Herzl St in the Belgrade suburb of Zemun
A little-known Sephardi rabbi in a Balkan neighbourhood was the precursor of Theodor Herzl’s modern Zionist movement. Only now is the influence of Rabbi David Alkalai being recognised in his native land. Report by Ronen Snidman in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Michelle):
President Reuven Rivlin visited Serbia this past July to participate in a ceremony with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic renaming a street after the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl in the Belgrade neighborhood of Zemun. This unusual event, which marked the first ever visit by an Israeli president to Serbia, received less coverage than would be expected from most Israeli news outlets.
It begs the question: What was Herzl’s connection to Zemun, and why would the Serbian government name a street after him?
The answer may surprise most Jews and even many ardent Zionists. The intellectual roots of political Zionism and the Jewish state did not start with the refined emancipated Jews of fin-de-siècle Vienna or Paris, and they certainly don’t begin in Poland. Zionism’s journey traces back to a pious Sephardi rabbi in what was then the Serbian border town of Zemun at the edge of the Austrian Empire. It was this rabbi who taught Herzl’s grandfather and father and likely planted the seeds of the Jewish state, some 70 years before the First Zionist Congress in Basel and 90 years before the Balfour Declaration.
Historians in the past focused on difficulties secular emancipated Jews like Theodor Herzl had integrating into the rapidly developing European societies of Western and Central Europe at the end of the 19th century. However, Herzl’s exposure to the idea of reconstituting the Jewish nation predates his coverage of the Dreyfus Affair as a journalist or even his encounters with elite antisemitism as a law student in Vienna. Instead, it can be traced back to his father’s family’s roots in Zemun (also known by its old German name Semlin) and the influence of the community’s Sephardi rabbi, Judah Ben Shlomo Hai Alkalai.
Alkalai is today acknowledged as a precursor of the modern Zionist movement, but his ideas are usually mentioned in passing if at all. Likewise, there is very limited scholarship regarding how this Sephardi rabbi on the edge of an empire came to his revolutionary ideas for the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. Historians and literary experts have pointed to the influence of the radical interpretations of the Bible from the Kabbala as a source of inspiration (as was the case with Rav Abraham Isaac Kook). While it is certainly possible that the rabbi’s knowledge of Kabbala played a role, what has been ignored is the influence of the early national revolts in the Balkans against Ottoman rule, in particular by the Serbs, and its possible influence on the ideas of a young Rabbi Alkalai.
Alkalai was born in 1798 in Sarajevo in what was then the Ottoman Empire and which today is Bosnia and Herzegovina. He came from a prominent family of rabbis whose roots trace back to Spain before the Jewish expulsion, and his father moved the family to Sarajevo from the large and well-established Sephardi community in Thessalonica. After spending years acquiring a traditional education, including rabbinical ordination and studying with kabbalists in the Holy Land, at the age of 27 Alkalai become the communal rabbi of the town of Zemun in what was then on the military frontier of the Austrian Empire. He served as rabbi for both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi members of the town’s small Jewish community, according to information found in the Jewish Historical Museum’s archives in Belgrade.