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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation X—
The Other Language Wars that Weren’t

Here’s another installment on Hebrew, the dead national language that never died. Last week, I tracked a war that wasn’t—a struggle for the Jewish national language. The Old Yishuv campaign against modern Hebrew, described there, stalled for two reasons. First, its warriors had to switch to modern Hebrew in order to carry on the fight. Second, the modern Hebrew camp had no reciprocal goal vis-à-vis pre-modern Hebrew. It simply moved ahead, winning without returning significant fire. As for where it stands today, the Israeli haredi media, with a few Yiddish exceptions, “speak” modern Israeli Hebrew that they distinguish from secular mass media by embellishing their rhetoric with Biblical and Talmudic phrases. That is—defiant, down but not defeated, but not fighting anymore.

Below are several additional wars-that-weren’t the awakened national tongue faced. Hebrew survived them all; I won’t say “it won” because that implies a serious fight. I’ll document them in brief below in order to move on to other matters in coming weeks.

The first tussle predated the twentieth century and originated in Europe, where Hebrew had been in secular use for half a century through the medium of literary and scholarly journals. The generalissimo: Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (1856–1927), none other than the renowned Ahad Ha’am, champion of Eretz Israel as a Jewish cultural, not national, center. Its purpose: to save Hebrew from the debasement that the awakeners were ostensibly bringing about with their “word mill” and yellow press.

His argument, published in the Hebrew journal Ketavim in 1894, revolved around the answers to three questions: “For whom and why do we write Hebrew? How and what should [we] write Hebrew? Should Hebrew be revived, and with what?” One already senses what the grievance was about and how the matter would end: the writing of intellectuals versus the vernacularizing of the masses; journalism as a medium, not a message; and evolution, not revolution, as the sole legitimate mechanism of change in a language.

The answers offered by Ahad Ha’am and his circle deserve attention and respect because they gained a bit of traction in the modern national enterprise. They were largely twofold. First, Hebrew had expanded at various times in the past, but only through the exertions of “towering authors and intellectuals” and not by “special professionals.” This made the process “natural,” as against the “artificial” enterprise of Ben-Yehuda and company. Second, for Ahad Ha’am and associates, language reflects thought as is reflected in literature, meaning that awakenings, if you must have them, should start in the latter two arenas and not with the invention of words. “If you want to revive the language,” Ahad Ha’am counseled, “try to revive [its] literature, and if you wish to revive the literature, insert living thoughts into it … Don’t change even the point of the letter yod for embellishment purposes only. Embellish your thoughts and they will elevate the language.” An associate of Ahad Ha’am’s offered the new Hebrew “word” hushma, which I flayed last week, as a case in point of what should not be done. A third argument, tracing to the seeming non-utility of Hebrew, crept in as well. (Nurit Govrin, “Ahad Ha’am and His Circle against the Policy of Expanding the Hebrew Language,” Kesher 27, Spring–Summer 2008, pp. 60–63 ((in Hebrew, with English abstract.)

The campaign failed for four reasons. First, none of the anti-expansion exponents opposed Hebrew as the Jewish national language. Second, defying Diaspora thinking isn’t new to the Jews of Israel. The New Yishuv (the modernizers in Eretz Israel) ignored the objections and plowed ahead, enjoying the huge advantage of possessing, if not territory, territoriality. Second, the New Yishuv was already producing thinkers and litterateurs of its own. Second, Ben-Yehuda’s enterprise was already branching beyond word-milling. It included societies that spoke Hebrew only, the forerunner of a language academy, and schools that taught Hebrew in Hebrew—all amassing momentum. Third, the modernizers eventually adopted a crucial characteristic of the Diaspora Hebrew elite: conservatism. For decades, the Israeli conventional wisdom construed the Hebrew Language Academy, the descendant Ben-Yehuda’s early effort, as a thought police that enforced an immutable and unitary “right” way to use the language. Now, the Academy had and has no enforcement power; its doings rely on the national pride that most Jewish Israelis, especially the elites, take in the language. And due to this pride, newspapers and children’s books (for two examples) “corrected” people’s grammar, choice of words, and diction to comply with the very distinct and explicit rules that drive the awakened language. This tendency has faded today, but traces of this accommodation to the language elite endure. If so, this, too, was no “language war.”

Then came the Haifa Technikum initiative, proposing to open the first institute of higher learning in Jewish Palestine. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden (Aid-Association of German Jews, known in Hebrew as “Ezra,” meaning aid), established a network of schools in Eretz Israel, including a teachers college, that taught solely in Hebrew. “A single language as the medium of instruction is necessary,” its rapporteur explained in a March 29, 1908, document. “And that language is Hebrew. Hebrew […] is no longer a dead language in Jerusalem” (quoted from Today in Israeli History,

But then, October 26, 1913, the Technikum’s Kuratorium (Board of Trustees), appointed by Ezra, resolved that the language of instruction in the institution (scheduled to open a year later) and the high school that would accompany it should be German. The argument centered on the status of German as the customary language of science and the deficiencies of Hebrew in professional and scientific terminology.

