“Even if there were no gas chambers at Iasi, still everything else was there: thousands of Jews perished in countless manners. Everything happened: the terror, the threats, the sealed boxcars, the hunger, the humiliation, the public executions.” —Elie Wiesel
Eighty years ago this summer—between June 28 and July 6, 1941—some 13,000 Jews from Iasi, the eastern capital of Romania, were brutally murdered by shooting and in two death trains on direct orders of wartime dictator General Ion Antonescu. The killings were carried out with zeal and cruelty by Romanian uniformed and civilian officials assisted by common citizens and German military units. No trace of compassion was shown the 35,000 Jews of Iasi (one third of the total wartime population)—not from high-ranking officers and army conscripts, anonymous employees or from officials invested with authority of the state; only a handful of officials and locals were recognized after the war as Righteous Among the Nations for protecting a few hundred Jews in total as the slaughter unfolded.
Iasi provided fertile ground for this atrocity, having the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of both the violently anti-Semitic Christian National Defense League and its genocidal Iron Guard offshoot that painted all Jews as Bolshevik agents, factors of dissolution of the Romanian state, enemy aliens and parasites on the Romanian nation. The Iasi Pogrom was the most infamous event in the history of the Holocaust in Romania and one of the most savage mass murders of Jews during World War II, surpassed only by the Romanian army’s October 1941 massacre of 20,000 Jews in Odessa and one carried out by the Germans in September 1941 in Babyn Yar. Still, the Holocaust in Romania—in which over half of Romania’s 800,000 Jews perished in a reign of terror that started even before the Nazi’s Final Solution went into effect—remains unknown to many, although the Iasi Pogrom is by far the best-documented event in the history of the Holocaust in Romania.
The pogrom was the natural culmination of centuries of state and popular anti-Semitism and fervent nationalist bigotry, manifested in no fewer than 196 restrictive laws against the country’s Jewish inhabitants passed between 1867 and 1913 alone. Indeed, the litany of persecutions and discriminatory actions against the Jews is too extensive to detail in this article. Romania was the last country in Europe to grant citizenship and emancipation to its Jews—in its 1923 constitution that adopted undertakings made in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference following World War I and offered the hope of a better future for long-suffering Romania Jewry, but that was not to be. Fascism took grip of the country between the wars, and the country’s Jews were the victims of numerous atrocities, including the adoption of the Nuremburg Laws and the deportation of all Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina to the notorious region of Transnistria, where tens of thousands perished. I cannot overlook this opportunity to pay homage to leaders of the Jewish community—including President Wilhelm Filderman, Yitzhak Artzi and Fred Saraga who endangered their lives, traveling from Bucharest to Transnistria to bring material support to the deportees and rescuing thousands—mainly children and youths—and who posthumously received the Jewish Rescuers Citation, presented by the B’nai B’rith World Center and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust.
The Romanian government officially recognized responsibility for the Holocaust of the Jews in Romania and the territories under its administration during World War II in 2004, but not before a public uproar over statements made by then-President Ion Iliescu a year earlier that "The Holocaust was not unique to the Jewish population in Europe. Many others, including Poles, died in the same way." These comments triggered the establishment of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, headed by Romanian Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, that presented its shocking final report in 2004, which concluded that “Romanian authorities were the main perpetrators of this Holocaust, in both its planning and implementation.” Since then, the Romanian government has clearly turned a corner in its recognition of the role its forbearers played in the tragedy of Romanian Jewry during the Holocaust. The 80th anniversary events—including an academic conference held at the Iasi University with the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania entitled “Remembrance, Acknowledgement, Oblivion,” commemorative ceremonies at three cemeteries where victims of the pogrom are interred in mass graves, a solemn concert and the inauguration of a museum on the pogrom housed at the former central police station where many of the summary shootings took place—were sponsored by the municipal, regional and national governments, with appropriate participation.
