On Feb. 18, Israelis woke up to the first reports of a new source for concern: 1,000 tons of crude oil had washed up on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, polluting nearly its entire 190 kilometers of shoreline in one of the country’s worst ecological disasters to date. A heavy storm and unusually high waves prevented an early detection of the approaching tar and its removal at sea. All of Israel's beaches were closed as a result of the pollution and a call was made to not go swimming or play sports on the beach. Experts predict it will take months or even years to clean the beaches from the tar that has killed and injured wildlife on the coast, including birds and turtles. Thousands, including members of the diplomatic community, volunteered in the cleanup effort.
When I joined a World Zionist Organization (WZO) delegation about two weeks later, the beach area we were designated to clear in the city of Bat Yam was full of pebble to golf ball size globs of tar that had already worked their way into the sand. Working with pasta strainers, it was a painstaking job to separate the tar from the sand and quickly seemed like a Sisyphean task. Tar was a mainstay of the Israeli shoreline when I was younger, and every authorized beach had its ubiquitous canister with kerosene and a brush to remove the sticky substance from the soles of feet and shoes. These disappeared in recent years as the beaches became cleaner but will undoubtedly have to be reintroduced until cleanup is complete.
Whereas the environmental impact of the oil spill once it hit land is a glaring physical challenge that will have to be reversed over time, other aspects of the incident are less obvious. First, what preparedness measures did Israel have in order to head off the blight and second, who is the culprit and what was the motivation for releasing pollutants at a point at sea that would undoubtedly bring it to our shores?
Protecting Israel against sea infiltration and keeping the Mediterranean (and other) shipping lanes open has been a priority for the State of Israel—whose land borders are for all intents and purposes locked by enemy and frenemy countries that surround it—since its founding. Today, the Mediterranean plays an even greater economic and strategic role after Israel expanded its Exclusive Economic Zone, discovered large deposits of natural gas and built a string of desalination plants that provide some 80% of Israel’s potable water—all of which could be affected by how the government manages its response to any future ecological disaster.
Writing in the Jerusalem Post early this month, retired Admiral Prof. Shaul Chorev, director of the Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center at the University of Haifa who held positions as Head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, Assistant to the Minister of Defense for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense and Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, argued that the incident has shown Israel’s inattention to the civilian maritime domain.
“Israel has failed to establish the necessary legal framework for its maritime domain or even to define the responsibilities of various governmental agencies that will have to be addressed in order to avert another maritime disaster,” Chorev wrote. “Ignoring or downplaying the non-military issues of the maritime domain, as the current ecological disaster highlights, is the major source of Israel’s maritime domain blindness.”
As for the culprit of this outrage and its motivations, Israel’s Minister of Environmental Affairs Gila Gamliel accused Iran of deliberately releasing the pollutants in order to damage Israel's marine ecosystem. After some speculation that the offending ship was Greek—a prospect that could have had damaged the close relationship between the two countries—and the lifting of a court-imposed gag order on any details regarding the ship responsible for the spill, Gamliel announced on March 3 that, following an intensive two-week investigation, the culprit had been identified: a Libyan-owned, Panamanian-flagged tanker, “Emerald,” illegally transporting 12,000 tons of crude oil from Iran to Syria. The oil spill occurred between Feb. 1 and 2, within Israel’s economic waters, close to the Israeli coastline, and the prevailing sea stream brought it to shore two weeks later.
Fingering Iran directly (an accusation the defense establishment reportedly would not endorse), Gamliel said: “Iran is waging terrorism not only by trying to arm itself with nuclear weapons or trying to establish a basis near our borders. Iran is waging terrorism by harming the environment. Our battle on behalf of nature and animals must be a cross-border one. Together, we will bring to justice those responsible for the environmental terrorism, those who committed this crime against humanity.”
The minister also responded to criticism that her ministry was negligent in failing to identify the oil spill while it was still at sea. “It should be noted that no source had prior information about a suspicious stain in the Mediterranean that led to the pollution incident, which was only discovered when lumps of tar began washing ashore onto Israeli beaches on Feb. 17. Therefore, all analyses of the event were retrospective, using tracking of ship data and satellite imagery,” Gamliel said.
Suspicion that the ship had nefarious intentions increased when it became clear that while it was in Israel’s territorial waters on Feb. 1-2, its trackable devices were turned off and turned on only when Emerald reached Syrian waters. Latest reports indicate that the ship is anchored again at Kharg Island in Iran.
