The Yemenite Path to Zionism, as Explained by One of Yemen’s Greatest Rabbis

December 28, 2021 | Yosef Qafiḥ, Elli Fischer
About the author: Elli Fischer, a rabbi, writer, and translator, is pursuing graduate studies in Jewish history at Tel Aviv University.

In 1982, Rabbi Yosef Qafiḥ (sometimes pronounced “Kapaḥ”) was asked to address the Knesset to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the aliyah, or collective migration to the Land of Israel, of Jews from Yemen. Elli Fischer, prefaces his 2015 translation of the speech with a note about Qafiḥ’s life:

Rabbi Qafiḥ (1917-2000) was a Yemenite-born rabbinical judge and scholar of Jewish theology who made aliyah in 1943. Once in Israel, Rabbi Qafiḥ served on the country’s supreme rabbinic court and translated the classics of the Jewish theological tradition—Rabbi Saadya Gaon’s Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi’s Kuzari, Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, and more—from Arabic to modern Hebrew. In addition to being an expert in both the Jewish legal and theological traditions, Rabbi Qafiḥ was a daring thinker who didn’t hesitate to attack conventional pieties. This [speech] is a good example of his iconoclasm.

In his address, Qafiḥ challenges the very assumption that the Yemenite aliyah began in 1882:

The concept of “Zionism” has been invoked here several times. In Yemen, this concept did not exist as the name of a movement or a distinct internal group. The Diaspora throughout Yemen was there on a temporary basis. They saw themselves as hotel guests, even though their stay lasted for 2,000 years. Therefore, those individuals and groups who made aliyah to the Land of Israel over time did not deviate from the mainstream. For that reason, these aliyot [i.e., waves of migration] were not noted, in contrast to aliyot from elsewhere. . . . Since the latter [immigrants] went against the pervading spirit of their environments, their aliyah was an extraordinary, wondrous, inspirational thing. . . . In Yemen there was no need for this. Aliyah naturally continued in a normal, organic fashion, because everyone was a candidate; everyone waited for the right moment, for the removal of his particular barriers.

Read more on Sephardi Ideas Monthly: