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What’s in a name – or in a language?

Eliezer Ben Yehuda . . . famous dictionary

I read an item by Yossi Beilin about Hebrew becoming the dominant language in pre-State Israel. It was published in Hebrew on 23/10/2013, in Israel Hayom, where Dr Beilin writes periodically. In it there is reference to EZRA as an organization set up in Europe in 1901*.

I found it interesting and was grateful for on an item of our history, although I disagreed with the conclusions. Perhaps ESRA readers will find the similarity of names intriguing, even though the objectives of the two organizations are differed.

Reinforcing my reservations, a response by Dr. Avshalom Kor a week later, titled: "Sorry we won" (obviously borrowed from an old Ephraim Kishon hit), appeared in the same publication.

Dr. Beilin's - or his editor's - title for his piece is, quite appropriately: "The Language Wars in the Land of Israel".

Below is my translation of Dr. Beilin's piece, as well as a summary of Dr. Kor's response.

"Exactly one hundred years ago, the first protest movement arose in the Land of. It was a struggle that lasted for about six weeks, ending in a great victory for the small Hebrew yishuv** against Jewish educational organizations from abroad. There were demonstrations, strikes, boycotts and violence. In the eyes of many, it was a life-and-death battle. Out of it, only a few short years later, arose the Legion for the Protection of the Language, which fought uncompromisingly to have Hebrew established as the dominant language, something which was not at that time obvious.

"The organization Kol Israel Chaverim, which arose in 1800 for the purpose of spreading French culture among world Jewry, intended doing the same in Israel. In 1870, it set up the agricultural Mikve Israel school, and then, 14 years later, the Alliance School in Haifa. Initially, the language of instruction in these institutions was only French, but the public had forced these institutions to teach in Hebrew as well.

"Theodore Herzl arrived like a shooting star in the skies of European Judaism in the 1880s, and published "Der Judenstaat" ("The Jewish State").

"The language spoken by the Jews in their own land was not a major subject in his vision; he had assumed they would speak German. In mid- 1895, during a meeting with the Rothschild family, he explained:

"We would, of course, not be able to converse with each other in Hebrew. Who among us knows enough Hebrew to ask to purchase a train ticket? That would be impossible. Each of us would continue to speak in his language. Since I am a German Jew from Hungary and can't be anything else but German, I assume that the prime language would be German."

"Following a meeting with Dr. Rafael Landau, he wrote in his diary: "Landau, like many Zionists, is for Hebrew. I am of the opinion that the prime language ought to establish itself without compulsion. If we establish a new Hebrew state it would be no more than a new Greece. On the other hand, if we do not imprison ourselves within a linguistic prison, the whole world would be ours."

In 1901, in this same spirit, the Ezra organization was established. It was a tool for German Jews to help Eastern European Jews and Israel, and its aim was to promote German culture outside Germany. It set up schools in Israel in which the languages of instruction were German and Hebrew. They were modern establishments, typical of the beginning of that century.

"Dr. Nathan Paul, who headed Ezra, said: "The Hebrew language is a major element of the present and future life of Palestinian Jewry." He was also aware of the Technion and the Reali School in Haifa, schools which prepared students for higher education.

"However, everything changed. Ezra's board of directors -- which had also set up the Technion -- met in Berlin on October 26, 1913, and decided that in both institutions no one language would be a requisite. "Special attention" would be given to Hebrew, but "the natural sciences would be taught in German, so that that this language, which is the most cultural one, would serve as a bridge for the development of science in this new era."

"This was the match that lit the flame. Three Israeli board members, Asher Ginsburg (Ahad Haam), Dr. Shmaryahu Levin and Yechiel Czelnov, resigned. Public outrage turned against Ezra. The teachers' union launched the fight of its life. The general of that "language war" was Yosef Luria, a history teacher at the Herzliya Gymnasium in Jaffa and the chairman of the teachers' union. "Actually, he was a mild-mannered man, but the students at the school would not let him protest only verbally. At the same time, the students of the Ezra seminary in Jerusalem set up a large protest meeting in a yard in the Bucharan Quarter and 40 of them announced that they would resign if German became the teaching language at the Technion. One thousand people responded to the call of Kadish Yehuda Silman of Jerusalem, demonstrating and calling for a war on Ezra.