The New Yishuv saw this as an insult and, moreover, as a threat to the national enterprise. Potentially, it was: schools figure more importantly even than home in instilling language. If Hebrew lost higher education and the most prestigious primary school, it would indeed be in jeopardy. Thus, all strata of Yishuv society save the haredi sector, which had no skin in the game, rallied to defeat the decision. In this, they were assisted by the local Hebrew media (elite and popular alike) and Hebrew writers and journalists in Eastern Europe. Mass gatherings ensued, as did strikes by schoolchildren (with their parents’ support) and, especially, the establishment of alternative Hebreophone schools. Thus, in November 1913, students and teachers left Ezra’s school in Jaffa (a town that mattered much then) and set up a Hebrew-language school of their own. A month or so later, forces averse to Ezra’s decision founded their own Hebrew Teachers Seminary and, in Haifa, the Hebrew Reali school. All of this, even though many in the Yishuv (population approx.. 85,000) depended on Ezra for financial support. That included Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, whom Ezra subventioned for his Hebrew lexicon project. Soon enough, the Zionist Organization and the Hovevei Zion movement settled the matter by stepping in to fund the alternative schools.

Isolated in its anti-Hebrew posture, Ezra—which, again, championed the Hebrew awakening in other settings—was helpless. Briefly it fought back via the Jewish media in Germany, insinuating that the resistance stemmed from objections to German culture among the Russian-Jewish element of the Zionist elite. Thus it construed the squabble as yet another spate of Ostjude chutzpa. Never mind that Ahad Ha’am (!), Schmarja Levin, and Yehiel Tschlenow resigned from the Kuratorium in protest. Never mind that the American-Jewish contingent behind the Technikum project, a major funder, also favored Hebrew as the language of instruction.

In January 1914, the Kuratorium caved. On February 22, in a new resolution, it designated Hebrew as the primary language of instruction at what would be known not as the Technikum but the Technion, the revised suffix being a derivative of modern Hebrew. Ezra’s school system never recovered and the association terminated its activities in Palestine after World War I erupted in August of that year. Those behind the next higher-education venture in Eretz Israel specified Hebrew as the language of instruction ab initio, affirming the decision in the institution’s name. By doing so, they needed only three Hebrew words—the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—to press Jewry’s two most powerful buttons. (Principal source: The National Library of Israel,

German Jews also figured in the next war that wasn’t. It began when relatively large numbers of them (several tens of thousands) joined the by-now-400,000-strong Yishuv in the 1930s as the Nazi menace escalated. Their struggle to master Hebrew remains the stuff of anecdotes to this day. Therefore, businessmen among their number established German-language newspapers to cater to them. Hebrew-speaking advertisers were drawn to the new media.

Observing this, the Yishuv mainstream girded for a battle that would occupy it on-and-off for nearly a decade. Its quasi-governing institutions railed against the idea of foreign-language media in the Hebrew-national homeland, allowing two exceptions: English, as an official language of the Mandate, and Yiddish, as a tongue in which large numbers of Jews had long expressed their strongest sentiments, including national ones. (Digression: in the Ben-Yehuda years, the pro-Hebrew forces in the country specifically targeted Yiddish for extinction.) All other languages were to absent themselves from the national enterprise. The Hebrew-language media were unanimous about that, to the extent of barring foreign-language local journalists from members in their professional association. Various civil-society organizations pledged to the defense of Hebrew joined in, and some uncivil groups contributed to the cause by resorting to vandalism, heckling of pedestrians, threats of arson, and in one case an outright violent assault on a German-Jewish gathering.

Still, it wasn’t a language war. The German-Jewish immigrants were (at the time) a politically unorganized bourgeoisie—not the kind that goes to war for anything. Their eager consumption of German-language newspapers did not reflect a wish to dislodge Hebrew in favor of German; they lacked the numbers to attempt such a thing in any case. The British Mandate authorities censored coverage of the affair in the Hebrew press for reasons that can only be speculated. Perhaps more importantly, Hebrew had won by then. The last possible challenge to its hegemony didn’t fail; it had never been launched. The potential contestant was the secular and heavily Polish-Jewish immigration of the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was a much larger group than were the German-Jewish immigrants who followed, it had landed in a then-much-smaller Yishuv, and it wasn’t the sort that absorbed the Yishuv’s ways blindly. For example, it was the Polish Jews of that time who transformed Tel Aviv into an aggressively secular city. Had they retained Polish as their national language, they could have given Hebrew a run for the media money and, perhaps, threatened its social hegemony. They did neither. As representatives of the German-language media negotiated with the defenders of Hebrew to deflect the language warriors, they urged the association of Polish Jews to help them. The association refused, affirming Hebrew as this population’s sole national language.

In fact, the losers in this language non-war were the defenders of Hebrew. It had been their aim to extirpate nearly all foreign-language newspapers countrywide, and in this they failed—precisely, as Dr. Amos Blobstein-Nevo argues, due to the ugly tactics that their most aggressive wings invoked. Dialectically, in the defeat of the Hebrew-language zealots, Hebrew won. The descendants of those German-speaking immigrants are well represented today in all Israeli media.

My main source for this upside-down language war, ruthlessly abridged for lack of time, is Amos Blobstein-Nevo, “‘Torching Kiosks Won’t Impose Hebrew’: “The Struggle against the Foreign Language Press in 1930s and 1940s Eretz Israel,” Kesher 49, Winter 2017 (in Hebrew), pp. 70–86, with English abstract: “Chutzpat ha-La’az—How the Hebrew Press Tried to Wipe Out Foreign-Language Journalism In Israel’s First Century.”

Next week: Hebrew as a living language in pre-Ben-Yehuda Palestine.

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