Category Archives: Israel

Cold War: Ransoming Emigrants

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 3613-27, 3658-74:

The profile of migrants transformed in the 1970s, as dissident intellectuals and celebrity defectors began to take center stage. There had always been a place in the West for intellectual and cultural luminaries from Eastern Europe. The “ideal” East European emigrant throughout the early Cold War had not, however, been a scientist, doctor, or novelist. He or she was a farmer, a miner, a domestic servant, or a factory worker—someone willing to work hard for low wages and fuel booming postwar economies in the West. That image subtly shifted in the late 1960s and the 1970s. In part, the sociological profile of actual emigrants changed, as the refugees who fled Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1968, in particular, tended to have a higher education. Western economies were also transforming. The 1970s brought oil shocks, growing restrictions on immigration in Western Europe, and the rise of technology and service-based industries. The “ideal” refugee from Eastern Europe—the least threatening immigrant—was now an engineer, intellectual, or tennis star, not a factory worker who would compete for ever scarcer manufacturing jobs.

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, several Eastern bloc governments introduced reforms that attempted to “normalize” relations with the West and with emigrants abroad. These initiatives did not reflect a change of heart regarding emigration in Eastern Europe. Rather, they represented efforts by desperate governments to raise foreign currency. Socialist regimes were searching for new ways to placate dissatisfied citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Consumer goods—everything from televisions and washing machines to blue jeans and automobiles—were powerful currency in this quest for legitimacy. East European governments largely financed the shift to a consumer economy with loans from the West. Repaying these loans was possible only with a continuous influx of foreign currency, which flowed into the country along with tourists and visitors from the West, or in the form of remittances from migrants working abroad.

Whereas socialist governments had once bitterly denounced the “human traffickers” who lured their citizens to the West, they now willingly brokered a trade in migrants for their own purposes.

Romania also ransomed Jews and Germans for profit. The exchange of Romanian Jews for money and agricultural products had begun covertly after the Second World War. A Jewish businessman in London named Henry Jacober served as the middleman between private individuals in the West and the Romanian secret service. Jacober traded briefcases full of cash, typically $4,000 to $6,000 per emigrant (depending on the individual’s age and educational status), for exit permits to the West. When Israeli intelligence officials got wind of the deals, they decided to get in on the scheme, with the approval of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. At Khrushchev’s insistence, the Romanians began to demand agricultural products instead of cash. Soon Romanian Jews were traded for everything from cattle and pigs to chicken farms and cornflake factories. The ransom of Jews continued under the rule of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu after 1969. The price of exit could go up to $50,000, depending on the migrant’s age, education, profession, family status, and political importance. Israel refused to pay for young children and retirees.

Selling Jews was so profitable that the ransom scheme expanded to include ethnic Germans, who were sold to West Germany for suitcases stuffed with U.S. dollars. Germans, like Jews, were priced on the basis of their educational attainment and ransomed for rates ranging from $650 for an unskilled worker to $3,298 for an emigrant with a master’s degree or equivalent. Romania also received interest-free loans from West Germany in exchange for releasing Germans. In the mid-1970s, Ceausescu famously boasted, “Jews, Germans, and oil are our best export commodities.” Around 235,000 Jews and 200,000 Germans escaped Romania through these deals. During Ceausescu’s regime alone, an estimated 40,577 Jews were ransomed to Israel for $112,498,800; West Germany made payments of at least $54 million in exchange for exit permits for German emigrants.

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FDR and the “Jewish Problem”

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2276-2301:

President Roosevelt was on the same page. He envisioned an ambitious transfer of populations that would solve both the immediate refugee crisis and the East European “Jewish problem” over the long term. “It must be frankly recognized that the larger Eastern European problem is basically a Jewish problem,” he maintained in January 1939.

The organized emigration from Eastern Europe over a period of years of young persons at the age which they enter actively into economic competition, and at which they may be expected to marry, is not beyond the bounds of possibility. The resultant decrease in economic pressure; the actual removal over a period years of a very substantial number of persons; the decrease in the birthrate and the natural operation of the death rate among the remaining older portion of the population should reduce the problem to negligible proportions.

