Israeli children today learn Hebrew, but it could just have easily been French or English. Nati Shohat/Flash90

The Battle for Hebrew

Did you know that Hebrew was actually not the first choice of national language for many returning Jews?


A battle broke out during the final months of 1913 that would ultimately determine the future of the Jewish state, as people took to the streets of what was to become Israel to fight for the soul and survival of a Hebrew-speaking nation. Who would prevail in this battle for the tongue of the Prophets to become the language of the emerging Jewish state was not at all obvious, as there were many contenders.

The popular and tempting European “culture française” was first to enthrall Israel’s returning Jews. When the premier school of agriculture, Mikveh Yisrael turned “French only,” public outrage brought about strikes that eventually forced the school, as well as other French-only schools, to teach Hebrew. However, without the local folk fighting for their native tongue, French could have easily become the “lingua franca” of Israel.

Even Theodore Herzl, the great visionary and spokesman for a homeland for the Jewish people, did not support Hebrew for the Holy Land. Herzl was quite content for the Jews to speak German in the land of their fathers. Addressing the…