The annals of Zionism, like those of any successful national liberation
movement, are rife with heroes, individuals whose names and deeds continue to
resonate generations after their passing.
Men such as Theodor Herzl,
Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Chaim Weizmann pervade our collective historical
consciousness; larger-than-life figures who shaped the course and contours of
modern Jewish history.
But inevitably there are those whose contributions
to the cause somehow get overshadowed despite the key role they played in the
unfolding of events.
With this past Saturday’s anniversary of the 1917
Balfour Declaration, in which the British government reaffirmed the right of the
Jewish people to renew their ancient Biblical homeland in the Land of Israel,
this is a good opportunity to recall one such unsung Zionist hero who helped to
spark a groundswell of international sympathy and support for the Declaration
and its aims.
David Albala was an observant Sephardi Jew born in
Belgrade, Serbia, in 1886. His father was a successful merchant and a committed
Jew, and already as a high school student, young David was chosen as president
of the local student Zionist society.
In 1905 he went to study medicine
in Vienna, where he became even more involved with Zionist
After he became a doctor in 1910, Albala returned to Serbia,
joined the Serbian Royal Army, and proceeded to fight in the First and Second
Balkan Wars as well as World War One, all in the space of five years.
rose to the rank of captain, distinguishing himself on the battlefield and
surviving a bout of typhus.
While recuperating from the disease at a
British hospital in Cairo for four months, he learned fluent English by
conversing with the nurses and fellow patients.
As a result, the young
Serbian Jewish patriot was dispatched by the Serbian government to the United
States, where he toured Jewish communities across the country to drum up their
support. He met with luminaries such as Justice Louis Brandeis and gave
interviews to the Jewish press.
Then, on November 2, 1917, the Balfour
Declaration was issued, in which British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour
stated clearly and unequivocally that Britain’s leaders “view with favor the
establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will
use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this
While Jews everywhere rejoiced, and the Arabs were furious,
governments around the world remained silent. If the Balfour Declaration were to
have a lasting impact, it was imperative that it garner widespread international
And that is where Albala came to play a crucial
Utilizing his close relations with the Serbian leadership, he
suggested that they declare their formal support for the Declaration and its
Shortly thereafter, on December 27, 1917, Serbia did just that,
becoming the first country in the world to openly endorse the
In 1919, the Zionist Organization of America published a
fascinating volume called The American War Congress and Zionism, a collection of
responses to the Balfour Declaration by more than one hundred US senators and
In addition, it also contained the statements of support
that were issued by various governments around the world, including that of
The letter, addressed to Captain Albala and signed by the Serbian
representative in Washington Milenko Vesnic, is a highly emotive document and is
worth quoting at length.
“I wish you to express to your Jewish brothers,”
Vesnic wrote, “the sympathy of our Government and of our people for the just
endeavor of resuscitating their beloved country in Palestine which will enable
them to take their place in the future Society of Nations according to their
numerous capacities and to their unquestioned right,” it said.
sure,” the letter continued, “that this will not only be to their own interest,
but at the same time to that of the whole of humanity.”
“You know, dear
Captain Albala,” he added, “that there is no other nation in the world
sympathizing with this plan more than Serbia.”
After noting that Serbians
had also shed “bitter tears on the rivers of Babylon” when their country had
been invaded and occupied, Vesnic went on to state, “How should we not
participate in your clamors and sorrows lasting ages and generations, especially
when our countrymen of your origin and religion have fought for their Serbian
fatherland as well as the best of our soldiers?” In closing, Vesnic wrote that,
“It will be a sad thing for us to see any of our Jewish fellow-citizens leaving
us to return to their promised land, but we shall console ourselves in the hope
that they will stand as brothers and leave with us a good part of their hearts
and that they will be the strongest tie between free Israel and
The Serbian letter marked the first time any government had
referred to the yet-to-be-born Jewish state as “Israel,” presaging the name that
would be adopted by the nascent republic three decades later.
significantly, it broke the international ice, paving the way two months later
for France and Italy to back the Balfour Declaration, followed shortly
thereafter by Greece, Holland and others.
This would prove to be
immensely important, because when the League of Nations, the precursor to the
United Nations, approved the Mandate for Palestine in July 1922, it formally
incorporated the Balfour Declaration, which essentially laid the conceptual
groundwork for the establishment of the modern State of Israel.
of it was thanks to the efforts of David Albala, the Serbian Jewish war hero
whose lasting achievements on and off the battlefield will one day, hopefully,
receive their due.
In an interview with The American Jewish Chronicle in
1917, Albala related a personal story that is as relevant now as it was in those
After returning from his university studies in Vienna, he
said, “I did not visit the synagogue as often as in the boyhood days before I
departed for the Austrian capital.”
One day, after his father took him
aside and expressed pained surprise at his behavior, Albala defended himself by
asserting, “But I am a devoted Zionist.” To which his father replied, “Ah, my
son, one must be a Jew as well as a Zionist.”
And to his dying day,
Albala carried out his father’s charge, setting an example that we would all do
well to emulate.
May his memory be blessed.