The War of the Languages
From The Archives of Jewish Education in Israel and the Diaspora

The War of the Languages

In the spring of 1913, a so-called "War of Languages" broke out among the Jewish Yishuv in the Land of Israel. The controversy began after a decision was made by the Technion's Board of Trustees on the 26th of October, 1913, that the language of instruction in the Technion would be German. The Technion was to be the first institute of higher learning in the Yishuv (the Jewish community in the pre-State Land of Israel), with its gates finally opening in Haifa a year later. This decision was also relevant to the high school that was going to be established in partnership with the Technion. The Board of Trustees that made the decision had been appointed by "Ezra" – a German-Jewish organization and the most prominent organization in the field of education in the Yishuv, as well as a champion of Hebrew education.

The members of the Yishuv refused to accept this decision, which they saw as an insult to the Hebrew language and fought for its cancellation. All strata of Yishuv society joined the fight- students in Hebrew schools and their alumni, teachers, writers and other intellectuals, various public figures, Ashkenazim and Sefaradim, city dwellers and farmers, workers and bourgeois, parties and organizations. Writers and Hebrew journalists from Eastern Europe also supported the fight.

The movement began with mass gatherings, and became entrenched via student strikes, protesting for Hebrew only instruction in the Ezra school in Jaffa (with the support of their parents) and in the Seminary for Teachers in Jerusalem, and afterwards in protest of the suspension of students and for the establishment of alternative Hebrew schools. The local Hebrew press supported the struggle with numerous articles and legal reports which were meant to muster public opinion. Many of the people struggling at Ezra were dependent on its support, especially teachers and students in the Jaffa school and at the Seminary for Teachers in Jerusalem- such as, for instance, Eliezer Ben Yehuda who was dependent on such support to publish his dictionary.

The Ezra society fought their battle via the Jewish press in Germany. They presented the opposition from the Yishuv as nonsense stemming from the resistance of the Zionist movement, which was led by Russian immigrants, to German culture. The head of Ezra, Dr. Paul Nathan, arrived in Ottoman Palestine during the height of the crisis and insisted on the implementation of the Board of Trustees' original decision.

The struggle, which originally focused on the Technion, very quickly turned against the high school that was intended to be opened nearby, and represented a much more practical goal- the establishment of an independent high school education system. And indeed in November, 1913, students and teachers, as one, left the Jaffa school and established and alternative independent Hebrew school. Afterwards, in December, after the firing of the teachers in the Seminary in Jerusalem, they established "The Hebrew Seminary for Teachers" in its place. This trend continued immediately afterwards in Haifa, where the Hebrew Reali school was established.

In January, 1914, the Board of Trustees recanted their decision. On the 22nd of February, 1914, came a new decision: the primary language of instruction in the Techinion would be Hebrew. The Board also relented regarding the establishment of another high school, now that the Hebrew Reali school had opened in the meantime. The new decision was not carried out due to the organization's loss of influence in the Yishuv and the start of the First World War the following summer. In place of its schools, independent Hebrew schools supported by the Zionist Histadrut and the Hovevei Zion movement were established.

The Funny Side of the War: Bava Technika

​The War of the Languages may not have been an actual war, but it was a very serious matter indeed. It placed the Hebrew language at the center of public discourse and was the first time students, intellectuals and public leaders in both the Land of Israel and the Diaspora were recruited to defend the Hebrew language and give it the status that they felt it deserved. The outcry was great, and the argument produced a large amount of writing and an abundance of opinions.

​Humor was also present. Study partners arguing, defending themselves, quibbling, making claims and objecting to opposing opinions has always been the material for fine Jewish humor. The War of the Languages was no exception. When the great national-cultural fight was still fresh in the minds of many in the country, a small pamphlet, just 24 pages long, called "Bava Technika" was published.

The author of the pamphlet was Kadish Yehuda Silman, a teacher, writer, translator, Hebrew scholar, and one of the founders of Tel Aviv. Silman was one of the heads of the Hebrew Committee and was a prominent figure in the War of the Languages. Later, he taught in the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa, the Hebrew incarnation of the high school meant to train prospective Technikum students.

Based the subject matter of the War of the Languages, Silman composed Bava Technika in the Purim tradition of humorous tractates: meaning, he wrote a satirical text impersonating a Talmudic tractate in language, style and page format. Silman depicted a polarized debate in the style of the famous Talmudic argument. He composed a sort of humurous Talmudic text, complete with claims, proofs and counterarguments.