library > News > Newsletter > Winter 2013 > War of the Words

War of the Words

 One Hundred Years since the Language War of 1913

This national contest (known in Hebrew as Milhemet HaSafot) pitted the Board of Governors of the Technion, who decided to teach only in German, against members of the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish Community), who refused to accept this decision. The successful opposition, from which Hebrew emerged victorious, helped forge the incipient national identity of the Yishuv. The watershed moment will be marked by a special event at the National Library of Israel on December 25, 2013.

The event will include a retrospective on the Language War, a discussion of the relationship of the historical outcome to the National Library of Israel, and an analysis of the relevance of the Language War to scholarship in Israel today.
In the fall of 1913, the Language War broke out in the Yishuv (Jewish Community in pre-state Israel) over the decision of the Board of Governors from the German Aid Society Ezra to conduct classes at the Technion in German only, set to open in Haifa the following year.
Members of the Yishuv refused to accept this decision, which they saw as lowering the prestige of the Hebrew language. Joining the opposition to champion the use of modern Hebrew, members of the burgeoning Israeli academic community – Hebrew school students and graduates, teachers, writers and other intellectuals all took up the cause. They were joined by farmers, laborers and local community organizations. Hebrew writers and journalists from Eastern Europe also supported the campaign.  Alternative "Hebrew only" schools were established. The Hebrew press in Israel supported the struggle by reporting on the activities against the Technion decision and harnessing public support.
The German Aid Society Ezra tried to explain its position in the European media by characterizing the community's objections to German as frivolous and without merit.  It was their opinion that the Technion, the first school of its kind in the entire region, along with its associated high school, would require German-language instruction in order to be considered scholarly institutions.
Bowing to immense pressure, the Technion Board of Governors reversed their decision and agreed that Hebrew would be the official language of instruction. 
The Language War marked the first organized activity of the Yishuv and a significant one in forging the society that was emerging. The fundamental decision that formal education would take place in Hebrew also provided a critical boost to cement the revival of the Modern Hebrew language.

The Language War and the National Library of Israel

​The outcome of the Language War had a significant impact on the National Library, which existed at the time as the Midrash Abarbanel Public Library. The most prominent proponents of the struggle for Hebrew, David Yellin and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, were among the founders of the fledgling National Library, with the Hebrew language at its core.  NLI archives contain correspondence between Yellin and Ben-Yehuda during this historic crossroads, along with copies of the newspaper articles reporting on the struggle surrounding the founding of the Technion and the role Hebrew would play in Israeli society.