The Untold Story of Sephardi Zionism

June 3, 2022 | Asael Abelman
About the author: Asael Abelman teaches in the History Department at Herzog College and is a lecturer in Jewish history at Shalem College. He is the author of a comprehensive history of the Jewish people, Toldot Ha-Yehudim, which was published by Dvir in Hebrew in 2019.

The modern Zionist movement was overwhelmingly led by Ashkenazi Jews, notes Asael Abelman, the vast majority of whom hailed from Eastern Europe. So too, most of the Jews who came to the Land of Israel in successive waves between 1881 and 1939 were Ashkenazim. For this and other reasons, Sephardi and Mizraḥi Jews have largely been left out of the story Zionism. A new book tries to set the record straight. Abelman writes in his review:

At the beginning of the book, the reader is informed of a number of facts largely unknown to Israelis today. First, two of the [ideological forerunners] of Zionism, Rabbi Yehuda Bibas and Yehuda Alkalai, responsible for formulating ideas of nationalism in the first few decades of the 19th century, were both Sephardi. Second, in the decades leading up to 1881, when the First Aliyah from Eastern Europe began, tens of thousands of Jewish people emigrated to Palestine from Muslim states, in what is called the Mughrabi Aliyah (i.e., of those coming from the Maghreb, North Africa). These Jews worked to renew Jewish life throughout the Land of Israel, adopted modern ways of education and living, married Ashkenazi Jews (something almost completely unheard of in the Old Yishuv); they wrote for newspapers, bought land, and created job opportunities for their Jewish peers.

European Jewish communities, Abelman goes on to explain, were sharply divided over Zionism, which was opposed by Orthodox rabbis, Communists, and those who simply felt Jews should see their future in the countries where they lived.

Compared to these specific ideological conflicts and difficulties, Sephardi Zionism was slightly different. The culture is more amicable, there is a constant endeavor to combine tradition and modernity, and there is the belief that Zionism is a natural development in the history of Jewish tradition, with the unity of Israel standing above any and all racial identity.

All of this is greatly important for Israel today. Today’s Israeli-Jewish society [displays many of the once-distinctive] traits of Sephardi Zionism: a sense of a natural belonging to Israel; creating a simple connection between tradition and modern living; allowing the Jewish tradition to have a place in the life of the individual, families, and communities; and a desire for non-sectoral national cooperation.

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