Word of the Day / Milhemet Hasafot - Sabra-rattling at the Technion

When Israel's first institution of higher education was established, its founders were convinced that science could only be taught in German. But the proponents of Hebrew begged to differ - and won.

Judd Yadid
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In the 1910s, Hebraists confronted Germanists at Haifa's Technion. Credit: Reuters
Judd Yadid

The unforgiving Mediterranean summer sun baked the pristine Mount Carmel as the students flocked into the Horsaal Einstein in the Fakultat fur Chemieingenieurwesen, the Faculty of Chemical Engineering at Haifa's Technikum, exactly a century ago.

How do you say Chimieingenieurwesen in Hebrew?Credit: Motti Kimchi

Guten Morgen Studenten, the professor bellowed – their cue to cease their Hebrew chatter and open their umlaut-filled textbooks. The dreaded Prufungen - the nail-biting end-of-year examinations - were just around the corner, and they listened carefully to every word, glottal stops and consonant clusters piercing the stuffy, pre-air conditioning lecture hall. As if the subject matter wasn’t complicated enough, they’d have to also write their exams not in the language of the land of milk and honey, but rather that of Kant and sauerkraut. 

Fanciful? Sure. Though it was within the realm of possibility that German and not Hebrew had emerged triumphant in the so-called Milhemet Hasafot (mil-KHE-met hasa-FOT,) ‘Battle of the Languages,’ that raged in the Yishuv – Israel's pre-state Jewish community - of the early 1910s.

Despite the ideological fervency of the pro-Hebrew Zionist immigrants, not to mention the rise of Nazism soon after, it was clear to all that university instruction in the Jewish state will be carried out in the then lingua franca of science – German.

Sprechen sie Hebraeisch?

The ground zero of Milhemet Hasafot was Israel’s first university, now known as the Technion. Conceived by the German-Jewish foundation Ezra to train the Yishuv’s future scientists and engineers, its cornerstone was laid in 1912, after which a controversy centred on the proposal to use German as the language of instruction ensued.

The reasoning was that, given the dearth of scientific literature in Hebrew and qualified Hebrew-speaking science instructors, as well as the fact that much of the scientific equipment would be German-made, using Hebrew would be impractical.

Yet proponents of reviving the ancient Semitic tongue, which had already become the language of instruction in the fledgling Yishuv’s school system, were vehemently opposed. So when Ezra decided, in distant Berlin, to officialize the use of German at the Technikum, the ‘Hebraists’ counterattacked: The institution’s recently appointed director was forced to resign, the Yishuv's teachers' union called for a boycott (that was only symbolic, because the campus was yet to be built, let alone filled with students), and crucially, Zionist donors were pressured to withhold funding, grinding the Technikum’s construction and opening to a halt.

Soon, the "Germanists" realized they had no choice but to surrender, and in February 1914, Hebrew was declared the language of instruction.

Classes began ten years later, and the now world-renowned Technion (note the Hebraized ending) is considered one of the primary engines of the “Startup Nation", and has since garnered an impressive three Nobel Prizes.

The Hebrew Revolution 

Though not a shot was fired, the invocation of such a strong word as war – the direct translation of milhama, as opposed to krav, battle – to describe this event in the evolution of Israeli Jewish identity is nevertheless fitting. For the Hebraists were engaged in an epic struggle to define the embryonic society and state. Their victory at the Technion intensifiedthe wider Hebraization of the Yishuv’s incipient education system, and catalyzed the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem a few years later – with the name saying it all.

How Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the don of Hebrew revival, would be smiling in his nachas-filled grave in the knowledge that a century after this iconic conflict, Israel has eight universities and nearly 70 colleges, where every year hundreds of thousands of Israel’s next generation of teachers, doctors, aerospace engineers and audacious app-developers are educated in the (albeit modernized) language of the Israelite tribes.

Through dogged obsession and titanic passion, the purist Hebraists midwifed Hebrew into becoming not only the language of the synagogue or diasporic philosophizing, but the spoken tongue of a new, indigenized collective – of buying a bus ticket, of reading the newspaper, of thinking and screaming and dreaming and swearing in.

This linguistic revolution solved an acute dilemma faced by the early Zionist immigrants: Millennia of dispersion meant that languages like Yiddish, Ladino, Arabic and Russian predominated as the mother tongues of Jews, be they in Tiberias or Vilnius, Minsk or Meknes, whereas the language of the Torah was largely reserved for religious practice.  

Notably, using Hebrew as the unitary language of the envisaged Jewish state was a notion scoffed at by the revered father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who instead talked of a type of multilingual Switzerland on the Mediterranean. 

Hebrew’s adoption as the lingua franca of the Yishuv provided a much-needed medium through which the disparate immigrants could interact and advance their common nation-building goals.

But maybe, just maybe, the true victor of Milhemet Hasafot is English, the so-called language of the world that has penetrated deep into Israeli culture, entertainment, business and education. Take the fact that Israeli universities together now offer well over 60 fully accredited English-taught academic degrees – and that the Technion even changed the language of instruction of its MBA from Hebrew to English in 2008 – provoking some, though comparatively measly, Hebraist protest.

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