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Biography of Rabbi Judah Alkalai

Biography of Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai

 

Yehuda Solomon Alkalai (Yehudah Ben Shlomo Alkalai, Judah Alkalay) (1798-1878) was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1798. Along with the Ashkenazi Rabbi Zvi Kalischer of Prussia, the Sephardic Alkalai was an early forerunner of Zionism, despite the popular impression that Zionism is the creation of Ashkenazi Jews.

Alkalai studied in Jerusalem under different rabbis and  came under the influence of the Kabbalah - Jewish mysticism. In 1825 he became rabbi of Semlin (Zemun), a town which in modern times has become part of Belgrade. Zemun was then in the Austro-Hungarian empire, on the border of Ottoman occupied Serbia, including nearby Belgrade, and had gotten influxes of Serbian nationalists and Jews fleeing the Turks.

The Turkish empire was undergoing one of its periodic crises. Serbian nationalism was growing. The Serbs and other Balkan nationalities  were influenced by the Greek War of Independence and the rebellion against foreign Turkish rule. The Balkan states became to be claimed by different ethnic groups and peoples. These events influenced Alkalai and brought him to the realization that the time had come for Jewish nationalism to reassert itself among the Jewish people.

Alkalai was not quite a Zionist in the modern sense and should not be understood as a direct father of Zionist ideas. He believed that the coming of the Messiah would be hastened by return of the Jews to the land of Israel and their settlement there.

He did have the idea, echoed later in the endeavors of Theodor Herzl, to get various nations to give the Jews a homeland, just as they had, at about that time, assisted the Greeks and other people. In "Raglei Hamevaser" 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... our salvation will come rapidly from the kings of the earth. He also called for the establishment of a bank to finance the emigration of the Jews and for settlement societies and other practical steps, and deplored the impractical nature of most of those - apparently there were many others - who talked of return to Zion.

He was greatly upset by the Damascus blood libel and this further increased his calls for return to Zion, producing "Minhat Yehuda" which he wrote in 1843. The book calls for adoption of Hebrew as a national language, purchase of land in Palestine, development of agriculture to form the basis for absorption of new immigrants, and encouragement of national unity. Alkalay was opposed to reform Judaism but attempted to end the sectarian splits because he understood the importance of unity. 

He wrote numerous books and pamphlets to promote the idea of settlement in the land of Israel, but got little recognition and support. His first works were in Ladino rather than Hebrew and did not get beyond the small European Sephardic community. Most of his work was done after his 60th year, when it appeared that there might be more of an audience for his views. Nonetheless, his approach was rejected entirely by the more orthodox rabbis who feared any innovation. A trip through western Europe and England in 1852 failed to get much support from Jews, though with the help of Christian Zionist supporters a colonization society was founded. This soon was disbanded. In a later trip, he turned to the newly formed Alliance Israelite Universelle ("Kol Yisrael Haverim") organization as well as to a German colonization society formed at the time, but was rebuffed. At the age of 73, Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai travelled to Palestine 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 at the age of 76, in 1874.

 

Rabbi Judah Alkalai (Alkali) - forerunner of modern Zionism

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Rabbi Alkalai raised the issue of Jewish political independence and the Land of Israel for the first time in 1834 in the pamphlet Shema Yisrael, ('Hear O Israel'). There, he proposed a beginning of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel as a precursor to the Messianic Redemption, similar to almost simultaneous ideas of Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Kalischer.  This idea was considered heresy by Jews who believed that the Messianic Redemption would come only through a miraculous event caused by God. Alkalai’s proposition for a natural process of redemption,  included  the Rabbinic doctrine  that the Messiah, son of Joseph, would first come to lead the people of Israel in the apocalyptic war of Gog and Magog and would then re-conquer the Land of Israel, freeing it from foreign domination.

Steeped in the study of the Kabbala, which allows calculation of supposed critical dates, Alkalai believed that the year 5600 (1840) would begin the Messianic redemption of the Jewish people. In the introduction to Darkhei No'am, a book of  Hebrew grammar  published in 1839, he called uponJews to prepare for the redemption by prayer and spiritual devotion to Zion and by rendering material assistance to those already in the Land of Israel. He further developed his ideas in Shelom Yerushalayim (1840), in which he warned his people that misfortune would befall them if they did not prepare for redemption and exhorted them to give concrete expression to their devotion to Zion by dedicating one-tenth of their income ("tithe") to the support of those who dwelled in Jerusalem.

Alkalai was greatly influenced by the 1840 Damascus Blood Libel, in which Jews were falsely accused of killing a Christian child in order to use his blood for baking matzoth.  This blood libel convinced Rabbi Alkalai  that Jews could only be free and secure as an independent people in their own land, and that this required action on the part of the Jews. He was likewise inspired by the joint action and organization of Jewish philanthropists and charitable groups.

If Kalischer. was a forerunner of practical Zionism and agricultural settlement, Alkalai was perhaps the founder of Political Zionism Alkalai devoted himself to spreading the idea of Jewish restoration through writing and speeches. He approached s Moses Montefiore Adolph Cremieux and others. for their political and financial support.

Rabbi Alkalai thought it would be possible to buy part or even most of the Holy Land from the Turkish government,  as Abraham had bought the cave of  the Machpelah in Hebron from Ephron the Hittite. He dreamed of establishing a world-wide organization along the lines of the various national organizations then prevalent among other nations of Europe. The purpose of these organizations would be to buy and reclaim land, as well as providing loans for new settlers. These ideas were subsequently adopted by Herzl and the World Zionist Organization. It may not be a coincidence that Herzl's grandfather was a friend of Alkalai.

Alkalai also  traveled to various cities attempting to set up a basic structure for the organization he envisioned. One such group was established in London, but it did not last long enough to have any real impact. 

Alkalai attempted to convince people that his plan for at least part of the Jewish nation to re-establish itself in the land of Israel and form an independent state was  realistic. He joined the Colonization-Verein fure Paleastina, established by Chaim Lorje (Luria), and was very active on its behalf. In 1871 he visited the land of Israel. He established a settlement society that did not last long. In 1874 Alkalai settled in Palestine and died there in 1878.

Ami Isseroff

More Israeli and Zionist Biographies The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel

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