The Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories (often referred to as “the Special Committee” or SCIIHRP) is one of the most anachronistic and absurd anti-Israel entities that still exists at the United Nations, spreading unsubstantiated charges against Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East, and wasting valuable U.N. resources.
The U.N. General Assembly established this Committee in 1968, in the aftermath of the 1967 war (a war of self-defense in which Israel had to fight against the armies of three Arab states sworn to its destruction: Egypt, Jordan and Syria). After miraculously winning the war, the anti-Israel forces at the U.N. sought to “punish” the Jewish state by establishing this committee, with the mandate to investigate alleged human rights violations by Israel in the territories occupied as a result of the war.
The Committee is formed by the representatives of three member states, who have themselves very poor human rights records: Malaysia, Senegal and Sri Lanka. From its inception, it was not an impartial body but a highly tendentious one, tasked with finding Israel guilty first and looking for the evidence later, while ignoring gross human rights violations, not committed by Israel, on that same territory. And so, with good reason, Israel has refused to participate in its inquiries.
The Special Committee is one of the entities that comprise the powerful anti-Israel propaganda apparatus that operates out of the United Nations building in New York. The other two entities are the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP) and the Division for Palestinian Rights of the U.N. Secretariat (DPR). In addition to treating Israel as an illegitimate entity and a “racist” state, the three entities advocate for the “right of return” of the millions of descendants of the original refugees from Israel’s 1948 war of independence to what is now the state of Israel. The implementation of the right of return would destroy Israel as a majority-Jewish state, creating yet another Arab state — “from the river to the sea”— and effectively killing the two-state solution that the U.N. claims to support.
The report that the Special Committee issues every year is so biased against Israel that it could not pass any serious scrutiny. The 2020 report, for example, which was submitted to the General Assembly last August, includes the claim that Israel is “legally responsible” for ensuring the right to health for all Palestinians in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is, of course, not true, as the Oslo Accords, which governs Israeli-Palestinian relations, clearly establishes that all responsibilities in the sphere of health in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip belong to the Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, the Palestinians, who preferred to make their own arrangements, repeatedly rejected Israel’s overtures for cooperation. Despite this, Israeli hospitals were always available to Palestinian COVID-19 victims and Israel quietly provided vaccines to the Palestinian Authority in the months after this report was issued, even as reports came out about the corruption in the handling of the COVID-19 crisis by the Palestinian Authority, and despite the continuous practice of the Palestinian Authority to pay millions to the families of terrorists who killed Israelis.
The Special Committee 2020 report goes as far as to blame Israel for the increase in “domestic violence against women” in the West Bank and Gaza, suggesting an absurd linkage between the “prolonged occupation” and the violence committed by local Palestinians against Palestinian women.
None of the egregious human rights violations committed by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or by Hamas in Gaza (which, according to the State Department’s 2020 Human Rights Report, include arbitrary killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, forced child labor, etc.) are mentioned. And Israel is repeatedly condemned for its “occupation” of the Golan Heights, without any mention of the atrocities that the Syrian regime is still perpetrating against its own people or the fact that, at the height of the Syrian civil war, Israel provided invaluable humanitarian aid to thousands of Syrians in need, including unaccompanied children.
The resolution that renews the mandate and the funding authorization for this committee is put to a vote every year at the U.N. General Assembly. The U.S. State Department has for years included this resolution on its short list of important resolutions, particularly because of its very detrimental impact. And, when explaining its vote against this committee last year, the U.S. representative stated the following:
“…The resolution on “The Work of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories,” (SCIIHRP) for instance, makes no mention of human rights violations by Hamas. There is no reference to a Gaza court that convicted three Palestinian peace activists on the charge “weakening revolutionary spirit” for the simple act of Skyping with Israeli peace activists. None of these resolutions address what human rights organizations identify as Hamas’ persecution of journalists, opponents and activists who do not toe the Hamas party line.