Roosevelt appointed the geographer Isaiah Bowman, then president of Johns Hopkins University, to lead the search for an appropriate refuge. Bowman had previously served on the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and was head of the American Geographical Society from 1915 to 1935. In the years 1938–42, Bowman directed a project at Hopkins to research possibilities for refugee resettlement around the globe. The goal of the project, in Roosevelt’s words, was to locate “uninhabited or sparsely inhabited good agricultural lands to which Jewish colonies might be sent.”

Bowman and his team surveyed settlement sites on five continents, and his reports circulated widely in government and humanitarian circles. Not coincidentally, however, he did not seriously consider the United States as a potential destination (aside from a cursory examination of Alaska). Bowman firmly believed in eugenics and in natural racial hierarchies. He actually introduced a new Jewish quota at Johns Hopkins in 1942 and also banned African American undergraduates from the university. He was personally convinced that the United States had reached its “absorptive capacity” with respect to Jewish immigrants—even as he lamented declining birthrates among white, middle-class Americans.

At the international level, then, the most critical years of the Jewish refugee crisis before World War II were spent searching the globe for a new refuge, dumping ground, or homeland for European Jews. The Madagascar plan remains the most infamous resettlement scheme, since the Nazis themselves favored it. But the IGCR [Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees], in cooperation with British, American, and Jewish agencies such as the JDC and the World Jewish Congress, considered a range of territories for potential Jewish resettlement. British Guiana, Angola, the Dominican Republic, Northern Rhodesia, Alaska, and the Philippines were among the most widely discussed possibilities. At huge expense, and in a nakedly colonial tradition, intergovernmental and humanitarian organizations dispatched teams of experts in agricultural science and tropical medicine on fact-finding missions to these far-flung destinations. They wined and dined dictators; surveyed the climate, soil, and “natives” in supposedly “underpopulated” lands; and speculated about whether urban Jews could be transformed into farmers who would “civilize” colonial outposts.

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Arbeit Macht Frei in Postwar Europe

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2719-32:

Economic logic generally set the limits of humanitarian solidarity in postwar Europe. The employment contracts offered to refugees were often highly restrictive, designed to keep them in low-paid or undesirable jobs for as long as possible. Belgium’s “Operation Black Diamond” imported 32,000 DPs as miners, but required them to work a full two years in the mines before they were allowed to seek employment elsewhere. As of 1949, 8,000 had returned to refugee camps in Germany, unable to tolerate the harsh conditions. Other employment programs were similarly restrictive. Britain’s “Westward Ho!” program enabled 82,000 migrants from Eastern Europe to emigrate to the UK, but confined refugees to employment in mining, textiles, agriculture, or domestic service, rather than allowing them to move freely between jobs or professions.

The French government, with its ongoing anxieties regarding population growth, was initially among the most eager to recruit DP labor. The French military commander Pierre Koenig immediately recognized that East European DPs “represent a human and labor resource that we will have a high interest in using to the advantage of our country,” and he urged French authorities to recruit the best workers. In 1948, the French government even set up its own vocational training courses for refugees in the French zone of occupied Germany. Conditions for foreign workers in postwar France were notoriously poor, however, and that hampered recruitment efforts. Ultimately, the IRO resettled only 38,107 East European refugees in France between July 1, 1947, and December 1950. The bulk of refugees were headed to the New World. In the same period, the United States received 238,006 refugees, Israel 120,766, Australia 170,543, and Canada 94,115.

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New Arab Kingdoms after 1919

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 10019-10072:

It’s hard to imagine that any of this [alternative history] could possibly have produced a sadder history than what has actually transpired over the past century, a catalog of war, religious strife, and brutal dictatorships that has haunted not just the Middle East but the entire world. That sad history began from almost the moment the negotiators in Paris packed their bags and declared their mission complete, leaving in their wake “a porcelain peace.”

