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Yakir Behar: A Jewish Turk in Venice

By Cheryl Kempler

Last year, Ca Foscari University in Venice marked its 150th anniversary with “Theses Onstage,” a series of plays about its alumni. “1913: A Turk in Venice” introduced audiences to Yakir Behar, a young Jewish man from Constantinople (Istanbul today) pursuing degrees in economics and law during the pivotal year before the outbreak of World War I. Motivated by his Jewish faith, he intended to use his education to improve life in his native land, especially for his co-religionists. Returning to Turkey, he would realize his goals through his involvement in B’nai B’rith.

Behar became a university professor who wrote books and articles on Turkey’s economic and legal systems, as well as on B’nai B’rith’s mission and philosophy. From 1919 on, he served as Secretary of District 11, encompassing lodges in Turkey, pre-state Israel, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Syria, Bulgaria, Greece and Rhodes. Second in command, he was responsible for administrating philanthropic projects, writing and editing the District’s magazine and corresponding in numerous languages. Planning to recruit members in Italy, Behar was in Venice in 1920 to present a speech about B’nai B’rith’s history. It was later published as a pamphlet that included an endorsement by the country’s Jewish former prime minister, Luigi Luzzatti, a champion of the working class who had influenced Behar when he taught and mentored him at Ca Foscari.


Yakir Behar (third from right) and European B’nai B’rith leaders at their convention in Prague in September 1925. Rabbi Leo Baeck, president of Germany’s District 8, stands at the far left.
In 1923, Behar visited Egypt and Syria, where he and District 11’s president, agronomist Joseph Niego, founded new lodges in Tanta, Mansoura and Damascus but ran into trouble with the initiation in Aleppo. There, local rabbis, threatened by their weakening authority and changing social mores, condemned the secret nature of B’nai B’rith as prohibited by Jewish law. Engaging in the new social life of the city, members who accompanied their families out for dinner and a film were accused of contributing to their daughters’ promiscuity. The rabbis excommunicated Behar and all who belonged to the Aleppo Lodge, garnering bad publicity in the city’s newspapers as the battle waged. In 1931, Behar came back to Aleppo to launch a series of educational programs for young people designed to preserve Jewish identity, something that all parties agreed was important.

Living in pre-State Israel during the 1930s, Behar would go on to teach in Tel Aviv, where he served as president of one of the Tel Aviv lodges.