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Special Interview the Downgrading of Culture

February 15, 1978
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One of Israel’s foremost writers had accused leaders of Britain’s 400,000-strong Jewish community of looking down on culture, including Hebrew culture, as something “inferior,” and thus hastening the community’s “degeneration.”

Aharon Megged, novelist, playwright and journalist, made his outspoken attack in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the Oxford Center for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, where he has spent the past eight months working on a new novel.

Praising British Jews for their warm-hearted loyalty to Israel, Megged complained that they would donate money for everything but not for culture, which they appeared to despise. He admitted that there were many talented Jewish writers and playwrights in Britain, but said that few of them considered themselves part of Jewish culture.


Comparing Jewish life in Britain with that in the United States, which he has visited several times, Megged said Anglo-Jewry was “a desert.” In the United States, he noted, Jewish culture had left its imprint on the life of the whole country and had the status of a separate sub-culture. He praised the “Jewish spiritual production” going on at American universities and institutes of higher leaning, where tens of thousands of scholars were involved in Jewish and Hebrew studies. In some fields, American studies had reached higher standards than in Israel, Megged said.

In British universities, however, there were fewer than 100 students of Hebrew, of whom a high proportion were Gentiles. In French universities, he added, there were some 700 people studying Hebrew.

In their apathy towards culture, Anglo-Jewry’s leadership merely reflected the community as a whole, Megged added. He had been told by publishers that in Britain “there is no Jewish readership,” unlike the United States, where Jews were among the most avid readers and buyers of books.


Megged was first struck by Anglo-Jewry’s indifference towards Hebrew culture when he had served as cultural attache at the Israel Embassy from 1968 to 1971. At that time it had been his ambition to establish a Hebrew cultural center in London comparable with the French, German and Italian institutes–and with the Arab center which has been opened subsequently.

In a city containing some 200,000 Jews, including many Israelis, he had believed there would be widespread interest in a Hebrew library, exhibition hall and other similar facilities.

A committee was formed with such distinguished patrons as Lord Goodman, chairman of the Arts Council; Baroness Lee, Minister for the Arts; and Lord Olivier (Lawrence Olivier), the actor. However, to Megged’s great disappointment, nothing came out of their discussions since the money was not forthcoming from Anglo-Jewry.

Admitting that there had been an increase in the number of Jewish day schools where children are taught Hebrew, Megged said that in terns of numbers their significance was marginal.

The cultural decline of Anglo-Jewry had been going on for more than a century, he believed. For example, how many people knew that the first attempt to restore Hebrew as a modern, spoken language was made in England? More than half a century before the famous Eliezer Ben Yehuda, an English Jew, Abigail Lindo (1803-1848), had written a dictionary and a Hebrew discussion book which was still usable.

The fact that so few English Jews had even heard of this woman was another sign of their cultural degeneration, Megged concluded.

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