Denied Lawrence’s assistance in the autumn of 1919, a desperate Faisal was forced to accept the few crumbs of compromise the French were willing to throw his way in Syria. When Faisal returned to Damascus, however, he found himself denounced as a traitor for selling the nation out to the European imperialists. Harnessing this popular rage, Faisal renounced his deal with the French and in March 1920 staged something of a palace coup by declaring himself king of Syria. That act, in conjunction with the San Remo conference the following month at which Great Britain and France formalized their partition of the region—Britain taking Iraq and a “greater” Palestine that included a broad swath east of the Jordan River, or Transjordan, France the rest of Syria—set Faisal on a collision course with the French. That collision came in July; after a brief and one-sided battle on the outskirts of Damascus, the French ousted Faisal and cast him into exile. By the close of 1920, the French at last had much of their Syrie intégrale (with the exception of the British mandate in Palestine and Transjordan), but they now faced a populace seething with rage. They also now confronted an external threat; in the deserts of Transjordan, Faisal’s brother Abdullah was massing his followers with the intention of marching on Damascus.

But whatever problems the French had at the end of 1920 were dwarfed by those of the British. In Palestine, tensions between Zionist immigrants and the resident Arab population had escalated into bloodshed. In Arabia, ibn-Saud was once again pushing to oust King Hussein. The worst crisis point was in Iraq. The previous year, Lawrence had predicted full-scale revolt against British rule there by March 1920 “if we don’t mend our ways,” but he had been off by two months; by the time the May rebellion in Iraq was put down, some one thousand British and nine thousand natives were dead. As Lawrence would explain in his 1929 letter to William Yale, at Paris, Great Britain and France had taken the discredited Sykes-Picot Agreement and fashioned something even worse; how much worse was evidenced by the myriad fires that had spread across the region almost immediately.

To combat these crises, in December 1920 Lloyd George turned to a man who had become something of a pariah in British ruling circles, former first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill. One of Churchill’s first acts upon assuming the position of Colonial Office secretary was to enlist the help of another recent outcast, former lieutenant colonel T. E. Lawrence.

At least initially, Lawrence had little interest in rejoining the fray. Immersed in writing his memoirs, and undoubtedly still smarting over his shabby treatment by Lloyd George’s government the previous year, he told Churchill he was too busy and that he had left politics behind. He only relented when the new colonial secretary assured him that he would have a virtually free hand in helping fundamentally reshape the British portion of the Middle Eastern chessboard at the upcoming Cairo Conference. As a result, the Cairo deliberations were little more than a formality, with Lawrence and Churchill having worked out ahead of time, as Lawrence told a biographer, “not only [the] questions the Conference would consider, but decisions they would reach.”

Iraq was now to be consolidated and recognized as an Arab kingdom, with Faisal placed on the throne. In Arabia, the British upheld Hussein’s claim to rule in the Hejaz, while simultaneously upholding ibn-Saud’s authority in the Arabian interior. Surely the most novel idea to come out of Cairo was the plan designed to stay Abdullah from attacking the French in Syria. At the close of the conference, Lawrence journeyed to Abdullah’s base camp in Amman and convinced the truculent Arab leader to first try to establish a government in the Transjordan region of Britain’s Palestine mandate. To Lawrence’s great surprise—and perhaps to Abdullah’s as well—this most indolent of Hussein’s four sons actually proved to be a remarkably good administrator; in the near future, Transjordan was to be officially detached from the rest of Palestine and made an independent Arab kingdom—today’s Jordan—with Abdullah as its ruler. By the time Lawrence returned to England in the autumn of 1921, his one-year service to the Colonial Office nearly over, he had quite literally become the unseen kingmaker of the Middle East.

But if all this brought a measure of stability to the center of the old Ottoman Empire map, it did little to improve matters to the north and south. There, the situation remained uncertain and bloody for some time to come.

