With words, not weapons

‘War of the Languages,’ explores how a cornerstone-laying ceremony for a college in Haifa a century ago shaped Israel’s national identity.

Technion historical 520 (photo credit: Courtesy Haifa City Museum/Technion Archives)
Technion historical 520
(photo credit: Courtesy Haifa City Museum/Technion Archives)
On April 18, 1912, a group of people posed for a formal photograph on an unremarkable patch of stony ground on Haifa’s Mount Carmel.
The group is formally dressed, and the mood is serious. The men wear somber three-piece morning suits, topped by bowler hats or the straw fedoras and pith helmets favored by European gentlemen traveling in the East. Slightly more festive, the women are clad in white. Each clutches a large posy of flowers.
The photograph was taken to commemorate an important occasion: the cornerstone laying ceremony for the first Jewish technical college to be built in Ottoman Palestine – the Technion.
The picture is on display as part of “War of the Languages,” an exhibition at the Haifa City Museum to commemorate the centenary of the cornerstone laying ceremony.
“For me, this is one of the most beautiful photographs in the whole exhibition,” says Prof.
Peretz Lavie, the Technion’s current president.
“This sepia photograph is such an important piece of history.”
AMONG THOSE pictured are some of Eretz Yisrael’s most influential figures, whom Chaim Weizmann dubbed “the Pilgrim Fathers of the New Palestine”: Zionist activist and land purchaser Yehoshua Hankin, Russian Zionist leader Yehiel Chlenov, renowned physician Dr. Hillel Yaffe, Russian architect Joseph Barsky, Samuel Pewsner, the architect responsible for Haifa’s new Jewish neighborhood of Hadar, engineer Tuvia Dunia.
Present also are several rather less illustrious personages who are noted merely by their professions and countries of origin: Kurdish welldigger, Yemenite stonecutter.
Their names might be lost to history, but the presence of these Jewish skilled laborers is of great significance in the Technion’s story.
Also significant is the presence of Julius Loytved-Hardegg, the German vice-consul to Haifa and Damascus (and the only non-Jew in the photograph).
Days after the photograph was taken, all these people would become key players in a battle that engulfed Eretz Yisrael’s Jewish community and reached as far as Europe and the US.
Dubbed the “War of the Languages,” that battle helped decide the future course of the Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael.
“It wasn’t a war with bloodshed, with weapons and shooting,” says Svetlana Reingold, the exhibition’s curator.
“It was really an ideological battle. And its roots started in something very peaceful – a charitable organization.” That charitable organization was the Relief Organization of German Jews, better known by its Hebrew name, Ezra.
Paul Nathan, a German Jewish philanthropist, founded Ezra in Berlin in 1901. His aim was to develop initiatives to help improve social conditions for Jews in Eastern Europe, particularly in the wake of the horrific state-sponsored pogroms that had devastated Jewish communities in the Russian Empire.
One of Ezra’s main activities was to establish a Jewish school system, ranging from kindergarten through higher education, in what was then Ottoman Palestine. In 1912, Ezra opened a college to train Jewish teachers.
Ezra’s activities were significant: at that time, modern educational opportunities for Jews were few.
“At that time, Jews in places like the Russian Empire were severely limited or even prohibited to enter universities, and it was hard for them to travel to other countries to study,” says Reingold.
“So the end point of Nathan’s vision was to bring higher education to Eretz Yisrael by creating a technical institute that would be open to Jewish students.” A Jewish technical institute in Eretz Yisrael would, Nathan believed, boost Jewish knowledge and also the productivity of the Jewish people, both vital ingredients for a modern Jewish nation.
“In part, Nathan’s idea was linked to national revival, and the prevailing belief that if the Jewish people were to advance and become a real nation, they first needed to be modernized and build their own country in Eretz Yisrael,” Reingold adds.
“A technical institute was an important step toward that goal. At the time, there was no real technical college in Eretz Yisrael or the Ottoman Empire.” To fund the development and construction of the technical institute, Nathan attracted wealthy Jewish philanthropists from Russia and the US.
A large part of the funding came from the estate of Russian Jewish businessman Kalonymous Zeev Wissotzky, founder of the Wissotzky Tea Company. An ardent Zionist and philanthropist, Wissotzky funded many projects during his lifetime, including a Jewish school in Jaffa. After his death in 1904, the Wissotzky estate donated 100,000 rubles to help found Ezra’s technical institute in Haifa.
In 1909, American investment banker and Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff donated a further $100,000 to the project.
The necessary funding thus obtained, Nathan began to put his plans into action. Via the Jewish National Fund, an undeveloped piece of stony land on Mount Carmel in Haifa was purchased and earmarked for the future technical college.