"Nahum Sokolov published a piece in his paper, Hatzfira ("The Siren"), under the heading: "Those who are for Hebrew, join with us." Yosef Ahronowitz, the editor of Hapoel Hatzair, called the decision as "spiritual prostitution," and Aviezer Yelin of the Maccabee Association bettered him, saying: "Neither protests nor decisions would be useful. We must go to war! We must sacrifice our souls!"

"A teachers' conference in Jaffa decided to boycott all teachers who agreed to teach either at the Technion or the Reali School. It was then decided to immediately set up a Hebrew school for boys in Jaffa, and money was collected for that purpose. There was also a protest meeting in Haifa and a decision was made to set up a New Hebrew High School there as well.

"On October 15, four parallel protest meetings took place: in Haifa, Jaffa, Zichron Yaacov, and even in Beirut. At one of these meetings it was said: "They are butchering our children and they bring upon us a fire to corrupt us." The Jaffa students who had gone on strike had their parents' support. On October 17, a mass gathering took place at the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium. Meir Dizengoff, who was not yet the mayor of Tel Aviv, made an emotional call to stop relying on contributions from organizations like Ezra and to fund the needs of the yishuv by the yishuv.

The price of victory

"Ezra fired teachers who refused to teach in German. The Hebrew papers called the teachers who did not rebel against the German language traitors. On December 9, it was decided to open the Ezra seminar in Jerusalem with the help of the Turkish police. Teachers who refused to teach in German were dismissed by the management and were not given a chance to take their leave of their students.

"Eliezer Ben Yehuda, whose famous dictionary had been published with the help of the Ezra organization, wrote nonetheless to Dr. Paul: "The people of this land are prepared for any sacrifice and there is no human power which can stop or prevent that. The opening of the Technion will not take place without the shedding of Jewish blood or without putting tens of youths in prisons."

"All local papers dealt exclusively with the issue of teaching in Hebrew. The contributors to the new educational institutions stopped their donations and the construction of the Technion was halted.

"The tiny yishuv in the Land of Israel proved, for the first time in history, of what it was capable.

"On February 22, 1914, the Ezra board of directors decided that the teaching language would be Hebrew.

"This was a surprising victory for the new Israelis. Hebrew had won – and had become part of our national struggle. And yet it is impossible to overlook the price of that victory, which is the use of a language only we understand, the somewhat faltering English most of us have, and the linguistic ghetto the visionary of the state predicted."

This concludes Yossi Beilin's article.

A summary of Dr. Kor's response which appeared in Israel Hayom a week after Beilin's item,:

Dr. Kor expresses appreciation and enthusiasm for Dr. Beilin's historic item and the spirit it illustrates, and especially the enthusiasm for the early use of Hebrew. He calls it knowledgeable and fascinating – until its last three lines.

He then points to Hebrew's success, claiming that it went well beyond Herzl's expectations or anticipation. "There are six million Jews and one million Arabs who know how to ask for a train ticket in Hebrew," he writes.

Dr. Kor also refers to several other examples of the early use of Hebrew, and lists names of several Hebrew writers, even before Herzl's time. He also says Herzl did not know of these writers and that as early as 1853 Hebrew was already alive and bubbling.

Toward the end he includes in his response a poem in Hebrew by Saul Chernichovsky, written in Odessa before the 1897 Basel Zionist Congress at which Herzl spoke German.

I too believe that Hebrew is an important element of our identity and I agree with Dr. Kor's claim that it is central to our existence as a free people in our own country.

* "In 1901, a German Jewish aid organization, Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden (Aid Association of German Jews – known in the land of Israel as "EZRA"), was established to provide support for Jews around the world. Among its activities was the creation of a network of schools in Palestine, including a teacher training institute. At first these schools were devoted to instruction in Hebrew because, "A single language as the medium of instruction is necessary as the basis of instruction. And that language is Hebrew. Hebrew, be it understood is no longer a dead language in Jerusalem" (from a March 29, 1908 report of the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden, quoted in The Struggle for the Hebrew Language in Palestine by the Actions Committee of the Zionist Organization, 1914, p. 12). Despite this proclamation, within a few years Hebrew had been pushed to the background in favor of German in the Hilfsverein schools, especially those above kindergarten." Quoted from Today in Israeli History prepared by Ken Stein and Rich Walter, CIE. February 22, 1914

** Yishuv means the Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael. 



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