The Sephardi Role in the Flowering of Zionism

The advent of modern political Zionism in the 1890s inspired many Sephardi and Mizraḥi Jews to leave their homes for the land of Israel, and many more to establish Zionist groups in the countries where they lived. But even before that, non-Ashkenazi Jews had done much to encourage Jewish settlement in Palestine. Most importantly, Rabbi Judah Solomon Alkalai, born in Sarajevo in 1798, was, along with such Ashkenazi contemporaries as Moses Hess and Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, a major proto-Zionist thinker, as Ashley Perry writes.

Alkalai had the idea, echoed later by Theodor Herzl, to get various nations to give the Jews a homeland just as they had, around the same time, assisted the Greeks and others. . . . [He] wrote, “the salvation of Israel lies in addressing to the kings of the earth a general request for the welfare of our nation and our holy cities, and for our return in repentance to the house of our mother.” . . . He also called for the establishment of a bank to finance the emigration of the Jews and for settlement societies and other practical steps.

In 1843, he wrote the treatise Minḥat Yehudah, which called for the adoption of Hebrew as a national language, the purchase of land in Palestine, development of agriculture to form the basis for absorption of new immigrants, and encouragement of a sovereign-based national unity. At the age of seventy-three, Alkalai traveled to Israel to determine the possibilities for settlement there—an arduous journey at his age. More remarkably, he came to live in the Land of Israel with his wife in 1874, at the age of seventy-six. . . .

Around the same time, another Sephardi Jew was laying the practical foundations for Jewish settlement in Israel, and in Jerusalem in particular. Born in 1784 in the Italian city of Livorno but raised in England, Sir Moses Montefiore was so struck by his visit to Jerusalem in 1827 that he became devoted to the city and its inhabitants for the rest of his life. He later used his position as president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews to carry on a notable correspondence with Charles Henry Churchill, the British consul in Damascus, concerning the resettlement of Jews in Israel. His acts of philanthropy in building the Jewish settlement in the Holy Land are numerous.

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More about: History of Zionism, Mizrahim, Moses Montefiore, Sephardim, Theodor Herzl

With Talk of Annexation, Benny Gantz Sends a Message to the U.S.

Jan. 24 2020

On Tuesday, the former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who is campaigning for a third time to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from the Israeli premiership, announced that if elected he will seek to annex the Jordan Valley. He added the important caveat that he wants to do so “in coordination with the international community”—a promise that, as many have pointed out, is nearly impossible to fulfill. While it is easy to speculate about the political calculations behind this pledge, Jonathan Tobin suggests that it is also intended as a message to American liberals:

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More about: Benny Gantz, Democrats, Israeli Election 2020, Jordan Valley, U.S. Politics