Tag Archives: Hebrew

Jews of the Week: Rabbi Yehuda Bibas and Rabbi Yehuda Alkali

The Unbelievable True Story of the Real Founders of Zionism

Yehuda Aryeh Leon Bibas (1789-1852) was born in Gibralter to a long line of Sephardi rabbis. After his father’s untimely death, the young Bibas moved to Livorno to be raised by his grandfather. There, he studied both at the yeshiva and the university, becoming a rabbi and physician. He returned to Gibralter to head its yeshiva, attracting many students from across Europe and North Africa. In 1831, he was appointed chief rabbi of Corfu (a Greek island that had a large population in those days). Over the next decade, he understood the terrible predicament that Jews were in, and resolved that restoring an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land was the only solution. In 1839, he embarked on an international tour to encourage Jews all over the world to make aliyah. Some credit him with being the first prominent figure to do so in modern times. He was supported by the great Moses Montefiore, a wealthy Sephardic Jew who financed the first printing press and textile factory in the land of Israel, refurbished many of its Jewish holy sites, and established several Jewish agricultural colonies.

Rabbi Alkali

It was during Rabbi Bibas’ global tour that he met Rabbi Yehuda Alkali (1798-1878). Rabbi Alkali was born in Sarajevo and studied in Jerusalem under the tutelage of the holy city’s greatest Kabbalists. He went on to become the chief rabbi of Semlin, Serbia. Partly inspired by Serbia’s own nationalist movement, and further spurred by an 1840 blood libel against the Jews of Damascus, Rabbi Alkali was convinced that Jews must have a state of their own after meeting Rabbi Bibas. Rabbi Alkali established the Society of the Settlement of Eretz Yisrael and began a campaign to encourage Jews to settle in their ancestral home. Based on a famous prophecy in the Zohar, Rabbi Alkali proclaimed that the year 1840 would be the start of the process of Redemption, and that it would take one hundred years to accomplish. In an incredible prediction, he said that if Jews failed to take advantage of this spiritually-auspicious century, then by 1940 the Redemption would begin anyway, but in a much more difficult way, and only through “an outpouring of wrath will our dispersed be gathered”. History has eerily confirmed his prophecy. More amazing still, Rabbi Alkali published a book in 1857 titled Goral L’Adonai (“Lot for the Lord”) which clearly outlined the steps to re-establish a Jewish state in Israel. He presented one of the first copies of the book to his dear friend, and a member of his Semlin synagogue, named Simon Loeb Herzl. This happened to be the grandfather of Theodor Herzl, who would inherit the book. Scholars agree that Rabbi Alkali and his 1857 treatise played a major role in influencing Theodor Herzl, and thus the whole Zionist movement. In fact, it was Rabbi Alkali who first proposed restoring Hebrew as the primary spoken language of the Jews, who argued that the Holy Land should be legally purchased piece by piece, and that Jews must re-learn to become agriculturalists for the whole endeavour to work. (All three of these things would soon materialize.) Both Rabbi Bibas and Rabbi Alkali practiced what they preached and made aliyah to Israel. Rabbi Bibas first joined his disciples in Yaffo, then moved to Hebron and opened a library. He passed away shortly after, and is buried in Hebron’s Jewish Cemetery. Rabbi Alkali, meanwhile, founded a settlement near Jerusalem and lived there for the remainder of his life. He is buried in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives Cemetery.

Did You Know These Famous People are Sephardic Jews?

Words of the Week

It was a city of wonders. Everything was written in Hebrew. People were speaking Hebrew. I thought, This is redemption. This is the city of the Messiah.
– Amnon Shamosh, Syrian-Israeli novelist, on first arriving to Tel-Aviv in 1937

Jew of the Week: Abba Kovner

“The Jewish Avenger”

Abel “Abba” Kovner (1918-1987) was born in what is today Belarus and grew up in Vilnius (then part of Poland). As a young man, he was a member of HaShomer HaTzair, the Zionist youth movement. When the Nazis invaded Vilnius in 1941, Kovner escaped to a convent, but soon returned to the Vilna Ghetto to organize a Jewish resistance. At the start of 1942, Kovner secretly published a manifesto inside the Ghetto to inspire the Jews to fight back, writing that it was better to die than “go like lambs to the slaughter”. Along with several other young men, Kovner formed the United Partisan Organization, possibly the first armed underground Jewish group in Nazi Europe. Before they could launch their first large-scale attack, the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated in 1943, forcing the group to flee to the surrounding forests. From there, they launched a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Nazis. The small group began calling themselves “the Avengers” (HaNokmim) and were successful enough to draw the attention of the Red Army. They would go on to coordinate with the Soviets to crush the Nazis in Eastern Europe. Once the fate of the Nazis was sealed towards the end of 1944, Kovner was among the founders of a new group, called Bricha (“Escape”), which worked to get Jewish refugees out of Europe and to the Holy Land. Over the next couple of years, they would successfully move 250,000 Holocaust survivors to Israel. Having seen first-hand the horrific devastation inflicted by the Nazis, Kovner yearned for revenge. He started yet another group, called Nakam (“Vengeance”), seeking to punish Germany for the Holocaust. “Plan B” was to poison the water supply in Allied prisoner-of-war camps where Nazi SS soldiers were kept. The far more controversial and shocking “Plan A” was to poison the water supplies of several major German cities in order to kill 6 million Germans, one for each Jew lost in the Holocaust. Thankfully, Plan A was soon abandoned, though Kovner was still arrested by the British and held in a Cairo prison for several months. He did aim to accomplish Plan B, and Nakam members infiltrated a POW camp bakery in April 1946, coating the loaves of bread with arsenic. Over two thousands German soldiers fell ill, though no deaths were reported. In December 1947, Kovner joined the Haganah and fought in Israel’s Independence War as a captain of the Givati Brigade. Following this, he lived out the remainder of his life in a kibbutz, working tirelessly to strengthen the nascent state. He also helped to design several Holocaust museums, and testified at the Eichmann trial. More famously, Kovner wrote a series of poetry books (in Hebrew and Yiddish) describing the struggles he faced during the Holocaust and in Israel’s early years. This made him one of the country’s most celebrated poets and writers. For this, he won the Israeli Prize for Literature in 1970. A heavy smoker, Kovner succumbed to tracheal cancer before his 70th birthday.

Words of the Week

It is perfectly clear that the Arab nations do not want to solve the Arab refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront against the United Nations, and as a weapon against Israel… Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.
— Sir Alexander Galloway, former head of UNRWA

Abba Kovner (Centre) and his Avengers.