In Anatolia, the former Turkish general Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, had refused to accept the dismemberment of Turkey as outlined by the Allies. Over a four-year period, he led his army of Turkish nationalists into battle against all those who would claim a piece of the Turkish heartland, before finally establishing the modern-day borders of Turkey in 1923. France’s turn in this round robin of war came in the autumn of 1921 when Kemal, soon to become better known as Ataturk, turned his attention to the French troops occupying the Cilicia region. Quickly routed, the French armies in Cilicia beat a hasty retreat back into Syria under the leadership of their commander, the unlucky Édouard Brémond.

At the same time, a bewildering arc of war extended from the Caucasus all the way to Afghanistan as various nationalist groups, Russian Reds and Whites, and remnants of the Young Turks battled for primacy, forming and reforming alliances with such dizzying regularity as to defy both logic and comprehension. Among the prominent aspirants in this crucible were both Enver and Djemal Pasha, and it was no more surprising than anything else going on in the region that Djemal Pasha should turn up in Kabul in the winter of 1921 as a military advisor to the king of Afghanistan.

And then, far to the south, it was King Hussein’s turn. With the British having long since tired of his mercurial rule and refusal to accept the political realities of the Middle East—in 1921, Lawrence had spent a maddening two months in Jeddah futilely trying to get Hussein to accept the Cairo Conference accords—he was all but defenseless when ibn-Saud and his Wahhabist warriors finally closed on Mecca in late 1924. Hustled to the coast and then onto a British destroyer, Hussein was first taken to exile in Cyprus, before finally joining his son Abdullah in his new capital of Amman, Jordan. The deposed king, who had once dreamt of a pan-Arab nation extending from Mecca to Baghdad, died there in 1931 at the age of seventy-six.

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Minna Weizmann, Chaim’s Invisible Sister

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2584-2610, 10153-10155:

The spymaster [Curt Prüfer] clearly took his new enterprise very seriously and as a true patriot was ready to let whatever affections he felt for Minna Weizmann be trumped by those he held for the kaiser. In early May 1915, Weizmann made the crossing to Egypt as the newest member of Prüfer’s spy ring. She probably needed little in the way of persuading; as both a Jew and a socialist, she might as well have been wearing a czarist bull’s-eye on her back, and here was the chance for both adventure and revenge.

Initially, Weizmann did very well in her new vocation, her hospital work and the novelty of being a female physician giving her entrée to the upper echelons of British Cairo society. Her luck didn’t hold, however. Under the cover of accompanying a badly wounded French soldier home, she managed to reach Italy, but there was observed meeting with the German ambassador in Rome. Unmasked, she was hauled back to Egypt, where she faced a decidedly grim future: internment in a British prisoner-of-war camp at the very least, and possibly execution. Instead, Weizmann’s considerable charms combined with old-fashioned chivalry produced a far more pleasant outcome. As related by a Swiss woman who crossed paths with Minna that August and heard her story, “she was so beloved in Cairo and Alexandria, and held in such respect that people gave her unwavering denial [of being a spy] credence.” Ironically, even the czar’s consul in Cairo vouched for Minna’s innocence and arranged for her safe passage back to Russia. It was while staying at a hotel in Romania, in transit to the homeland she had escaped from two years earlier, that Weizmann desperately reached out to the Swiss woman.

“She revealed everything to me,” Hilla Steinbach-Schuh explained to a German official, “and fervently begged me to inform the German embassy in Constantinople of her deportation, especially that Herr Prüfer should be advised of this.”

But the remarkably tender treatment shown Minna Weizmann—she would not only survive the war, but eventually return to Palestine to work for the medical service of the Zionist women’s organization, Hadassah—may have also stemmed from her lineage. Her older brother was Chaim Weizmann, a renowned chemist who had immigrated to Great Britain in 1904 and who in 1915 was already working closely with the British munitions industry to improve their war-making capability; Chaim would go on to become the first president of the state of Israel, while Minna’s nephew Ezer would serve as its seventh. That lineage may also explain why Minna has been largely excised from the history books, and even from the Weizmann family’s memory (Chaim made not a single reference to his sister in his memoirs); for “the first family of Israel” to count among its members someone who not only spied for Germany but whose spymaster lover went on to become a senior Nazi diplomat is surely one of those awkward family stories best left untold.

