Reconsidering Early Jewish Nationalist Ideologies Seminar: MT20 Week 2: Yair Wallach (SOAS): Language of Revival or Conquest? Hebrew in the Streets of early 20th century Jerusalem

Conveners: Peter Bergamin and Yaacov Yadgar

Speaker: Yair Wallach (SOAS)


Until the late nineteenth century, Hebrew was rare to come by in the streets of Jerusalem, visible only in a handful of synagogues and communal institutions. Yet in the early years of the twentieth century, Hebrew erupted into the city's urban space. It appeared in rabbinical proclamations, adverts and posters, stone inscriptions, signs of schools and hospitals, and even on "Jewish money", Hebrew-marked coins used for charity. But Hebrew's emergence into the streets took place at the moment when the meaning of the language was no longer stable and given. For Ashkenazim and Sephardim, reactionaries and modernisers, Zionists and their opponents, local elites and newly-arrived "pioneers", the language was a battleground over different visions for Jews in Palestine. After 1920, with the adoption of Hebrew as a state language by the British Mandatory government, Arab nationalists began to view Hebrew as a colonial tool and resisted its use on that basis. 

In this talk I will explore the dramatic emergence of Hebrew in turn of the century Jerusalem, the struggles over its meaning, and its subsequent alignment with the Zionist project. 



Yair Wallach is Senior Lecturer in Israeli Studies at SOAS, University of London, where he is also the head of the SOAS Centre for Jewish Studies. He is a cultural and social historian of modern Palestine/Israel, who has published articles in Hebrew, Arabic and English on urban and visual culture, and on Jewish-Arab relations. His book, A City in Fragments: Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem, which was published by Stanford University Press in 2020, looks at Arabic and Hebrew street texts (inscriptions,banners, graffiti and other media) in modern Jerusalem. 

Dr. Wallach is currently (2020-2022) a Leverhulme Research Fellow, and his project "The Arab Ashkenazi" looks at Jewish Ashkenazi acculturation in the Arab Levant. Wallach has also published articles in Haaretz, the Guardian, and other media. 

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