My visit to Romania as B’nai B’rith International’s representative to these events was something of a homecoming. My mother’s family came from Iasi to the United States in 1913 and family lore has it that my grandfather received a medal from the King of Romania for establishing the first umbrella factory there. Walking the streets and visiting the two remaining synagogues—out of 136 that operated before the war—allowed me to conjure up visions of this once vibrant Jewish community, the vigor it showed over the centuries and the Torah scholars, intellectuals, business leaders and common Jews it produced. My visit to the evocative Great Synagogue—built in 1671 and the oldest Jewish house of worship in Romania—was made particularly personal when Jewish Community President Benjamina Vladcovschi explained that, like all synagogues in the city, it served a particular guild; in its case the tailors’ (schneiders’) guild. Today, Vladcovschi leads a community that has dwindled to only some 200 individuals, most elderly, but strives to keep the candle alive.
The Jewish cemetery of Iasi, where the earliest tombstone dates to 1467 and some 10,000 victims of the pogrom are buried in a mass grave, tells the storied history of Romanian Jewry. There, near the stage where about a dozen dignitaries spoke—including Israeli ambassador David Saranga; Alexandru Muraru, special representative of the Romanian government for promoting memory policies, combating anti-Semitism and xenophobia; and Romanian Jewish Community President Silviu Vexler—hundreds of graves of Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Romania in World War I greet all those who enter this transformational site. Waiting in sweltering 40-degree-centigrade heat to take my turn to speak at the Targu Frumos cemetery, 28 kilometers west of Iasi, where 570 victims of the Iasi-Calrasi death train are buried under a mass slab of concrete, I could not help but relive the agony of the train’s 2,500 victims, 1,400 of whom died enroute from thirst, hunger and suffocation during the train’s seven-day journey. Following presentations by representatives of the Council of Europe and the German government, I spoke about B’nai B’rith’s long history in Romania, going back to 1873 when International President Benjamine Pixotto was appointed U.S. consul to Romania by U.S. President Grant at the urging of B’nai B’rith, with the express intention of helping the Jewish community overcome oppressive discrimination and anti-Semitism. 13 lodges had been established by 1887. These were closed by order of the Goga-Cuza regime in 1937 but continued to operate clandestinely until 1948, when B’nai B’rith Romania President Akiva Ornstein was arrested and tortured in jail, where he died in 1954. I appealed to all those exposed to the pervasive evidence of this bloodthirsty massacre to commit themselves to support the State of Israel as a homeland and haven for Jews, despite any parochial criticism of Israeli state action, and to ensure that such an atrocity could never happen again.
May the memory of the Great Iasi Pogrom victims be a blessing.
The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is holding and a tense calm permeates the country. There have been no reported rocket launchings after an unprecedented barrage of approximately 4,360 were fired at Israel during the 11-day conflict. The wanton violence unleased against Jews, Jewish-owned property, synagogues and yeshivot by Arabs in Lod, Ramle, Jaffa and other mixed cities and on major thoroughfares in predominantly Arab northern and southern areas—described by President Reuven Rivlin as a “pogrom” carried out by “bloodthirsty Arab mobs”—have subsided, although some Jewish neighborhoods in Lod remain under virtual siege and a stabbing attack this week in Jerusalem by a 17-year-old Palestinian that left a soldier and young man in moderate condition, has put the city on edge. The conflict also left a high price tag in blood and money: ten Israelis—including a soldier, a five-year-old boy and an Arab father and daughter, and three foreign workers, died as a direct result of rocket fire from Gaza, while one Jew and two Arabs died in intercommunal strife; the direct cost of damage and replacement of armaments is estimated at well over one billion dollars.
The ceasefire even survived clashes between police and Palestinian rioters throwing Molotov cocktails and stones on Temple Mount Friday, as tens of thousands of Muslims gathered there to celebrate what they called Hamas’ “victory” against Israel. The crowd also forced the Palestinian Authority-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh Mohammed Hussein to flee the al-Aqsa Mosque in mid-sermon, after he was silenced by chants of support for Hamas and accusations of being a collaborator with Israel. This and the ongoing show of support for Hamas among Jerusalem Arabs who have flown Hamas flags and unfurled banners on Temple Mount and elsewhere in eastern Jerusalem featuring Hamas “heroes” are seen by observers as a sure sign of the erosion of Palestinian Authority and Jordanian influence over the Temple Mount compound in particular and their support among the Palestinian population in general. That trend, which prompted cancellation of the Palestinian general elections by PA Chairman Mahmud Abbas, triggering Hamas’ frustration just when it seemed poised to wrestle control of the PA from Abbas’ Fatah, is the most coherent explanation for the sudden deterioration of the situation into war on Jerusalem Day rather than any Israeli action or inaction on Temple Mount or Simon the Just (Sheikh Jarrah) neighborhood.
