuminate ideologies of these groups, and the extent to which there is openness towards involvement in state systems like voting and army service, and the levels of the community’s and individual’s civic-mindedness. Haredi attitudes towards the state exist on spectrum, and this spectrum, to a great extent, corresponds to the language choice of the community. Those who speak Yiddish to the exclusion of all other languages often are the most resistant to the state and to nationalist ideologies, sometimes verging into the realm of the anti-Zionist fringe. Included among these groups are revitalised Hasidic sects, whose rabbinical leadership insist on all teaching and learning to be conducted in Yiddish, despite the vast majority of their followers being ba’alei teshuvah, and often Anglo-ba’alei teshuvah (newly religious Jews, ‘Anglo’ referring to those who are chiefly from English-speaking countries). Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the Haredi spectrum, some Hebrew-speaking Haredim are sympathetic with the right-wing National Religious politics and community, and fringe elements are also mixing elements of extreme-right ideology, like those of the Jewish Defense League (often referred to as Kahanists) and the Hilltop Youth, with hashkafically Haredi religious life. Language also, to a certain extent, dictates political alliances of Haredi communities to specific Haredi political parties, such as Agudat Yisrael, Degel HaTorah, and Shas. I will explore the relationship of language and politics through my ethnographic fieldwork over the past seven years in Haredi communities in Israel.

This seminar is part of the Ada Rapoport-Albert Seminar Series on Contemporary Hasidic Yiddish.

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Organiser Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, UCL

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