Even before learning of Minna Weizmann’s fate, however, Curt Prüfer had seen his fledgling Egyptian spy ring largely shut down, a result of Italy’s joining the Triple Entente in May and the consequent severing of the German embassy “ratline.” Still, Prüfer’s bold initiative had greatly impressed his superiors in both the military and intelligence spheres. As Lieutenant Colonel Kress von Kressenstein, the commander of German forces in Palestine, informed Berlin, “Curt Prüfer is indispensable as the leader of the intelligence service.”

For her services to the Central Powers war effort, Minna was included in a prisoner exchange between Germany and Russia in the last days of World War I. Managing yet another escape, this time from the chaos of postwar Germany, she returned to Jerusalem, where she worked for the health service of the Zionist women’s organization, Hadassah.

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Initial Soviet Attitudes toward Israel

From Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, 2010), Kindle Loc. 6369-6392 (pp. 345-346):

After the Second World War, it was much harder for the Soviet leadership to control the mental world of Soviet citizens. Although the apparatus of censorship remained in force, too many people had experienced life beyond the Soviet Union for Soviet norms to seem like the only norms, or Soviet lives necessarily the best sort of lives. The war itself could not be contained within a Fatherland, be it Russian or Soviet; it had touched too many other peoples and its aftermath shaped not just a country but a world. In particular, the establishment of the State of Israel made Soviet political amnesia about the fate of the Jews impossible. Even after the Holocaust, more Jews lived in the Soviet Union than in Palestine, but the latter was to become the national homeland of the Jews. If Jews were to have a national state, would this be a blow to British imperialism in the Middle East, to be supported, or a challenge to the loyalty of Soviet Jews, to be feared?

At first, the Soviet leadership seemed to expect that Israel would be a socialist state friendly to the Soviet Union, and the communist bloc supported Israel in ways that no one else could. In the second half of 1947, about seventy thousand Jews were permitted to leave Poland for Israel; many of them had just been expelled from the Soviet Union to Poland. After the United Nations recognized the State of Israel in May 1948 (with the Soviets voting in favor), the new state was invaded by its neighbors. Its nascent armies defended itself and, in dozens of cases, cleared territories of Arabs. The Poles trained Jewish soldiers on their own territory, then dispatched them to Palestine. The Czechoslovaks sent arms. As Arthur Koestler noted, the weapons shipments “aroused a feeling of gratitude among the Jews towards the Soviet Union.”

Yet by the end of 1948 Stalin had decided that Jews were influencing the Soviet state more than the Soviets were influencing the Jewish state. Spontaneous signs of affection for Israel were apparent in Moscow, and in Stalin’s own court. Muscovites seemed to adore the new Israeli ambassador, Golda Meir (born in Kiev and raised in the United States). The high holidays were observed with enormous fanfare. Rosh Hashanah saw the largest public gathering in Moscow in twenty years. Some ten thousand Jews crowded in and around the Choral Synagogue. When the shofar blew and people promised each other to meet “next year in Jerusalem,” the mood was euphoric. The anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, 7 November 1948, fell during the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of the commissar for foreign affairs Viacheslav Molotov, saw Golda Meir that day, and encouraged her to continue to go to synagogue. What was worse, Zhemchuzhina said this in Yiddish, the language of her parents and of Meir’s—in that paranoid setting, a suggestion of national unity among Jews across borders. Ekaterina Gorbman, the wife of another poliburo member, Kliment Voroshilov, was heard to exclaim: “Now we too have our own homeland.”

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Lessons from Romanizing Turkish Orthography

From: “Script Charisma in Hebrew and Turkish: A Comparative Framework for Explaining Success and Failure of Romanization” by İlker Aytürk in Journal of World History 21(2010):97-130 (on Project MUSE):

Since the downfall of the Soviet regime in 1991, successive Turkish governments have been trying to impress upon the ex-Soviet Turkish republics the necessity of adopting the Roman alphabet. As late as June 2007, for example, a delegation from the Republic of Kazakhstan visited the Turkish Language Institute (Türk Dil Kurumu) for consultations and received briefings on a number of topics, including the history of script change in Turkey, the economic costs and benefits of romanization, and the implications of script change for electronic media and information technologies. Indeed, Turkish policy makers are correct when they underline Turkey’s role as a model in this regard. Adoption of a Roman-based alphabet in Turkey in 1928 is habitually cited as the textbook example of a successful and lasting case of romanization. The problem with the approach of the Turkish policy makers, on the other hand, is the somewhat naïve conviction that, with a good amount of fortitude, the Turkish success could be easily replicated elsewhere.

This approach is not new, nor is it particular to the Turkish officials. It had been voiced earlier, during attempts at romanizing the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese scripts in the interwar period and the immediate aftermath of World War II at the heyday of an international romanization movement. What is common in all of them is a tendency to strip the question of script from its historical, religious, and political context and to present it mainly as an issue of the expediency of a writing system. It is very telling that Western advocates of romanization were pointing at the Turkish example even then, as Turkish officials still do. The success of the Turkish experiment, though, obscured many other attempts at romanization that ended up as utter failures. If truth be told, the impact of the permanent adoption of the Roman alphabet by a handful of speech communities in the twentieth century is far outweighed by the resilience of non-Roman writing systems in spite of efforts to romanize them. It is impossible to overlook the fact that about half of the world’s population today employ non-Roman alphabets or scripts: the Devanagari script in India, the han’gŭl in Korea, the kanji and kana in Japan, the hànzì in China, the Arabic alphabet in most of the Muslim world, the Greek alphabet in Greece, the Cyrillic in Russia, and the square letters in Israel, just to name a few, show the limits of the expansion of the Roman alphabet in contrast to high expectations in its favor at the beginning of the twentieth century. The image of a victorious Roman alphabet is then probably caused by the paucity of counterfactual data, which could have been gleaned from failed cases, and it also results from the lack of comparative works, especially those that compare a successful case with a fiasco.

What I intend to do in this article is precisely this. By focusing on the Hebrew and Turkish cases, I aim at constructing a theoretical framework for explaining success and failure of romanization. The two cases in question are selected on purpose: adoption of the Roman alphabet in Atatürk’s Turkey is the emblematic example of romanization in the twentieth century. Quite the reverse, the feeble movement in the Yishuv—a term that describes the Jewish population and settlement in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel—in the 1920s and 1930s for writing Hebrew in the Roman alphabet had so utterly failed to impress the Hebrew speakers at the time that there are very few today who even remember that such a bizarre attempt was ever made. Comparing these two cases will help us identify a number of independent variables that facilitate romanization or inhibit it….

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed the implantation of the Roman alphabet in the Americas and pockets of European colonization in the Far East. The first real conquest of the Roman alphabet outside the boundaries of Western Christendom, however, was the romanization of the Romanian script in 1860, during an atmosphere of cultural revival and independence, which also signaled Romania’s growing estrangement from the Slavic and the Orthodox world. A second, less known, case was the gradual adoption in Vietnam of Quoc-ngu, a Roman-based alphabet, which was officially endorsed in 1910 but whose spread to the masses took considerably more time and lasted until the 1950s. A more crucial and rather famous decision of romanization was made at the Baku Congress of Turkology in 1926, when representatives from the Muslim-Turkic and Tatar communities in the Soviet Union and from the Republic of Turkey discussed matters of orthography among other cultural problems. The resolution of the congress stressed the need for the creation of a common script based on the Roman alphabet for all Turco-Tataric nations. This particular wave of romanization started with the Yakuts and the Azeris in 1926, while the Uzbeks and the Crimean Tatars followed suit in 1928 and 1929 respectively. The Republic of Turkey, on the other hand, whose initial attitude toward romanization at the congress could best be described as lukewarm, jumped on the bandwagon in 1928 with huge publicity given to the event in world press.