WHY DID Nathan and his colleagues at Ezra choose to build their technical institute in Haifa, then a bleak northern backwater of Ottoman Palestine with a tiny Jewish community of just 2,000 residents? Surely Jerusalem or Jaffa, cities with large, well-established Jewish populations, would have been more natural choices for a Jewish technical college? Reingold says that the northern city’s small Jewish population was, in many ways, a boon rather than a burden.
“Unlike Jerusalem, for example, which had a large and very well-formed Jewish community that was active both religiously and politically, Haifa was fresh ground,” she explains.
“There was space for a new Jewish population to move here. And there were other benefits too.
Haifa had a port. Industry was relatively well developed here. There were plans to construct a railway to connect Haifa with other cities in the Ottoman Empire.”
Technion president Lavie adds several more reasons why Ezra chose Haifa as the home for its new Jewish technological institute.
“On the one hand, it’s very nice to think that maybe [Ezra] was inspired by Theodor Herzl’s book Alteneuland, in which he described Haifa as the “city of the future,” says Lavie.
“But there’s also a more pragmatic view that says perhaps when members of the Ezra society came to Haifa from Germany, they saw the German [Templer] community here, and they felt at home. Maybe for that reason they thought Haifa was a more practical home for the technical institute.”
Nathan decided that the technical institute should be a wholly Jewish project.
He hired a German Jewish architect, Alexander Baerwald, to design the buildings. (Baerwald’s exquisite hand-drawn plans are one of the highlights of the exhibition.) And Nathan wanted the building itself to be constructed entirely by skilled Jewish laborers.
“There were hardly any Jewish construction workers in Haifa, so Nathan brought Yemenite and Kurdish laborers from Jerusalem,” says Reingold.
“But even so, he wasn’t able to fulfill his ideal of having a completely Jewish workforce. In the end, he hired skilled Arab laborers too.”
Though Nathan wanted to create a totally Jewish institution, he nevertheless believed it should be run along the lines of similar institutions in Germany.
He even gave the new technical institute a German name – the Technikum.
Nathan was convinced that all classes at the Technikum should be taught entirely in German.
The concept of a German-speaking higher education institute in Haifa seems incongruous today, but at the turn of the 20th century it was perfectly natural, says Reingold.
“At the time, the German culture was considered one of the highest, particularly in technology and science,” she explains.
Much in the same way as English today, in the first years of the last century German predominated in science and technology. Most textbooks were written in that language.
“Nathan’s reasoning went something like this: If we as Jews want to improve ourselves and advance ourselves as a people, we need to get as close as possible to this high culture,” adds Reingold.
The emphasis on German also suited the regional interests of the German Empire, which wanted the growing Jewish presence in Ottoman Palestine to remain under its control.
The presence of vice-consul Loytved-Hardegg at the Technikum’s cornerstone-laying ceremony was taken as a powerful sign that the new institute was under German protection.
(In fact, Loytved-Hardegg merely thought a German-speaking Technikum would be a good way to train more German-speaking engineers for the region.) In his insistence on German as the language of instruction, Nathan underestimated a crucial factor: the growing national unity and pride of the Jews and the importance of the Hebrew language.
That “dead” Jewish language had started to be revived in 1881 by Russian immigrant Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.
Ben-Yehuda thought that Hebrew was an important step on the Jews’ road to national selfdetermination in their ancient homeland. And he believed the best way to ensure the Jewish people could speak Hebrew was to teach it in schools.
“The Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study, and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into the home and become a living language,” he wrote.
As the language took root in Eretz Yisrael, it rapidly became a symbol of Zionist aspirations for Jewish independence in the Jews’ own homeland.
And so when Ezra’s board members voted for German as the language of instruction at the Technikum, their decision unleashed a tidal wave of fury among the Jewish community.
“Nathan thought the language of instruction in the Technikum should be German, but for the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, the Hebrew language was very, very important,” says Reingold.
“They believed that the revival of Hebrew as the national language of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael was essential to building a Jewish country and a Jewish nation.”
Spurred by Zionist leaders Ahad Ha’am, Shmaryahu Levin and Yehiel Chlenov, the teachers at Ezra’s schools in Ottoman Palestine walked out on strike – taking their students with them.
But the significance of the dispute was far greater than just a local row over language at the Technikum, says Reingold.
It very quickly escalated into a full-scale battle for the national character and soul of the Jewish community and for its national aspirations in Eretz Yisrael.
“The Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael wanted to be self-sufficient instead of relying on external assistance from foreign organizations like Ezra,” adds Reingold.
“So in many ways the ‘War of the Languages’ was really a war of independence.”
The slogans used by the pro-Hebrew activists in Eretz Yisrael reflect the deeper meaning of Hebrew as a symbol for national unity, independence, identity and pride.
“One language, one soul!” “Hebrews, learn Hebrew!” “Remember that Hebrew is the language of your home: If they ask you what your language is, answer Hebrew!” proclaimed the pro-Hebrew placards waved at demonstrations and strikes across the country.