Undoubtedly, the IDF can take credit for an impressive list of achievements against Hamas during the campaign: Our home-grown Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepted 90% of incoming rockets (of the 3,400 that actually crossed into Israeli territory, with 680 falling in Gaza and 280 at sea); no terrorists were able to penetrate Israeli territory due to the significant subterranean anti-tunnel barrier, completed by Israel only two months ago at a cost of $833 million; attempts by Hamas to use drones—including "suicide" attack drones, introduced into the arena for the first time—were intercepted by Iron Dome and autonomous attack submarines were thwarted; Israel destroyed over a third of Hamas’ 300-kilometers-long underground tunnel system (the Metro)—ten years and hundreds of millions of dollars in the making—that it intended to use now and in the future to resupply weapons and manpower throughout the Strip with impunity, was seriously degraded as were their military research, production and launching sites; IDF killed 200 terrorists while keeping civilian casualties in Gaza to a minimum by any standard.
But the fact that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar could emerge from his hiding place at the end of the hostilities and take a victory lap in Gaza and that Hamas was able to fire into Israel until the moment the ceasefire took effect early Friday morning is reason enough for Israelis to feel that victory was again denied. It is generally accepted that short of a major ground offensive specifically designed to bring Hamas to unconditional surrender but that no one has the stomach for here, the terrorist organization will continue to rule Gaza, to the detriment of its own people and Israel’s. Sinwar’s threats following the conflict that he will “burn everything” if the problems of Gaza are not solved and activate “10,000 martyrs” inside Israel if Jerusalem is harmed are a chilling reminder that Hamas and its Iranian enablers—who undoubtedly learned much about Israel’s military capabilities and civilian resilience in the face of a future war with Hezbollah that is estimated to have ten times the firepower of the terrorist organizations in Gaza—might be temporarily deterred but remain undefeated.
While the kinetic battle might have ceased, Israel’s diplomatic battles continue, with a reprehensible resolution already adopted at the World Health Organization and others expected at the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Human Rights Council. At the same time, it was heartening to see support from a number of European governments including Greece, Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia who sent foreign ministers to Israel during the conflict and others who raised the Israeli flag on public buildings.
The military conflict between Israel and Hamas was not only a localized clash but challenged Israel’s most important external relations, first and foremost with the United States, its single strategic partner, with other major powers such as China and with its veteran and newfound partners in the region. With the Biden Administration quickly reversing many of the former administration’s Middle East policies and with anti-Israel elements gaining worrisome traction in the president’s own party, many in Israel were concerned about how the Biden Administration would react as the conflict unfolded.
This was not to be the case, as the U.S. stepped in repeatedly to prevent the adoption of U.N. resolutions condemning Israeli “aggression” and reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself against an internationally recognized terrorist organization. President Biden’s declaration this week that “Until the region says unequivocally they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace” was embraced here as a sober understanding of reality that will hopefully guide U.S. policy not only toward Hamas and the Islamic terrorist organizations, but in the ongoing negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), where Israel and the U.S. remain at odds, illustrated during yesterday’s joint Netanyahu-Blinken press conference in Jerusalem.
Importantly for Israeli citizens who bore the brunt of Hamas rocket attacks, Secretary Blinken stressed that the U.S. would work closely with its partners in the reconstruction effort of Gaza to ensure that Hamas does not benefit from the assistance. While a mechanism for ensuring this does not yet exist, such a policy, if implemented, will undoubtedly leave Hamas more vulnerable in any future conflict and thus more deterred, as it will find it difficult to replenish the huge amount of concrete, metal and fuel that were depleted and ruined during this campaign. Secretary of State insisted that the ceasefire must be used “to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges,” beginning with the “grave” humanitarian situation in Gaza, but some observers argue that it was the very concessions made by the Biden Administration to the Palestinians, including the refunding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the promise to reopen the PLO embassy in Washington and the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, that encouraged Hamas and its Iranian handlers to launch an attack now.
