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 International Conference at UNESCO Highlights Hebrew as a “Treasure of Human Heritage”

B’nai B’rith International hosted on Nov. 15 an historic international conference on the Hebrew language at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. The conference, held in cooperation with UNESCO, was a landmark one on the heritage of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in a United Nations setting.

The conference opened with video remarks by UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay—and by Israeli President Isaac Herzog—and featured the participation of both Moshe Bar-Asher, who served as president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language from 1993 until earlier this year, and his successor, Aharon Maman. The government of Israel established the Academy in Jerusalem in 1953 as the preeminent authority on the study and cultivation of Hebrew, and B’nai B’rith’s Jerusalem lodge, founded in 1888, instituted its precursor.

B’nai B’rith’s conference at UNESCO marked 100 years since the passing of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the Lithuanian-born Jewish lexicographer and newspaper editor who spearheaded the revival of Hebrew as the emergent Israeli lingua franca, as well as the start of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032), for which the U.N. has designated UNESCO as lead agency.

At a time of continuing denial of the equal rights and legitimacy of Jews and of the Jewish state, the event, entitled “Hebrew as a Treasure of Human Heritage: Past, Present and Future,” highlighted the historic Jewish roots in the Land of Israel and the astonishing success of the modern Zionist movement in reviving as a spoken national language one that had been limited to religious scripture and liturgy during much of Jews’ long exile from their ancestral homeland.

It also showcased the outsized contributions of Hebrew to human civilization, particularly through the Bible; lessons that can be extrapolated for the preservation of other native languages and cultures; and the interplay between modern Hebrew and other languages, including Arabic and English.

Azoulay said that her organization has highlighted the history of the Hebrew language through World Heritage Sites such as Maresha and Bet She’arim in Israel, and through UNESCO’s Memory of the World registry, “which aims to protect the documentary heritage that illustrates its survivalfrom the 10th century Aleppo Codex to the Sarajevo Haggadah… These documents also testify to the vitality of modern Hebrew. To enchant the world with the legends of Israel, or even to testify to its darkest pages, with the texts of Yad Vashem.”

Herzog said, “Ben-Yehuda was not just a lover of the Hebrew language, he was first and foremost a proud Zionist and from the day he joined the movement of our national revival he revived the Hebrew language and without it there was no national revival…

How sweet is Ben-Yehuda’s victory. Really, I love the Hebrew language and I am so proud and sometimes I listen to people and tell myself that Ben-Yehuda would have been smiling. Because this immortal language is so close to my heart. The language of the Bible. The language of King David and everlasting Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. The language of consolations and rage of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and all of Israel’s prophets. The language of all the wise men and biblical interpreters, sages of Sefarad and of Ashkenaz, the language of poetry and the language of all the great Hebrew poets and authors of the modern era…”

The president continued, “I wish to thank all the people involved in the revival of our language. To the B’nai B’rith organization and its leaders… [L]et me remind you that Ben-Yehuda was the first secretary of the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem lodge, and the national library was born there. The B’nai B’rith lodge was one of the first institutions to declare Hebrew as its official language… Thank you all for your contribution to the continued flourishing and development of the beautiful, revitalized, spoken Hebrew in the whole world and in Zion.”

The conference, attended by hundreds of live participants—and viewed by many more globally, online—provided simultaneous translation in English, French and Hebrew. It featured some two dozen international experts, including from the Arab world.

B’nai B’rith CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin, who delivered opening remarks, said: “Over the past century, Jews suffered tragedy in the Holocaust unprecedented even in our tumultuous history. But they also willed rebirth—both in the physical, political sense and the cultural, spiritual one, and the unparalleled restoration of Hebrew was key to both of these, a marvel almost as significant as the reemergence of a nation of Israel itself. Indeed, Hebrew—the lashon ha’kodesh, or holy tongue, of Judaism—would now be a bridge between the past and present, and between the sacred and the more secular. Eventually, it would also provide common ground, distinct from religion or ethnicity, between Jewish and Arab Israelis… Today’s Hebrew of smartphones, of universities and of popular music taps into those deep roots too. And the Hebrew Bible, with its timeless precepts, connects Jews with billions of Christians and others worldwide.”

The conference schedule may be found on B’nai B’rith’s website here.

The UNESCO conference was initiated and organized by B’nai B’rith’s Office of United Nations Affairs, based in New York, and the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, the organization’s permanent bridge to Israeli policymakers and society, working closely with B’nai B’rith’s representation to UNESCO in Paris.

B’nai B’rith has led Jewish communal engagement with the U.N. beginning at the world body’s founding conference in San Francisco in 1945 and maintains official accreditation at multiple U.N. institutions, including UNESCO.

The proceedings can be watched on UNESCO’s YouTube channel in English, French and Hebrew.