Israel's First Hebrew-language Newspaper, Reborn in Digital Form

150 years after Ha-Levanon was founded - and nearly 130 years after publication ceased - the revolutionary newspaper has been scanned and digitized for the Historical Jewish Press.

The debut edition of Ha-Levanon, the first Hebrew-language newspaper in pre-state Palestine, was published on February 20, 1863.  On the first of its four pages, the  newspaper's manifesto was laid out: "To bring messages of peace from Jerusalem, voice news from across the entire Holy Land, inform you of mysteries from Syria, Yemen and the countries of India and new interpretations of Torah from those who dwell upon Thy holy mountain, anything a man of Israel would desire to know."

Above this brief mission statement, common in mid-19th-century newspapers, was the name of the periodical, in no fewer than three alphabets: Hebrew, Arabic and Latin.

To peruse it again, on the occasion of its 150th birthday, is to journey back in time to the early days of the Israeli press. Today, nearly 130 years after it ceased publication, the Internet has given Ha-Levanon a new lease on life.

The Historical Jewish Press, a joint project of Tel Aviv University and the National Library of Israel's Digital Library, lets users browse and search "Ha-Levanon" and many other Jewish newspapers in various languages, including English, and from a variety of countries. The service is free; the papers have been fully digitalized but remain in their original languages.

In the second issue of Ha-Levanon, published two weeks after its debut, on March 5, the publisher addressed the reader: "This is the second issue we have published. We hope you will enjoy this issue even more than the first."

Ha-Levanon, which was defined as an Orthodox-Haredi newspaper for readers from the Old Yishuv - that is, the Jewish community in Palestine prior to the wave of Zionist immigration beginning in 1882 - was the first Hebrew paper in the Land of Israel and the first newspaper in pre-state Palestine, period.

"Over the next few decades only Jews wrote, edited and published newspapers in the country. The Arabs only published a paper for the first time in 1908," wrote Dr. Mordechai Naor in his (Hebrew-only) book "Rabotay, Ha'itonut" ("Ladies and Gentleman, the Press").

Three young men in their twenties were behind the new venture: Yechiel Brill, Michael HaCohen and Yoel Moshe Solomon, the famous rabbi who went on to co-found the community of Petah Tikva in 1878.

The three did what no-one else had succeeded in doing: They broke a 20-plus-year monopoly on printing in Jerusalem. In 1841, 400 years after the invention of printing, Ukrainian immigrant Israel Beck established a press in Jerusalem. Thanks to various unusual agreements that he engineered, Beck was the only printer in the city. He tried to thwart the eager young entrepreneurs, but his efforts to sue them failed.

Everything a Jew needs to know

Ha-Levanon's history in Israel was brief: Only 12 issues in all were published here, between February and December 1863. The rivalry between it and Habazeleth, a competing paper that began publishing in July of that year, led to both being closed down by the Turkish governor of Jerusalem: The publishers of each paper informed on the other as being published illegally. Beck, Jerusalem's erstwhile printing monopoly, was the editor of Habazeleth.

Ha-Levanon's editors appealed to Ottoman officials in Istanbul, but to no avail. Brill moved to Europe, where over the next 20 years he continued to published the paper: first in Paris, then in Mainz, Germany and finally in London until Brill's death in 1886. "It is a good example, and maybe a unique one, to describe the problems facing a Hebrew newspaper at the time," wrote journalist and historian Gideon Kouts in Kesher, an academic journal devoted to the history of the Jewish and published by Tel Aviv University, adding, "a living example of the 'wandering Jew' embodied in the press."

The upheavals experienced by Ha-Levanon were also evident in how it now presented itself to readers: no more "messages of peace from Jerusalem" and "news from across the entire Holy Land," but rather aiming "to inform and instruct Jews regarding everything they need as Jews."

But in Paris too, Ha-Levanon ran afoul of the authorities. By law in those days, only French citizens were permitted to publish newspapers. Brill tried to get around the restriction by registering the paper in the name of a Jewish citizen, a merchant who posed as Ha-Levanon's editor. But the police soon discovered the ruse: According to an internal police report, the paper's purported editor was "a total illiterate." The report reveals that the police suspected another man, a German from the city of Cologne whose "political opinions are unknown," as the paper's actual publisher.

It is interesting to note that early on, the various newspapers tried to distinguish themselves from their competitors, and not always gracefully. During Ha-Levanon's time in Paris, its editors even boasted of their access to government publications, writing: "Here in Paris, new periodicals are published each morning and afternoon, and we will reproduce for you everything which you desire and want."

Nor did the editor spare himself from compliments. On September 1, 1867, Brill told readers: "The great French government has permitted me to announce political news in Ha-Levanon." In the next issue he continued to boast: "Beloved readers! ... know that this news is so important you will crane your neck to hear it," he wrote. "I hear that readers of [other] papers in Israel are talking to each other about Ha-Levanon, how they have heard news and secrets here they cannot hear anywhere else."

The fight for readers also had some embarrassing moments. In January 1874 Ha-Levanon published information sent in by a reader, one David Halevi Birnbaum of Rzeszow, Poland, who reported, "Quite a few times there have been cases where kosher meat has been found to contain mixed meat from unkosher beasts" in the city. The editor did not bother to check the facts, and two weeks later the paper published a letter of apology in which the original writer admitted "in print that an error escaped from my reckless pen."

No apologies

Brill himself, however, did not apologize to his readers for the error. On the contrary, he "diverted the discussion to exonerate himself, he praised his readers and tried to elevate Ha-Levanon," writes Prof. David Tal in Kesher. Furthermore, Brill also denounced the "reckless writers" whom, he charged, sought to please the publisher and sent him articles that had not been properly checked.

"Please know that reckless writers – maybe because they realized that there is a publisher waiting – may have not been honest with us. We do not condone this. Thanks to God we have credible news from well-known writers."

Today, 150 years after Ha-Levanon's birth, it has been reborn, having been scanned and digitized for the Historical Jewish Press. Prof. Yaron Tsur from Tel Aviv University, the project's founder and director, says there have been two major revolutions in the Jewish media world.

"Until the 19th century, a Jew in Poland did not know anything. He didn't know that a place called Tunisia existed and that there were Jews there. He knew what was happening in Krakow and something about Jerusalem," says Tsur. "The press opened up a whole world for him – Australia, India, emperors and wars. It told him there was a North Pole and a South Pole and that the world was round."

The second revolution, Tsur says, is happening now. "150 years after Ha-Levanon, we have digitalization. It brings what was dead to life by making it possible to search for content in these newspapers. In this way, the world of knowledge has opened up again," Tsur says.

"By the summer, the project website will have one million scanned newspaper pages," promises Dr. Hezi Amiur, the project's curator on behalf of the National Library. Ha-Levanon is just one of 35 Jewish periodicals that have been uploaded to the site. "We are saving them from extinction," Amiur says.