“The slogans used by the Zionist leaders in support of Hebrew are filled with so much pathos. And, on a personal note, as a Russian olah I find it very emotionally moving that the three men leading the pro-Hebrew protests were all Russian Jews,” Reingold says.
The language protests spread far beyond Haifa.
Anti-German, pro-Hebrew protests ricocheted through the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael in the form of public demonstrations.
Leading public figures, including Ben- Yehuda, added their powerful voices to the struggle.
In a 1913 letter, Avraham Aldema, a schoolteacher and Hagana fighter (and inventor of the Purim Adloyada) wrote an impassioned plea to the Jewish people to fight for Hebrew: “Long live the Hebrew language! Our language is Hebrew! We will fight against the blasphemers of our language! With our language we are free!” The protests even reached Berlin and Vienna, where German Jewish pro-Hebrew supporters joined the fight against Ezra.
“Assimilation is a deliberate attack on the Jewish people!” announced a poster at the Viennese Heruth school, calling for a protest against “enforcement of a foreign language in Haifa’s Technikum.”
AMERICAN JEWS also voiced their support of the battle for Hebrew. In New York, prominent Reform rabbi Dr. Judah Leon Magnes dubbed the anti-German protests a “heroic struggle,” and wrote that whatever the outcome of the battle, “the self-respect, the independence and the power of self-sacrifice and the love of Judaism which the Jews of Eretz Yisrael have shown must be an inspiration to everyone whose heart is open to noble influences.”
Ezra eventually capitulated to the international pressure and declared that Hebrew would, after all, be the language of instruction at the Technikum.
Sadly, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 delayed the institution’s opening, and it was not until 1925 – 13 years after the cornerstone-laying ceremony – that the first students enrolled.
By that time, the number of Hebrew speakers in Eretz Yisrael had grown dramatically, and it was no longer felt appropriate to give the institute a German name.
“[Hebrew poet] Haim Nahman Bialik coined a new name for the institute,” says Reingold.
“Instead of the German word Technikum, Bialik suggested a Hebrew word – technion – formed from a root of three Hebrew letters, tav, kaf and nun. Together, they form a word meaning “content” or “design.” Today the name is spelled with a tet rather than a tav.
The Technion soon outgrew its home in Hadar, and by 1965 had moved to a new campus in Haifa’s Naveh Sha’anan neighborhood. (The beautiful Oriental-style building so lovingly designed by Alexander Baerwald now houses Madatech, the Israel National Museum of Science, Technology and Space – a fitting use for the Techion’s original home.) Today’s Technion is considered one of the leading science and technology research institutes not just in Israel, but in the world.
Technion scientists have made many outstanding achievements in science, medicine and genetics. Among these is the work by professors Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004 for their discovery of the important role ubiquitin plays in protein recycling in human cells.
Other Technion scientists have also a direct impact on the understanding of Jewish history and culture. Dr. Karl Skorecki’s groundbreaking study of Y-chromosome markers showed that Jews belonging to the kohen lineage share a common ancestry.
Technion President Lavie, himself a worldrenowned physician, credits the Technion with a major role in developing the Jewish state.
“There is no doubt that the Technion transformed Israel from the land of Jaffa oranges to the land of semiconductors,” says Lavie. “It has made a major contribution to the Israeli economy, originally by helping build the physical infrastructure of the country.”
According to Lavie, the Technion’s breakthroughs in technology and science have also helped make Israel the “Silicon Wadi” of the Middle East.
“The basis of Israel’s hi-tech industry, microelectronics, started right here in the Technion, for example. That’s why I have called the Technion the gateway to Israeli hi-tech and to the “start-up nation,” says Lavie.
“And that same microelectronics also forms the basis of the world’s biggest technology companies – like Google, Intel and IBM.”
The Technion has also extended its reach beyond Israel to impact and influence science and technology internationally, adds Lavie.
“We have become the mecca for all universities who want to learn technology,” he says.
One hundred foreign universities have exchange programs with the Technion. A third of Israeli companies traded on NASDAQ are run by Technion graduates; the estimated market value of all companies owned by Technion graduates is an impressive $29 billion.
“You know, I like to wonder what those people in that sepia photograph of the cornerstone-laying ceremony would think if they could see the Technion today,” adds Lavie.
“What would they say if they knew that the Technion has become one of the finest technological institutes in the world? What would they think if they knew that two of the Technion’s scientists have won Nobel Prizes? Would they believe it if they knew that the Technion is influencing science and technology all over the globe?”

“War of the Languages: Founding of the Technion/Technikum” is on at the Haifa City Museum, Sderot Ben-Gurion 11, Haifa, until August. For information and opening hours, call (04) 911-5888.