These anti-Israel resolutions recycle the tired, habitual rhetoric that only lock both sides into the same intractable conflict. They presuppose the outcome of final status issues that can be resolved only through negotiations between the parties. They also damage U.N. credibility, casting into doubt the impartiality of the U.N. These resolutions also waste limited U.N. resources better devoted to international priorities. This one-sided approach only undermines trust between the parties and fails to create the kind of positive international environment critical to achieving peace. It also rewards the obstructionism that continues to impede real progress toward peace. As the United States has repeatedly made clear, this dynamic is unacceptable…”
Even though an increasing number of states are realizing the detrimental nature of the Special Committee, the resolution authorizing its continuous operation still gets approved. This is so because of the large number of abstentions, which are, unfortunately, not counted at the General Assembly. Last year, only 76 countries voted in favor — far less than half of the total membership of the General Assembly (which has 193 states). This is why it is so important for responsible, peace-loving nations to start voting against this anachronistic and highly counterproductive body.
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.
In December 2019, the chief prosecutor at the Hague, Fatou Bensouda, announced that a basis exists to investigate the “situation in Palestine” and whether Israel committed “war crimes” during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, as well as the Gaza border conflict of 2018-2019, and settlement activity in the West Bank and Jewish building in east Jerusalem since 2014. The alarm was sounded then, but it is now on full blast since earlier this month, when the chief prosecutor decided to move forward with a criminal investigation--this coming after a February Pre-Trial Chamber ruled 2-1 that the court had jurisdiction to investigate.
At the end of 2019, the ICC also gave the green light for Bensouda to open an investigation of alleged war crimes committed by American servicemen during the United States’ war with Afghanistan. If it sounds worrisome, that’s because it is. Israel and the U.S. are not members of the ICC and did not ratify the court’s founding Rome Treaty, precisely because both countries feared it was a structurally biased institution and would become the politicized body it has. The ICC does not try states, but individuals. That means although the U.S. and Israel are not parties to the Rome Treaty, their citizens, leaders and soldiers are not immune from indictment, prosecution and arrest warrants in countries that are parties to the treaty (and there are 123 member countries of the ICC).
The International Criminal Court was created in 2002 to prosecute individuals for international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The institution was meant to function as a “court of last resort," which means it should step in when rogue nations do not hold ostensible perpetrators of war crimes accountable. In this sense, the ICC is a powerful resource to maintain law and order around the globe and to serve as a deterrent to tyrants from committing grave crimes. However, as we have witnessed another international body, the United Nations Human Rights Council, stray from their noble cause into a political farce, so too has the International Criminal Court.
The United States and Israel both have vibrant democracies, each with some of the world’s most respected judicial systems that investigate alleged wrongdoings by their militaries. The notion that the ICC would open inquiries into both countries is truly obscene. The U.S. and Israel currently view the court as a politicized and illegitimate institution. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the most recent ruling on Afghanistan a “truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable, political institution masquerading as a legal body,” and former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon referred to the investigation of Operation Protective Edge as “diplomatic terrorism.”
For years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) along with several Palestinian NGOs, backed by thousands of euros from European governments, has threatened to open a probe of war crimes against Israel. In 2015, the PA joined the Rome Statute and several countries recognized Palestine as an independent state. However, the fact remains that Palestine is still not a sovereign state according to the Vienna Convention, upon which the Rome Statute is based. Therefore, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has argued that “only sovereign states can delegate criminal jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court. The PA does not meet the criteria.” It’s quite straightforward. The ICC has no jurisdiction to investigate the PA’s request, and it certainly has no jurisdiction over Israel, which is not a party to the institution.
However with February’s decision, the Pre-Trial Chamber ruled that the court does have jurisdiction. It is basing this decision on the Palestinian de facto status of non-member state, which allows the PA to sign U.N. treaties and statutes—in this case the Rome Statute. The Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC has thus determined for this case, the “State of Palestine” is independent and therefore the court has jurisdiction to open the investigation to Israeli—and Palestinian— war crimes that occurred since June 13, 2014, Operation Protective Edge.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the February ruling: “The ICC violated the right of democracies to defend themselves against terrorism and played into the hands of those who undermine efforts to expand the circle of peace. We will continue to protect our citizens and soldiers in every way from legal persecution.”
In over two decades, the ICC has only ever convicted three people in trials of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Given the last decade and the atrocities out of Syria or human rights abuses out of Iran, let alone the nearly daily war crimes committed by Hamas, e.g. sending incendiary balloons across the Gaza border to land in school yards, that there has been little interest in prosecuting such crimes speaks volumes about the political agenda and anti-Israel bias of the court.
Israel's short history has been consumed by Palestinian warfare since before the state’s creation, from terrorism to the battlefield, to the media and the BDS and delegitimization campaign and now through lawfare. We shouldn’t underestimate the use of lawfare as a weapon against the Jewish State and dismiss it as mere politics. Unlike some of the anti-Israel resolutions in the General Assembly and other U.N. agencies, the ICC legal position carries operative provisions.
For example, if an Israeli former military leader is convicted and refuses to submit to interrogation by the ICC prosecutor and travels to an ICC member state like Germany or England (as well as much of the rest of Europe, South America and Africa), that person could theoretically be arrested as soon as their plane lands on foreign soil. This could potentially bring lawsuits against Israeli top leaders like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, as well other top Israeli leaders, and individual commanders and soldiers. This scenario would lead to an international scandal of epic proportions, causing severe diplomatic rifts—rifts Israel cannot afford--not to mention serious policy and security challenges. A ruling could also tie Israel’s hands in regards to its self-defense in any future war. Further worrisome, the ICC will look at settlement activity in the West Bank and Jewish building in east Jerusalem, and it may determine any activity after 2014 a war crime.
There is some hope though, in that after nine years Chief Prosecutor Bensouda will step down this coming June to be proceeded by British barrister Karim Khan. Khan will have to decide next steps on the probe into war crimes in Afghanistan and whether the court will continue its investigation of Israel and Hamas. We hope that Khan will shy away from politicization and perhaps even restore some level of integrity to the court.
But as Israel’s allies we cannot take anything for granted and we must continue to mount a multilayered defense blitz against this delegitimization. For years, we have made the case that Israel continues to be subjected to unequal footing and outright systemic bias within the international community. The latest moves by the ICC add it to the growing list of anti-Israel, arguably anti-Semitic, international bodies—it is truly politicization of a multilateral body on steroids. The good news is there has been an outpouring of support and condemnation of the investigation from the United States, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Uganda, Brazil, Australia and Canada, and we expect more.
The real tragedy here is that victims of actual crimes against humanity may never see justice because a pervasive international obsession with the one Jewish State trumps all else.
CEO Op-ed in the Algemeiner: Why the IHRA Handbook on Anti-Semitism — Not Just Its Definition — Is Needed
The year 2020 will be marked as, among other distinctions, a time of unbridled global antisemitism. The phenomenon is growing from three sources — the radical Left, the extreme Right, and Islamists — but while that doesn’t tell the full story, it does provide a spectrum that indicates how widely this particular virus has spread.
This unbridled antisemitism demonstrates why a new handbook of definitions is so important. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in conjunction with the European Commission and with the support of the recent German presidency of the EU, has published this new guide.
Based on extensive research conducted by RIAS, the German Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on antisemitism, the handbook is a first-of-its-kind best-practices guide for use in such fields as law enforcement, the judiciary, education, international bodies, funding institutions, and civil society.
The handbook connects the IHRA document to real life examples — which helps to make it a real “working” definition.
Making the battle against antisemitism relevant to individual branches of government, or to educators, will help to monitor, identify, respond to, and counteract antisemitism in the open or in dark corners of society across the European continent and beyond.
In 2016, the IHRA, a consortium of countries committed to Holocaust education and remembrance, adopted a working definition of antisemitism. It was not intended to be a detailed, deep dive into the causes and manifestations of this millennia-old hatred. It was meant, rather, to speak to categories of Jew-hatred, both classic and contemporary.
Its recognition of how the existence of Israel has worked its way into the repertoire of antisemites has been vitally important in helping those fighting antisemitism to pull the veil off “legitimate criticism of Israel” from those who advocate the elimination of the Jewish state.
