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The ‘Language Conflict’ in Israel in 1914

Herzl had not envisioned Hebrew as the language of the Jewish state. In 1896 he wrote: “Who amongst us has a sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket in that language?” His plan was that everyone in Palestine would continue to speak the language of their home country. He pointed to Switzerland as a country that existed with a confederation of languages. Thereafter, the official documents of the Zionist Congresses (which began in 1897) were all written in German.

In his “Trial and Error,” Chaim Weizmann explains the situation in the years before World War I: “Every foreign institution in the corrupt and feeble Turkish empire placed itself under the protection of a foreign country, and the European Powers vied with each other for influence and prestige within Turkish territory. The Jews in particular were used as cat-paws in this game of intrigue, and the little community which we were struggling to weld into a creative unit was torn apart by its ‘benefactors’ and ‘protectors.’ There was one system of Jewish schools supported by the Alliance Israélite Universelle of Paris; there the language of instruction was naturally French. The Germans used the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden with its system of schools as their instrument of intrigue in the Near East. There the language of instruction was German. England was very much behind in the general competition, having under its aegis only the Evelina de Rothschild School in Jerusalem, where the language was English. At school, Jewish children in Palestine therefore spoke French, English or German according to their foreign ‘protectors.’ ”

The Hilfsverein was a German-Jewish (but not Zionistic) organization founded in 1901 to improve the social and political conditions of the Jews in Eastern Europe and the Orient. By the eve of World War I it had about 50 schools under its auspices in Palestine. Initially their language of instruction was Hebrew. But during the years immediately preceding WWI, a wave of German patriotism swept through the schools. New teachers from Germany were brought in, some of them Christian. The use of Hebrew as the medium of instruction was discarded, except in the teaching of Hebraic subjects. German songs and literature were being taught. This led to tensions with the Hebraic-minded students.

In his “The Story of Hebrew,” Lewis Glinert writes that on the eve of World War I, “most Jews in the land of Israel, many Zionists included, were skeptical about the future of the new Hebrew, and the majority were still not sending their children to Hebrew-speaking schools. German remained the official language of the international Zionist movement…Some Zionists were learning Turkish, feeling that they had to be part of the state in which they lived. Yiddish, French and Arabic also competed for linguistic attention.”

The issue of the main language of the yishuv in Palestine finally was resolved on the eve of World War I with the building of the Technion in Haifa. At the time it was called the “Technikum.”

A considerable sum of money for the Technikum was given by Wolf Wissotzky, the Russian tea magnate. The building was completed in 1913. Arthur Zimmermann, who was the German Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, had obtained from the Turkish government the permission for the land and building, and the Technikum had been placed under the protection of Germany. The Hilfsverein was the sponsor of the institution. But the Board of Governors of the Technikum did have some pro-Hebrew members such as Achad Ha-Am (who worked for Wissotzky).

The decisive meeting took place in Berlin in June 1914. The representatives of the Hilfsverein were completely against Hebrew as the language of instruction in the Technikum. They argued that German was the great language of science and technology, in contrast to the limited technical vocabulary in Hebrew. Second, the school was under the German flag. Third, Zimmermann had gone to all this trouble to obtain the concessions for the school on the tacit understanding that German would be the language of instruction. But Weizmann warned these German Jewish leaders that if German was voted to be the language of instruction, nobody in Palestine would pay attention, since it would be entirely contrary to the spirit of the new Palestine. The Hilfsverein representatives ignored Weizmann and the Board of Governors voted for German to be the official language.

As one historian wrote: “If the German language was to be predominant in the one and only Jewish institute for advanced professional studies…then the prospects of Hebrew as the language of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael…were dim indeed. The elementary and intermediate schools in the yishuv would take the cue from this highest educational institution…”

Weizmann immediately telegraphed the vote to Shemarya Levin who was in Palestine. Within 24 hours, on the day the Technikum was to open, its teachers and the pupils went on strike. “No Hebrew, no Technikum” was their slogan.

In the “Technion” entry, the Encyclopaedia Judaica continues the story: “The decision [adopting German] aroused a storm of controversy, in which the Hebrew Teachers’ Association took the lead. Meetings were held throughout the country; resolutions of protest were passed by practically all Jewish institutions and organizations; the Teachers’ Association issued a ban against the acceptance of posts or the registration of students in the Technikum; pupils at the Hilfsverein’s other schools struck in support of a demand to institute Hebrew as the sole language of instruction…” A strike fund was established and new Hebrew-speaking schools were organized to replace the schools on strike. The authorities of the Hilfsverein employed all sorts of stratagems to break the strike. But it was to no avail.

Eventually, the Hilfsverein withdrew its support not only from the Technikum, but from all the other schools it had maintained in Palestine. Levin, who was in Palestine when the strike occurred, left for America to raise funds for the taking over by the Zionist Organization of this section of the Jewish educational system of Palestine. This was the beginning of the Zionist administration of the schools in Palestine, and of the fusion of the divergent linguistic influences into a single Hebrew system. When the cornerstone for the Hebrew University was laid on July 24, 1918, it was taken for granted that its language of instruction would be Hebrew.

As to the Technion building, the above EJ entry continues: “Before the controversy could be settled, World War I broke out. The unoccupied building served as a military hospital…. After the war, the Zionist Organization acquired the property from the Hilfsverein and the first classes on a university level were held in December 1924.”

P.S. The Zimmermann mentioned above is famous for sending a secret telegram to Mexico in early 1917, asking them to fight the U.S. and join the German cause. It was deciphered by the British and shown to President Wilson and led to the U.S. finally declaring war on Germany in April 1917.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected].

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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