If it is permissible to use Max Weber’s notion of “charismatic authority” in a field that he did not intend it for, the Roman alphabet had in effect become a charismatic script by the 1920s and 1930s. It owed its charisma less to its Roman or Catholic background, and more to a rather secular association with the advent of modernity, Westernization, and, later, the ascendancy of English as the global lingua franca….

An argument in favor of romanization of the Hebrew script was first heard in 1898, but that preliminary shot by Isaak Rosenberg, a Hebrew teacher in Jerusalem, fell on deaf ears and did not make an impact at all. The person who actually catapulted the idea of romanization to short-lived fame and notoriety was Itamar Ben-Avi, the son of the “father of modern Hebrew,” Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

Hardly remembered today, Itamar Ben-Avi (1882–1943) was a celebrity in the Yishuv as well as the diaspora world from the first decade of the twentieth century to the 1940s. His father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the individual who probably contributed more than anybody else to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, raised him as the first Jew in nearly two millennia whose mother tongue was Hebrew. Thanks to the publicity given to him since his childhood for this reason, Ben-Avi was a living specimen of the “new Jew,” who could turn dreams into reality by strength of will. Upon completing his university studies in Berlin, Ben-Avi returned to Jerusalem, where he embarked on a journalistic career, first writing in his father’s newspapers, then acting as the Jerusalem correspondent for British and French dailies, and eventually topping his career with the editorship of such important Yishuv newspapers as the Do’ar ha-yom and the Palestine Weekly. He was to put his oratorical skills in many languages into use following a request from the Jewish National Fund to go abroad on lecture tours for the Zionist cause, a job that further boosted his image abroad, where he rubbed shoulders with the VIPs of the diaspora Jewry.

Of all people, it was this man who proposed to write Hebrew with Roman characters, and put his name at risk and gambled with his financial resources to carry out his plans for romanization. After many adventures along those lines in his youth, Ben-Avi’s first concrete action was to publish a biography of his father, titled Avi (My Father), in romanized Hebrew in 1927. That initial attempt drew the ire of the Jewish literati in the Yishuv, who nipped the project in the bud by their deadly silence. The following year, no doubt encouraged by the news coming from Turkey, he briefly experimented with offering a Hebrew supplement in Roman alphabet to the Palestine Weekly. The first issue of Ha-shavu‘a ha-palestini [variously spelled (per fn. 42) ha Şavu‘a ha Palestini, ha Şavuja ha Palestini, ha Shavuaj ha Palestini, ha Shavuaa ha Palestini, and ha Shavua ha Palestini], as the supplement was called, appeared on 14 December 1928 and continued until May 1929 in twenty issues altogether. Members of the Revisionist Zionist Organization in the Yishuv rallied round his cause, and the organization’s legendary leader Vladimir Jabotinsky emerged as the second best-known advocate for the romanization of Hebrew script. Yet, the supplement failed to create a momentum, with about three hundred copies sold in the Yishuv and abroad, even though a few first issues were distributed gratis. Ben-Avi made a final, and more serious, attempt in 1933, this time by publishing an independent weekly journal in romanized Hebrew. The weekly Deror appeared from 17 November 1933 to 25 March 1934 in sixteen issues, and, if we trust Ben-Avi’s somewhat inflated numbers, the journal’s sales stabilized around 1,400 copies from the third issue onward, several hundred of those being subscriptions from abroad. Not surprisingly, the Deror met the same fate as its predecessor and had to be closed down at enormous cost to its owner. The damage done, however, was not just financial. Ben-Avi was compelled to admit defeat, facing the Yishuv’s indifference, if not outright animosity, toward his romanization plan.

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