In September 1913, the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums published an article under the title »A Jewish University in the Orient«. The text, penned by the Berlin-based historian Martin Philippson (1876–1916), responded to a recent decision of the Zionist Congress to progress with the plan to establish a university in Jerusalem. Philippson described the project as a wise answer to the distress of Jewish intelligentsia in the »Orient« – a broad term also covering Ottoman Palestine – who allegedly had no future in the East and was bound to leave for the West. He praised the envisioned university, along with the professional schools and planned Technion that had been founded in Palestine by the German Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden in cooperation with the Zionist Organization, as invaluable help to the Jewish youth of the area.
Philippson endorsed the establishment of a university in Palestine, but expressed serious reservations regarding the intention of using Hebrew as its language of instruction. Even if the New Hebrew language, as he called it, were »capable of providing the technical terms for medicine and natural science,« he warned that using it at the university would raise substantial difficulties. On the one hand, it would exclude students from outside the small education system of the Yishuv, who had little or no experience with the language. On the other hand, the lack of »scientifically qualified lecturers«trained in Hebrew would inevitably damage the university’s academic standards. The problem that the university was meant to solve, namely the questionable prospect of the Jewish youth in the East, would thus remain, and the institution »would indeed be doomed from the outset to infirmity, even to demise.«»Es heißt, die Studentenschaft so ziemlich auf die Zöglinge der zionistischen Gymnasien in Jaffa und Jerusalem beschränken. Damit wäre die Universität schon von vornherein zum Siechtum, ja zum Untergange verurteilt, ihre Wirksamkeit zumal für die nichtpalästinensischen Juden des Orients aufgehoben. (…) Wir wissen nicht, ob die neu-hebräische Sprache überhaupt schon imstande ist, die technischen Ausdrücke für Medizin und Naturwissenschaft in vollem Umfange darzubieten. Aber keinesfalls wird es eine genügende Anzahl wirklich wissenschaftlich methodisch vorgebildeter und wissenschaftlich befähigter Dozenten geben, die hebräisch vortragen könnten.«
Philippson’s article was quickly answered by Shmarya Levin (1867–1935), a Zionist leader born in the Russian Empire, through the Zionist publication Die Welt. According to Levin, it was Philippson’s replacement of a »Hebrew University in Jerusalem« with a »Jewish University in the Orient« that embodied his essential mistake. As a historian who perceived the Jews as a Volk rather than a religion, Philippson should have understood that Hebrew was not just a holy, ancient relic, but an integral factor in the national awakening, which required constant fostering. Practically, Levin argued that the experience of the Gymnasiums in Palestine proved the feasibility of teaching science in Hebrew and that local Arab students or Russian Jews would find it easier to learn Hebrew than German or French.
Levin and Philippson thus presented two opposing positions regarding the linguistic future of the university. Philippson, a believer in the superiority of the German language, was not the only one to express concerns regarding the suitability of Hebrew. Even Chaim Weizmann, one of the driving forces behind the university, acknowledged the linguistic problem. However, Weizmann and other Hebraists were also confident in the progress of Hebrew towards the required standard, as most of them were acquainted with its linguistic, literary, and cultural advancement in previous years. Moreover, during the previous decade, dozens upon dozens of accounts in the Eastern European Jewish press had praised the wonders of Hebrew in the Yishuv, where it functioned as a living language in schools and on the streets. These reports were not always accurate, but Jewish public opinion in Eastern Europe was much more ready to accept the possibility of higher education in Hebrew than German Jews outside of Zionist circles. Aloof to this Hebrew discourse, Philippson recommended that the Zionist Organization reverse the plan immediately and »divert from this pernicious path.«»Wir hegen zu der Einsicht der zionistischen Leitung das feste Vertrauen, daß sie bald von diesem verderblichen Wege ablenken wird. Um so mehr, als er ein unmöglicher ist.« Instead, he suggested employing a combination of German, Arabic, and Hebrew, which would preserve the scientific status of the future university, its connection to its area, and its Jewish character.
The minor disagreement between Philippson and Levin in 1913 was a prelude to later events. Less than three weeks after their exchange, Levin withdrew from the board of the Technion in protest after it had passed a decision to teach all non-Jewish subjects in the institute in German. Philippson, who was also a member of the same board, suggested a compromise at the meeting according to which history and geography would be taught in Hebrew in the Technion’s adjacent Realschule. Over the following months, this conflict escalated into the so-called »Battle of Languages,« with the arguments made by Philippson and Levin being reprised in hundreds of articles across the Jewish press. Eventually, the position represented by Levin prevailed and led to the victory of the Hebraists over the Germanists.
Philippson’s arguments regarding the university, as well as the pro-German claims concerning the Technion, were not unjustified from a technical point of view. The failure of his position originated from another source: public opinion. In the early twentieth century, the future of Hebrew was not a topic for intellectuals only, but a matter of genuine interest for many Jews who influenced the decision makers accordingly. For many, successes in the struggle to Hebraize the Technion strengthened belief in the importance and possibility of a Hebrew rather than just a Jewish university. The call for instruction in German and the vivid public discussion on this issue would nevertheless continue to echo well after the foundation of the Hebrew University in 1925.
Meirav Reuveny is a PhD candidate in the department of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research explores the discourse on the Hebrew language in the Jewish press in Hebrew, Yiddish, and German | meirav.reuveny(at)mail.huji.ac.il
Cover Photo: The Hebrew University at Mount Scopus, 10 September 1938, National Photo Collection of Israel, ID D269-077.