Israel’s relations regionally seemed to have withstood the test of this round of fighting. Israel will need the involvement of friendly Arab states to change the status quo, reign in Hamas and avoid another round of violence. Egypt, which has the only other land border with Gaza, played the most constructive role, brokering the cease fire deal and gaining widespread praise, also from the Israeli government. Egypt has now invited Israel and Hamas for indirect de-escalation talks in Cairo that could lead to a long-term ceasefire, the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip and an agreement on the issue of prisoners and missing persons.
While no country revoked diplomatic relations or recalled their ambassadors, statements were issued that indicate the dilemma posed to Arab states that face internal criticism of their relations with Israel while seeking the benefits of close bilateral relations. The most egregious of this was a message by Morocco’s prime minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in which he reportedly extended his “warmest congratulations” on “the victory achieved by the Palestinian people and the supreme resistance after the ceasefire agreement between the factions of the resistance and the Zionist entity.” Morocco, which normalized ties with Israel last year on the heels of UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, is due to exchange embassies in the near future.
Jordan—which, since the signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, has custodianship of the Temple Mount and regularly takes a confrontational position whenever violence erupts on the holy site—was particularly critical of tension in Jerusalem that preceded Hamas’s rocket attack: “What the Israeli police and special forces are doing, from violations against the mosque to attacks on worshippers, is barbaric [behavior] that is rejected and condemned,” summoning Israel’s chargé d’affaires in Jordan to decry Israel’s “attacks on worshipers,” which were in fact a measured police response to Ramadan-inspired riots by Muslims that included lobbing stones on Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall. In a league of his own inimical self was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan who accused Israel of being “murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old. They are murderers, to the point they drag women on the ground to their death, and they are murderers, to the point that they kill old people… They only are satisfied by sucking their blood.”
Another victim of the Gaza flare-up is Israel-China relations, with China using its pulpit as rotating president of the U.N. Security Council as an opportunity to deflect criticism of its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang and to accuse the United States of practicing a one-sided and discriminatory policy by continuing its support for Israel and failing to uphold the human rights of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip. As pointed out in a paper published by the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pinned the conflagration on the Trump administration’s “mistaken policy followed…of ignoring the need to continue the Middle East peace process and promote a two-state solution, which consequently caused prolonged damage to the rights of the Palestinian people” and failed to factor in Israel’s position in the U.N. General Assembly resolutions, which were blocked by the U.S., including any mention of Hamas aggression. This, coupled with China’s growing relationship with Iran and other malign players in the Middle East, will have to give Israeli policy makers pause as China asserts a greater role in the region.
Life is getting back to a form of “normal” in cities most heavily targeted by Hamas—Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod and the small communities in the Gaza Strip “envelope”—as the considerable damage to property there is repaired and the implications of the loss of life and limb contemplated. But mixed cities and Arab-majority areas in the North and South are still reeling from the unprecedented anti-Semitic viciousness this round of fighting released among the Arab citizens of Israel. At the beginning of the week the Israel Police, which has been severely criticized for a combination of incompetence and confusion during the violence, launched “Operation Law and Order.” In its first 24 hours, 74 suspects were arrested for disorderly conduct, weapons possession and assaulting police officers in addition to more than 1,550 arrests made during the operation itself—the vast majority of them Arabs. Horror stories continue to surface of peaceful Jewish civilians assaulted while they walked in Jaffa, lost their way in the forested area near Meron, studied in yeshivot in Lod, walked their dog around the Old City of Jerusalem or were vacationing in a hotel in Acco. Many fear that the tension with the “Arabs of ‘48” will be more difficult and take more time to heal than the conflict with Hamas that is largely kept at bay.
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.
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.
B'nai B'rith International has widely respected experts in the fields of: