The Sephardi precursor of modern Zionism

To say that modern Zionism is a largely Ashkenazi creation would be doing a grave injustice to Sephardi Jews – notably to Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai, a 19th century Sephardi Jew from Sarajevo (Bosnia). Michael Freund writes in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Michelle):

Modern Zionism is largely an Ashkenazi creation, or so popular thinking goes.
After all, the World Zionist Organization was founded in Europe in 1897 and
dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, who also made up the bulk of the pioneers who built
the land and later declared the establishment of the state.

So it should
come as no surprise that it is possible to read histories of the emergence of
the Zionist movement in the early 20th century without encountering the word
“Sephardi” other than in passing.

But to ignore the contribution made by
Sephardi Jews to the return to Zion is a grave injustice, not only to our
eastern brethren but to Jewish history itself. Though it has gone largely
unacknowledged, the Sephardi role in preserving Zionist yearnings throughout the
long centuries of Jewish exile was indispensable, dating back to the
12th-century Spanish rabbi and poet Yehuda HaLevi, whose poem “My heart is in
the east” still resonates today.

Indeed, this month’s anniversary of the
passing in October 1878 (4 Tishrei on the Hebrew calendar) of Rabbi Yehuda
Alkalai, a Sephardi Jew from Serbia (Bosnia – ed), presents an opportunity to correct the
record and restore the Sephardi impact on Zionist renewal to its rightful

While his name may not be overly familiar to most Israelis, his
intellectual legacy laid the groundwork for the modern rebirth of

Though he was born in Sarajevo in 1798, Alkalai’s formative years
were spent in Jerusalem, where he delved into ancient Jewish texts and became
steeped in Jewish mysticism.

At the young age of 27, he was offered the
post of rabbi in the town of Zemun, which is today part of the Serbian capital
of Belgrade. At the time, however, it fell within the boundaries of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire and straddled the border of Turkish-occupied

Nationalism was on the rise in the Balkans, as Serbs and others
chafed under the heavy hand of Ottoman control. This had a profound effect on
Rabbi Alkalai, whose Serbian neighbors longed for liberation and increasingly
agitated for independence. As Prof. Arthur Hertzberg noted in The Zionist Idea:
A Historical Analysis and Reader: “ideas of national freedom and restoration
came easily to Alkalai’s mind from the atmosphere of his time and

Within a decade, in 1834, he produced a booklet called Shema
Yisrael (Hear, O Israel) proposing something which at the time was considered
radical: to create Jewish colonies in the land of Israel as a prelude to

In other words, Rabbi Alkalai advocated that man take action
to bring about Jewish national emancipation.

This notion ran counter to
conventional wisdom, which primarily believed that Jews should wait passively
for Messianic deliverance.

Nonetheless, he developed the concept further,
writing additional books and pamphlets and traveling throughout Europe to spread
his message.

IN HIS 1845 work Minhat Yehudah, Rabbi Alkalai wrote, “In
the first conquest, under Joshua, the Almighty brought the children of Israel
into a land that was prepared: its houses were then full of useful things, its
wells were giving water, and its vineyards and olive groves were laden with
fruit. This new Redemption will – alas, because of our sins – be different: our
land is waste and desolate, and we shall have to build houses, dig wells, and
plant vines and olive trees.”

“Redemption,” he wrote, “must come slowly.
The land must, by degrees, be built up and prepared.”

To accomplish this,
Rabbi Alkalai offered novel, and highly prescient, suggestions, which included
the launch of a national fund to purchase land in Israel, the convening of a
“Great Assembly” to oversee Jewish national affairs, and a redoubling of efforts
to revive Hebrew as a spoken language.

At a time when many Jews were
beginning to despair after centuries of persecution, Rabbi Alkalai offered
concrete hope.

More importantly, by highlighting practical measures that
Jews could take, he empowered people throughout the Jewish world to become
involved in a national act of self-redemption which would engender Divine mercy.
In 1874, at the age of 76, Rabbi Alkalai and his wife made aliya, settling in
Jerusalem to fulfill his life-long dream. He passed away four years

Read article in full

One Comment

  • According to Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, both Herzl & Max Nordau were part Ashkenazi & part Sefardi. Moreover, Herzl's father and/or grandfather came from Zemun [also Semlin] and must have been aware of & probably acquainted with Rabbi Alkalai. Some of Herzl's concrete proposals much resemble those of Rav Alkalai.


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