This week the plot thickened: According to a Wall Street Journal article quoting U.S. and regional officials, Israel has attacked at least a dozen Iranian vessels or those carrying Iranian cargo bound for Syria—mostly carrying Iranian oil—since late 2019 out of concern that petroleum profits are funding extremism in the Middle East. (Iran has continued its oil trade with Syria, shipping millions of barrels and contravening U.S. sanctions against Iran and international sanctions against Syria.)
The unconfirmed Israeli attacks against Iranian tankers, the release of crude oil to damage Israel’s shore, the Feb. 26 attack against the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray giant cargo ship attributed to Iran and the March 10 attack on the Iranian-owned Shahr e Kord all point to a growing naval conflict taking shape over the past three years in the Eastern Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf. Israel’s alleged sea offensive is part of a much larger campaign—which has included a reported 1,500 airstrikes in Syria since 2017—designed to prevent the radical Iranian axis from building up its military and terrorist power in the region, but doing so with an invisible footprint and plausible deniability to gingerly avoid regional war.
Notwithstanding Iran’s growing malign behavior in the region against Israel and other countries, recent reports suggest that the United States is concerned the conflict in the maritime domain could spoil its attempts to negotiate a new nuclear agreement with Tehran. Seth J. Frantzman, senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post and a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, believes that these and other recent incidents, such as the reported Iranian cyberattack against Israel last year, could mean that the Islamic Republic is using every asymmetric means of attack at its disposal, including the environment. If this is the case, Israel will have to be very nimble as it predicts and forestalls Iran’s next nefarious contrivance.
This Jan. 5 (27 Kislev in the Hebrew calendar) marked the 163rd birthday of Eliezer ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, and the ninth iteration of Hebrew Language Day, established by the Knesset legislation in 2010 to promote the Hebrew language in Israel and around the world.
In past years, the day was the centerpiece of a week-long celebration of the Hebrew language in its modern form. Major events took place around the country and in the media, anchored by a conference in Rishon LeZion—where the Haviv elementary school (est. 1886) has the distinction of being the first exclusively Hebrew-speaking school founded in the modern era—with the participation of thousands. This year’s celebrations were muted due to the COVID-19 crisis and migrated exclusively to the internet where the only live event was a visually boring interchange between four linguists in a sterile, corona-appropriate room.
The revival of Hebrew into the vibrant, contemporary and adaptable language that it is today was no easy task and is viewed as one of the modern miracles of the State of Israel, if not the most remarkable of them. Many of the early initiatives that ensured that miracle was undertaken directly or indirectly by the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge.
A small band of determined men led by Ben Yehuda were Hebrew’s very first chief protagonists, and they were all members of the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge, established in 1888. The lodge was called “a center of visions” by Ben Yehuda, who served as its first secretary, and it indeed became the unofficial cultural center in the turn-of-the-century New Yeshuv of Jerusalem, with the role of Hebrew being only one of a number of fundamental goals promoted by the lodge.
Believing that a Jewish national renaissance was conceivable only if it was consciously rooted in the Hebrew language and culture, the Jerusalem Lodge was the first public body in pre-state Israel to set Hebrew as its official language—the language in which Ben Yehuda penned the lodge’s first minutes (although each member had the right to speak in the language of his choice).
In 1889—just a year after the lodge’s founding—a number of young members established “Safa Berurah” (Clear Language Society) as the first organization aimed at “spreading the Hebrew language and speech among people in all walks of life.” The lodge pledged to “strive its utmost to revive the language and support the organization at all times according to our ability.” A year later this group founded the Va’ad Ha-Lashon ha-Ivrit (The Hebrew Language Committee), which published books, dictionaries, bulletins and periodicals, inventing thousands of new words. The Committee also created a uniform pronunciation of Hebrew speech out of the Babel-like variations reflected in the accents of Jews immigrating into Ottoman-era Eretz Israel from different parts of the Empire and Europe.
In 1903, the Jerusalem Lodge took another bold step to bridge the cultural and ethnic differences in the Yishuv and encourage the use of Hebrew by founding the first Hebrew-
speaking kindergarten in Jerusalem (the two first Hebrew-speaking kindergartens were established in Rishon LeZion in 1898 and in Jaffa in 1902).
Despite opposition by the ultra-Orthodox, the kindergarten was quickly filled to capacity and two additional kindergartens were founded by the lodge in other parts of the city, together educating hundreds of children from all walks of life to use Hebrew as their main language and infusing it into their homes. B’nai B’rith subsequently established a seminary for kindergarten teachers in Jerusalem, and the lodges in Jaffa, Safed, Tiberias, Rehovot, Haifa and Beirut also established Hebrew-language kindergartens.
The predominance of Hebrew in pre-state Israel was not assured without a war—albeit non-violent: the 1913 War of the Languages—in which Hebrew emerged victorious against German as the language of instruction in higher education. But by the time the war was fought, the predominance of Hebrew was being won with the new generation as scores of youngsters learned to speak what was destined to become the national tongue, thanks in part to B’nai B’rith.
When the War of Languages erupted, the Jerusalem Lodge was the only framework in which both principal protagonists—Efraim Cohen, who supported German-language instruction, and David Yellin, who supported Hebrew—were members. In response to a petition from the B’nai B’rith lodge in Constantinople, the Jerusalem lodge made efforts to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict that had repercussions beyond the borders of Israel.
All of this was important to the Jerusalem Lodge because it fashioned itself as the only institution at the time that opened its doors to Jews of all ethnicities and from its inception set out to meld the fragmented Jewish sects in the city into a single Israelite community. Hebrew, though not yet the lingua franca of the New Yishuv, was the only common language of its Ashkenazi and Sephardi members, and the importance of maintaining its use at lodge meetings was constantly stressed.
The Committee of the Hebrew Language officially morphed into the Academy of the Hebrew Language under law in 1953, but already in 1929 the Jerusalem Lodge had drafted a declaration inspired by Israel’s national poet, Haim Nachman Bialik, to establish the Academy. The declaration, signed by some of the original members of Hebrew Language Committee—among them David Yellin and Professor Yosef Klausner—stated B’nai B’rith’s “special right to approach this large and daring task because it was the first pioneer as an organized civic body to revive the Hebrew language in the Land of Israel.”
Together with the establishment of the precursor to the National Library, which also played an important role in revising the Hebrew language and literature, B’nai B’rith can be proud in this celebratory week of the role it played in one of the great chapters of the renaissance of the Jewish people in Israel over the last 130 years—the revival of the Hebrew language.
It is therefore only appropriate that B'nai B'rith will soon initiate a conference at the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—where it holds consultative NGO status—showcasing the unique ways in which Hebrew survived 2,000 years of detachment from its indigenous land to be revived as Jews began to return in significant numbers to the Land of Israel at the end of the 19th century. We will do this with pride, in recognition of the monumental contribution of our organizational antecedents to this process.
When we held our first event to recognize excellence in Diaspora reportage in the Israeli media 28 years ago, little could I have predicted that this program would become one of our showcase projects. Through all these tumultuous times, this initiative has endured as the most prestigious citation of its kind in Israel. Some 90 Israeli journalists from the print and broadcast media have been feted over a full generation in different categories for their professionalism and insight that have helped Israelis understand and navigate the astonishing array of Jewish communities, streams and ideologies around the world and their unique relationship with the State of Israel.
Over the years representatives of all the major Israeli print and broadcast media outlets – including the Times of Israel – and some minor ones, have been acknowledged by the Award, proving – anecdotally if not empirically – that contemporary Diaspora Jewry is of great interest to the Israeli media, to its viewers and readers.
On Wednesday we will present the 28th annual B’nai B’rith World Center Award for Journalism Recognizing Excellence in Diaspora Reportage – albeit in a very different format than we have in the preceding 27 years in order to confirm to Covid-19 regulations. What has not changed is that outstanding journalists – Branu Tegene, Danny Kushmaro and Dina Kraft – and the Shalva Band that will receive our special citation for Fostering Israel-Diaspora Relations through the Arts – will be feted by our guest of honor, Minister of Aliya and Integration Pnina Tameno Shete.
The divide between Israel and the Diaspora, and especially with large parts of US Jewry, was further eroded by the elections for the US presidency, with polls showing that US and Israeli Jewry are mirror images of each other regarding support for either of the major candidates who stood for office. Astonishing for us in Israel also are the opinion polls that place the State of Israel at the bottom of the list of concerns for most American Jews. True, American Jewry is not our only focus, and as an international organization active in some 50 countries, B’nai B’rith is attentive to the smallest Jewish communities, but there is no substitute for the American Jewish community insofar as sheer numbers and deep involvement in the economic, political, cultural and intellectual life of the strongest superpower on earth.
Therefore, it is forbidden for us in Israel to turn our backs on this large and diverse community despite the differences of opinion and the sense that it is positioning more and more as a critical – and even vexing – voice in opposition to the State of Israel. Some segments even demonstrate the same double and triple standards toward Israel that we have gotten used to suffering from sworn enemies. This rift became apparent also in the elections for the leadership of the Zionist movement that took place recently and will undoubtedly leave their mark on the new Zionist Executive that has started its term just a few weeks ago.
In light of these trends, all elements for whom Israel-Diaspora relations are important must make efforts to find paths to the minds and the hearts on both sides of the ocean. We are witness to daring initiatives by the Government of Israel in the way of unprecedented taxpayer funding for projects among Diaspora Jews and a government-sponsored proposal under which a formal consultative process would, for the first time, be mandated between the Government and representatives of the Jewish world on issues pertaining to them directly. These are unprecedented steps that must be utilized as platforms for building understanding and unity among those Jews ready to get do the heavy lifting it takes to navigate a state and a people at this tumultuous time.
We have sustained our Award for Journalism to encourage the exposure of Jewish communities – large and small alike – to the Israeli public in order to engender a deeper conversation about the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. Through the Award and our other projects, we will continue to contribute to the buttressing in the stormy waters that await.
Read Schneider's analysis in the Times of Israel.
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, click here.
B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem Director Alan Schneider presented on Nov. 18 a donation from the B’nai B’rith Edith “Pat” Wolfson Endowment in support of Israeli orphans to the children of Rabbi Shai Ohayon (39): Tohar (13), Hallel (11), Shilo (9) and Malachi (4). Ohayon was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist on August 26 while on the way to collect his children from educational institutions. The attacker, Khalil Doikat (46), held an Israeli work permit and was employed at a construction site. The Palestinian Authority has begun to rebuild his home in the village of Rujib near Nablus, which the IDF demolished on Nov. 2 as a deterrent measure.
The presentation was made as part of the World Center’s project to support Israeli children who have lost a parent or both parents to terror and disease.
The presentation was made to Ohayon’s widow, Sivan, in the family home in Petach Tikva near the Segula Junction where Doikat stabbed her husband to death. Ohayon, a full-time student at a religious institution (kollel) in the nearby town of Kfar Saba, was a respected and prominent figure in his neighborhood and teacher of Torah lessons. Sivan Ohayon described her husband as a man of “truth, simplicity, joyousness and faith” who was intimately involved with the rearing of their children.
The World Center has been charged with administering the Edith “Pat” Wolfson Endowment grant since its inception in 2005. The following previous grants have been made:
2006 – To Salomon (14) and Channan (13) Yaakobov, whose father Yaacov was killed in 2006 by a Kassam rocket fired from Gaza to Sderot that penetrated the roof of the factory where he worked.
2007 – To Sara (10), Rivka (9) and Devorah (8) Ben-David whose mother, Hadassah (Yelena), was murdered on Nov. 21, 2002 by a Palestinian who detonated a bomb aboard a crowded morning rush hour Egged commuter bus. Hadassah (32), a first-year math teacher, died along with 10 other civilians on their way to work and school, including Hodaya Asraf (13); Marina Bazarski (46); Sima Novak (56), Kira Perlman (67), and her grandson Ilan Perlman (8) Yafit Ravivo (14); Ella Sharshevsky (44) and her son Michael (16); Mircea Varga (25), a tourist from Romania; and Dikla Zino (22). Fifty people were wounded in this Hamas-perpetrated attack that occurred on Mexico Street in Jerusalem's Kiryat Menahem working-class neighborhood.
2009 – To the seven children of Meir Avshalom Hai, murdered in December in a drive-by terrorist shooting on the road from his home in Shavei Shomron to Einav in Samaria.
2010 – To the six orphans of Yitzhak and Talya Ames who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists on August 31, alongwith two other residents of Beit Hagai: Kohava Even Hen (37), mother of a 10-year-old daughter and newly-married Yeshiva student Avishai Shindler (24) at the Bani Na’im junction between Hebron and Beit Hagai.
2011 - To Tamar (12) ,Roi (8) and Yishai (2) Fogel whose parents Udi (36) and Ruth (35) and three siblings Yoav (11), Elad (4) and Hadas (3) were brutally stabbed to death in their beds on March 11 by two Palestinian terrorists who infiltrated their home in the northern Samarian community of Itamar.