In this regard, the working definition states, for example, that antisemitism includes “accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.” Antisemitism is also “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.” Or, as we see almost every day somewhere in the world, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
To date, 28 countries have adopted the IHRA working definition, and the number continues to grow. Provincial, state, and local governments are doing the same, as are organizations as diverse as the Argentine Football Federation and the Global Imams Council.
More countries, state and local governments, agencies, and non-governmental organizations need to add their support and buy in.
But equally important is how the definition will be applied, and by whom. That is where the handbook comes in.
Expressions of antisemitism know no borders. The hierarchy of leadership in Iran regularly spews antisemitism, often using Nazi imagery; Israel is frequently referred to as a “cancer” that needs to be excised. Genocidal calls for Israel’s destruction are daily features in Iranian media. And Tehran is known for its “leadership” in the Holocaust denial arena.
Over the past 12 months in Europe, we witnessed a concerted campaign by the neo-Fascist Nordic Resistance Movement to intimidate Jews in their places of worship and in communal spaces. A kosher restaurant in France, the scene of countless acts of antisemitism, was vandalized with tags of “Hitler was right,” “Jews get out,” and “Free Palestine.”
In Greece, multiple cemeteries were vandalized; rabbis were attacked on the street in Berlin and Vienna; and in Germany, on the holiday of Sukkot, a synagogue was attacked in Hamburg, just days before the one-year commemoration of the Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue in Halle.
And already this year, the European Court of Justice ruled that individual European Union member states can legislate against kosher ritual slaughter, or shechita. Already some countries place restrictions tantamount to a ban on the practice, including Sweden, Denmark, Finland, regions of Belgium, and non-EU member Switzerland. Efforts to ban circumcision, or brit milah, have been similarly underway in Europe for some time — though without much success at this point.
Denying Jews the right to these essential acts of religious freedom, especially on European soil, where the greatest crimes against the Jewish people were perpetrated, is not just “discriminatory.” All of this places Jews in an “other” or outcast category, which is unacceptable, and can only be read as antisemitic.
And, lest some think antisemites cannot bring back classic blood libel charges against Jews from the Middle Ages, the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University reported last summer that there were widespread assertions that Israel or Jews as a whole were responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, websites charged Israel with creating the virus in order to manufacture vaccines for it, from which it would profit.
With reports indicating a continuing rise in antisemitic incidents on college campuses, an arsonist set fire to the University of Delaware’s Chabad Center just as the school year opened in the fall. Earlier this month, among those demonstrators storming the US Capitol were those wearing clothing adorned with Nazi imagery, including a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie.
Much antisemitism from the far-left focuses on Israel and Zionism, with comparisons to apartheid South Africa and condemnations of “the occupation.” From the extreme right, classic charges of control of the media and banks are rolled out in new 21st century wrappers, but their message of hate remains the same. And notwithstanding the much-welcomed rapprochement between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, many in the Arab and Islamist media — particularly, but not limited to, the Palestinian media — spin webs of antisemitic rhetoric on a daily basis. The common denominator to all of this is hatred of Jews.
In our community, there are many whose innate antennae can identify antisemitism from the proverbial 36,000 feet. But others are less likely to recognize the nuances of it when it appears. The IHRA handbook will be a vital resource for them.
The working definition and the new IHRA handbook are not a cure for history’s oldest social virus. Much more needs to be done. Holocaust denial continues to grow, as the dwindling number of survivors reach the end of their lives. Recent studies reveal an astonishing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among millennials and Generation Z’ers, which obligates us to grow Holocaust education programs in our schools and universities.
And then there is the Internet, which has had a multiplier effect, as antisemitic conspiracy theories and outright rants run rampant on our laptops and tablets. The major social media platforms must confront the role they are playing as enablers of such combustible language.
In the 21st century, combating antisemitism requires new tools and means to join the battle. The IHRA handbook is a welcome addition to the resources we need to get the job done. If it sits on the shelf, it will have been a noble, but wasted effort. We need to encourage its wide distribution, and especially advocate for its recommendations and practices to be put to good use.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Algemeiner.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
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.
B'nai B'rith International has widely respected experts in the fields of: