The foundation of the Jewish secondary school "Bene Berith" in Istanbul and a biographical memorandum on its protagonist Yosef Niego
Compiled by Denis Ojalvo
The Renaissance of the Turkish Jewish community was initiated thanks to the foundation of the French-Jewish philanthropic organization "Alliance Israélite Universelle" in 1860, and the establishment of a school network in Morocco, Tunisia and the Ottoman Empire by it. The "Alliance" selected meticulously its corps of educators from within the communities of the geography in question and formed them in a teacher's seminary, "École Normale Israélite Orientale" established in 1865 for that purpose.
Yosef Niego, who was one of these youngsters selected for serving the "Alliance" in its endeavors, was born in 1863 at Andrinople. Orphan at an early age, he was first educated in "heder" and "yeshivoth" under the guidance of his uncle, the Chief Rabbi of that city, Rabbi Rafael Behmoiras. Soon, he attended the "Alliance" school opened in Andrinople. Because of the Turco-Russian War of 1876, he moved with his family to Istanbul and attended the "Alliance" school there.
At the age of 15, he was chosen to attend the "École Normale Israélite Orientale" in Paris which he completed in 3,5 years as an outstanding student. The "Alliance" which established a school of agriculture in 1870 near Jaffa in Palestine, needed a professional agronomist to direct its school-farm, "Mikveh Israel" (The Hope of Israel). Therefore, Niego was sent to the Faculty of Agronomy in Montpellier, France and completed his studies among the best of his promotion.
In 1886, Niego set foot on the Holy Land as the first Jewish agronomist in Palestine and joined "Mikveh Israel" as the deputy of the director Mr. Hirsch. In 1891, he was appointed director and served that establishment for 18 years.
He recruited at least one child from every pioneer village founded by the "Hovevei Zion" settlers and formed them in his school as farmers.
Niego hosted the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II. during his visit to Palestine in 1898 and provided Theodore Herzl with the occasion to shake the Emperor's hand. The original of Herzl's acknowledgement letter, copy of which is here below, is in the museum of "Mikveh Israel".
Letter from Theodore Herzl
The saplings, of the Eucalyptus trees which are seen allover Israel today, were brought by Niego from Australia in order to dry the swamps.
Ben-Gurion's statement " The State was established thanks to Mikveh-Israel. If there was no Mikveh-Israel, it is doubtful Israel could have been founded. Everything started then. What we did was to complete the task politically and nationally." indicates the vital role "Mikveh-Israel" assumed in the agricultural infrastructure of the country.
Following the loss of her daughter and the precarious health of his wife Lea (Née Mitrani) who was an educator, alumna of the "École Normale Israélite Orientale" as well, Niego and his family were compelled to quit Palestine and settle in Constantinople, today's Istanbul in 1904.
From that date onwards, for 20 years, Niego served the "Jewish Colonization Association" (ICA) as an inspector. He supervised the foundation and the activities of agricultural settlements of the "ICA", who in compliance with Sultan Abdulhamid's wish directed its colonization efforts in the vast geography of the empire extending from Galicia and Bessarabia to Mesopotamia, elsewhere than Palestine.
Following the Lausanne Treaty by which the newborn Turkish Republic was accepted within the family of nations, and its ban on land acquisitions by foreigners, Niego was recruited by the "American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee" (JDC), a Jewish relief organization founded in 1914 with the initiative of the American Ambassador in Istanbul Henry Morgenthau, for the establishment of a loan and assistance organization which would finance Jewish small businessmen. Namely, "Caisse de Petits Prèts de Constantinople". Niego assumed the direction of this institution.
Image Courtesy of Mr. Rifat N. Bali
While pursuing his professional career in afore mentioned Jewish institutions, Niego became the protagonist of several institutions in the scope of his extracurricular activities.
In 1911 he became the founder of the B'nai B'rith Grand Lodge District XI, the jurisdiction of which covered Egypt, The Balkans and all Ottoman lands including Palestine. In the words of Abraham Elmaleh "If the B'nai B'rith managed to set roots in Turkey, it owes it to Yosef Niego".
With the outbreak of World War I, among other measures taken against the Allies, the Turkish government froze the activities of foreign educational institutions. The Jewish youth who studied in those schools were left helpless owing to the lack of Jewish secondary educational institutions in Turkey. Niego was the driving force for the solution of that emergency.
Abraham Elmaleh's account on the foundation of the secondary school "Midracha Yabne" known as "Béné Bérith", is as follows: "Thanks to Yosef Niego, the sums required for the acquisition of the sumptuous Béné Bérith palace were gathered. Thanks to his energy and the help of the late rabbi Dr. Marcus, the "Yavne" lyceum was established in Istanbul." "The idea of the establishment of such a school was there already for several years. However it could materialize only in 1914. Good note has to be taken that without the determination and the energy ("energia de fierro" in the text) of Yosef Niego that could not have been realized."
Yosef Niego, the educator, voluntarily (à titre gracieux) assumed the direction of that institution during the first three years of its existence until the end of 1917. The founding of the school and its development are narrated in his memoirs printed in 1933 under the title "Allocution et Conferences".
Grade report dated November 1917, signed by the Director Yosef Niego
Click image to enlarge
Following the Armistice in 1918, in the days, which preceded the occupation of Istanbul by the Allies, the Chief Rabbi Hayim Nahum left his office and disappeared mysteriously. (Much later, the reason was said to be a secret mission on behalf of the Turkish Government.) In the chaos, which resulted, Emanuel Karasu Efendi (ex-member of the Turkish parliament from the "Union and Progress" Party) took the initiative to convene a meeting where all the Jewish organization would be represented. The meeting took place on November 1, 1918 and the "National Council of the Jewish Community of Turkey" was founded. In the plenum, which took place on November 13, 1918, Yosef Niego was unanimously elected as its president. The "Council" represented and safeguarded the interests of the Jewish community vis-à-vis the occupying powers. The "Council" ceased its activities upon the return of Chief Rabbi Hayim Nahum.
Niego continued his mission as the Founding President of the B'nai B'rith. He departed on December 9, 1945 after 59 years in the service of Judaism and the Jewish Community of Turkey.
Elizabeth Antebi, L'Homme du Sérail, Nil editions, Paris, 1966
Rifat N. Bali, Bir Yahudi Mali ve Sosyal Yardimlasma Kurumu "Dersaadet Küçük Istikrazat Sandigi"Tarih ve Toplum, April 1997
André Chouraqui, L'Alliance Israélite Universelle et la renaissance juive contemporaine, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1965
Abraham Elmaleh, Grandes figuras del Judaismo Sefaradi, El Tiempo, Israel 29.10.1963 - 31.12.1963 serial articles.
Israel Ministry of education and Culture, Mikveh Israel, Jerusalem Post Print and Offset, Jerusalem, 1970
A.H. Navon, Les 70 ans de l'École Normale Israélite Orientale 1865-1935, Librairie Durlacher, Paris 1935
Joseph Niego, Allocutions et Conférences, Babok & Fils, 1933, Istanbul
Yaakov Rasier, Bet haSefer "Bnei Brit" Musevi Lisesi, Istanbul 1915-1990, Dfus Teligraf Baam, Tel-Aviv 1990
Aron Rodrigue, Türkiye Yahudilerinin Batililasmasi, Ayraç Yayinevi, Ankara, 1997
Yosef Shapira, 100 Shana Mikveh Israel, Monopress, Ramat-Gan 1970