2012 -To Lior (7), Lihi (4) and Itamar (8 months) Shushan whose father, Yossi was killed on August 20, by a Grad rocket fired from Gaza.
2013 – To Liron (12) and twins Guy and Agam (4) whose mother Anat Even Haim (34) was murdered by gunman Itamar Alon in a shooting attack at a branch of Bank Hapoalim in Beer Sheva on May 20.
2014 – To the four children of Sergeant Major Bayhesain Kshaun. Kshaun was killed by an anti-tank missile fired at an IDF force responding to a terrorist infiltration on July 21, as part of Operation Protective Edge. A career tracker for 21 years, Kshaun made Aliya from Gundar Province in Ethiopia in 1988 and served in the opening days of the operation with the Givati Brigade. His widow Galitu gave birth to their youngest daughter Tal Or, 10 days after her husband was killed.
2015 – To Laren Sayif, the infant daughter of Israeli police officer Sgt. Zidan Sayif who was killed in November 2014 as he confronted two Palestinian terrorists who were engaged in a gruesome attack on the Kehilat B'nai Torah synagogue. Four rabbis were murdered in the attack – leaving 24 children fatherless - and eight other worshipers were wounded – four of them seriously. Sayif and another officer managed to kill the two terrorists, but Sayif was killed in the exchange of fire. A second distribution from the fund was made to the five children of Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky, one of the four victims in the attack.
2016 –To Yael Weissman for the benefit of her 7-month-old daughter, Neta. Their husband and father, St.-Sgt. Tuvia Yanai Weissman (21) was murdered on Feb. 18 while trying to protect fellow shoppers from two 14-year-old knife-wielding terrorists at the Rami Levy supermarket branch at Sha’ar Benjamin. Weissman, a combat sergeant in the IDF’s Nahal Brigade on a week-long leave, was shopping prior to Shabbat with Yael and Neta when he heard screams from a different aisle. Realizing immediately that a terrorist attack was in progress, Weissman, even though he was unarmed, ran to confront the terrorists as other shoppers fled the supermarket. He was the first to reach the terrorists who had begun their stabbing spree and was the only victim to die of his wounds in the attack. In recognition of his heroism, the IDF submitted to Yael Weissman’s appeal that his tombstone state that he “fell in battle” rather than “fell while on duty.” The supermarket where he was killed employs both Israelis and Palestinians and is popular with both Israeli and Palestinian shoppers. The store has become a symbol of coexistence, though it has been targeted several times.
2017 - To Irin Satawi to benefit her infant child Ramos whose father, Druze police officer Advanced Staff Sgt. Maj. Hayil Satawi (30), was murdered on July 14th by three Israeli Arabs at the Temple Mount along with his partner First Sergeant Kamil Shanan (22), just two weeks after the child – his first – was born. The presentation was made in the family home in the northern Druze village of Mrar (Maghar).
The B’nai B’rith England First Lodge donation went to the five children of Elad Solomon: Avinoam (11), Reut (9), Amitai (5) and one-year-old twins Ariel and Avishai - murdered on July 21 at his parents’ home in Neve Tzuf along with his sister and mother. The presentation was made to their mother Michal who valiantly rescued the children by barricading herself with them in an upstairs room while a Palestinian infiltrator murdered her husband and family during Friday night dinner.
2018 - To Yael Shevach to benefit her six children: Renana (11), Neomi (9), Miriam (7), Milka (5), Ovadia (4) and Benayahu (1) - whose husband and father, Rabbi Raziel Shevach (35), was murdered on Jan. 9, in a drive-by terrorist attack near their home in the settlement of Havat Gilad. Shevach was a religious educator and a mohel who helped save lives in his volunteer work with the Magen David Adom national rescue organization. Ahmad Nassar Jarrar, the 22-year-old head of the terror cell responsible for Shevach’s murder, was shot dead by security forces in a raid in the village of Yamoun, near Jenin, on Feb. 6. The presentation was made in the family’s home in northern Samaria.
A second donation was made to the four children of Rabbi Itamar Ben Gal (29), a teacher at Bnei Akiva Yeshiva in Givat Shmuel, who was murdered in a stabbing attack near the entrance of Ariel on Feb. 5 while on his way to a family event. His children are Avital (6), Daniel (5), Roni (3) and Avraham (1). The presentation was made to their mother, Miriam, also a teacher, who continues to live in the family’s apartment in the Har Bracha settlement. Ben Gal’s assailant was a 19-year-old Israeli-Arab resident of Jaffa, Abed al-Karim Adel Assi, the son of an Israeli mother and Palestinian father from Nablus. Al-Karimi arrived at the Ariel Junction bus stop and stabbed Ben Gal from behind. Ben Gal ran to a bus that had stopped at a nearby station while his assailant gave chase. Reaching the bus, the rabbi knocked on its door for help before collapsing. The terrorist then fled the scene. An off-duty Israel Defense Forces officer who witnessed the attack then chased the assailant in his car and rammed him. Despite being hit, al-Karim was able to escape with the help of an unidentified driver who picked him up near the scene of the incident. On March 18 he was captured in Nablus with several other suspects who had helped him hide.
2019 - A gift from the B’nai B’rith First Lodge in England was made on Succoth eve to the 12 children of Rabbi Achiad Ettinger (47): Moriah (22), Efrat (21), Eliashiv (20), Harel (18), Eliasaf (16), Yehuda (14), twins Tehiya and Tzofia (12), Benia (10), twins Eliav and Hadas (8) and Roni (2). The presentation was made to Ettinger’s widow, Tamar, in the family home in the town of Eli, in the Binyamin Regional Council. Ettinger was murdered in a terrorist attack at the Ariel Junction on March 17. Despite being shot in the neck and head, Ettinger turned his car around and pursued Palestinian terrorist Omar Abu Laila (19) who had stolen a gun from soldier Gal Keidan who he shot and killed before firing on passing cars and pedestrians. Ettinger managed to fire four shots at Abu Laila before succumbing to his wounds, dying a day later despite efforts at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva to save his life. The family donated his organs.
Ettinger had dedicated most of his efforts to supporting Jewish life in several south Tel Aviv neighborhoods. was the head of the Oz V’Emmunah yeshiva that he established in a boarded-up synagogue in the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood, once home to a thriving religious community.
Ettinger was described as a hero for his courageous effort to confront the terrorist despite his egregious wounds, a selfless act performed without consideration for the personal price he would pay. Rabbi Achiad’s sister Rachel is the widow of Yosef Tuito, a member of the emergency response team in Itamar, who was killed during a terrorist infiltration in 2002. Tuito was shot dead in a gun battle with terrorists after they entered the home of the Shabo family murdering the mother and three sons.
Anyone driving near Jerusalem’s government district cannot miss it. On a triangle-shaped lot bordering the Knesset, the Israel Museum and government ministries (did anyone say “location, location, location”?), a magnificent addition to the capital city’s landscape is taking shaper under a jumble of cranes, earthmovers and other heavy machinery: The National Library of Israel building.
In the scintillating promotional material posted on the library’s web site, the futuristic design is described as follows: The building’s curved, elevated and cantilevered form necessitates a contemporary take on the cut Jerusalem limestone found throughout the rest of the city …Openings and carvings, whose shapes are derived from a projection of erosions on ancient stone walls, are designed to minimize solar heat gain on the windows behind. The pattern is reminiscent of culturally specific imagery and text but remains abstract in origin. The mineral surface continues to the vitrine legs below…Uncommon in contemporary Jerusalem, the wood brings a human scale and detail to the pedestrian experience while linking the building to timber traditions important to the local vernacular from ancient to early modern times…Our design responds to the context and reflects the ambitions of the National Library of Israel. It is open and transparent but grounded in the traditions of great libraries and the city itself. As in the past, books will remain at the center…”
The National Library’s new building – which, like the Knesset and other monumental projects in Israel, is being funded by the Rothschild Foundation – is ambitiously slated to open in 2020.
