Fundamentally Freund: Zionism’s Sephardi father

For even after more than a century, Rabbi Alkalai’s words have the power to guide and inspire us in our national mission.

Jewish cemetary in Sarajevo 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish cemetary in Sarajevo 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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, presents an opportunity to correct the record and restore the Sephardi impact on Zionist renewal to its rightful place.
While his name may not be overly familiar to most Israelis, his intellectual legacy laid the groundwork for the modern rebirth of Israel.
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 Serbia.
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 place.”
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 redemption.
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 later.
Looking back on his ideas, we might easily take them for granted, as many have become part and parcel of our modern reality. But that only underlines Rabbi Alkalai’s profound success, for we are merely enjoying the fruits of his labor.
As a matter of fact, the extent of this Sephardi sage’s influence may have been greater than we will ever know.
In one of those curious twists of fate that even the most inventive novelist could not contrive, one of Rabbi Alkalai’s faithful congregants and most ardent disciples was a man named Simon Loeb Herzl, whose grandson Theodor would later alter the course of Zionist and Jewish history.
Is it possible that Simon Loeb came home from synagogue on the Sabbath, fired up by the rabbi’s sermon about the need for Jews to head to Zion, and shared this passion with his offspring? Might the ideas that he read in his rabbi’s writings been passed down in one form or another to his famous progeny? The answer to this question, like many others, has been lost to history. But Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai’s impact, and that of other Sephardi Jews, cannot and must not suffer a similar fate.
They played a key role in the unfolding of the Zionist drama, and we owe it to them to preserve their memory and the heritage they bequeathed us.
For even after more than a century, Rabbi Alkalai’s words have the power to guide and inspire us in our national mission.
“We, as a people, are properly called Israel,” he once wrote, “only in the land of Israel... Though this venture will begin modestly, its future will be very great.”