But this institution has its foundation 108 years earlier in a historic decision by members of the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge to establish a library in Jerusalem that would be the home to the huge fountain of Jewish wisdom contained in its great written tomes. Led by visionary and pragmatic figures like David Yellin, Zeev Hertzberg, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Yosef Meyuchas and Yehiel Michel Pines – all leaders of the “New Yishuv” - who were inspired by the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Jerusalem Lodge (est. 1888) succeeded where two earlier attempts had failed to establish a sustainable library in the cradle of Jewish renaissance then stirring in the Land of Israel – Jerusalem – after libraries had been established by B’nai B’rith lodges in Jaffa and Tzfat (both chartered by the Jerusalem Lodge). Founded to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World and the Spanish Inquisition, the library in Jerusalem was named for the great Jewish statesman and scholar Don Isaac Abravanel, who led the convoy of denuded Jews out of the Spanish kingdom. It opened with 947 books donated by lodge members and other Jewish residents of Jerusalem. Two years later, 2,000 books from a defunct library established earlier by Eliezer Ben Yehuda – the father of modern Hebrew – were gifted to the B’nai B’rith Library, and in 1895, Dr. Josef Chasanowich augmented the collection with his private corpus of 10,000 Jewish books, sending them from Bialystok to Jerusalem. The library was officially renamed “Midrash Abravanel ve’Ginzei Yosef” (Abravanel Seminary and Yosef Archives”). In 1899, Theodor Herzl, in the name of the Zionist Congress, sent Chasanowich a congratulatory letter and a donation towards the library, to which Chasanowich remained committed. By 1886, the rented quarters had become cramped and the lodge began to plan a purpose-built facility which opened in 1902 to great fanfare. The building, which sits on B’nai B’rith Street in the center of the historic district surrounding Prophets Street, is still owned by the Jerusalem Lodge. In 1920, the collection was transferred to the World Zionist Organization and subsequently (in 1925) to the Hebrew University, at which time it took on the name Israel National and University Library. The next year, it opened in its new venue as the Israel National Library.
Leading historians have long recognized the role of the B’nai B’rith Library in the development of Jewish culture and education in Jerusalem and as the foundation of the National Library. Writing in The Book of Jerusalem, Yosef Salmon writes “…the ‘B’nai B’rith’ library…served at the time also as a community center for the New Yishuv in Jerusalem and eventually became the National Library…”. Dov Sidorsky, writing in Libraries and Books in Eretz Israel at the Close of the Ottoman Period, notes “The ambition to establish ‘the treasury of Jewish books’ in the city, which is a center for Judaism, indicates the primary purpose of the library and was a guiding light of the board of the B’nai B’rith library…” Writing in “New Jerusalem at its Beginning”, Yehoshua Ben-Arie writes, “Behind the idea of combining the two libraries in Jerusalem and the addition of Sirkin’s books to the ‘B’nai B’rith’ library in Jerusalem stood Zionist ideology about creating a national library in Eretz Israel.” Finally, writing in “Prophets Street, Ethiopia Neighborhood and Musrara Neighborhood”, David Koryanker writes “In 1892…the third attempt [to establish a library] … was crowned with success at the initiative of B’nai B’rith …The establishment of the library – the nucleus of the National University Library – was the fruit of a determined decision by Jerusalem intellectuals and Hovevei Zion in the Diaspora, who believed that a library is one of the important symbols of national renaissance…’”
The significant contribution made by the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge and subsequent B’nai B’rith lodges established in Jaffa, Zichron Yaacov, Tiberias and elsewhere at the end of the 19th century, to the Jewish renaissance in Eretz Israel, even before the establishment of the Zionist Movement, is indeed well-documented. These contributions include the establishment of the first Jewish settlement in the Jerusalem area (Motsa), the first Hebrew-speaking kindergartens and adult education in Jerusalem, hospitals and civic institutions. They also made clandestine missions to Jewish communities throughout the Levant with the purpose of drawing them into the modern era and harnessing their support for Jewish renaissance in Eretz Israel and fought the discriminatory decrees of the Ottoman authorities against Jewish immigration and property ownership. Many of their initiatives were designed to counter the Christian mission to the Jews, very active at that time. They laid the veritable building blocks upon which the “state in the making’ was founded at a time when Jerusalem’s Jewish population stood at a mere 15,000.
Together with Jerusalem Lodge President Zvi Rotenberg, and with the support of B’nai B’rith President Charles Kaufman, we are currently engaged in an effort to ensure that B’nai B’rith’s critical role in the founding of the National Library will be recognized in the permanent exhibit that will be a major feature of the new building, and we are seeking other opportunities to bring this proud history to the fore. As President Kaufman concluded in his letter to Library chairman David Blumberg: “This important legacy is too precious for us to ignore and I am sure that you too wish to strive for historical accuracy and recognition for the accomplishments of those who came before us.”
Ma’ase Avot Siman L’Banim (The actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children – Rambam).
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, click here.
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