Salomon Benzimra z”l submitted this summary barely two weeks before his untimely death on March 15, 2016. He passed away on a flight back from Israel after a mission to consult with Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education, to discuss the government’s document on the legality of Israeli settlements. A chemical engineer, Salomon had devoted his many talents to his passion: Israel’s Legal Rights. Only one of many in his circle I miss his quiet wisdom, humor reflected in his twinkling blue eyes and his complete devotion to the People of Israel and its homeland. Salomon was a direct descendant of David ben Solomon Ibn Zimra, a well-known Sephardic scholar and decisor of the 15th-16th century who settled in Tzfat, later in North Africa. It is little wonder that Salomon chose this chapter to summarize. He was a true son of the Sephardic Zionist Jews profiled in this chapter.
The persecution and oppression of Jews in the Arab world began with the advent of Islam.
“Spiritual Zionism” took root among the Sephardic Jews living in Arab lands, long before the European Zionism was born with the advent of Herzl.
The Jews are the indigenous people to their “Holy Land” and their presence there has been uninterrupted for millennia, with established communities all over the Land and on both sides of the Jordan River, long predating the arrival of Jews from Europe in the late 1800s.
Upon the Arab conquest in the seventh century, Jews were already settled in Ramle and Gaza, notwithstanding the prevailing Arab propaganda which labels these places “purely Arab.” Jews also settled in Jericho, which received the Jewish refugees from the massacre of Khaibar – a massacre still justified by the conference of Arab theologians in 1968.
During the Crusades (12th-13th centuries), many Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Acre, Caesarea and Haifa were almost “wiped out” but whole “village communities in Galilee survived” and Acre became the seat of a Jewish academy. In spite of the Crusaders’ “feudalism.” and the campaigns of forced conversion, the Jewish population resisted and even registered a small immigration from Arab territories.
The Jewish population in the 15th century was substantial and grew in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition, in spite of the massacre of Hebron in 1518 at the beginning of Ottoman rule. The first Jewish printing press outside Europe was instituted in Safed in 1563.
Don Joseph Nasi, a “secret” Jew from Portugal, rebuilt Tiberias with the support of the Turkish Sultan Suleiman I (“the Magnificent”) and attracted Jewish immigration from the Mediterranean.
Messianic Zionism was virtually a Sephardic Jewish phenomenon. Of the many would-be messiahs, Shabbetai Sevi, born in 1626 in Asia Minor, was the most prominent. He gathered followers from eastern and western Europe and from Arab lands stretching from Yemen to North Africa, on the strength of the heightened persecution of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. He disappointed the whole community when he converted to Islam in 1666, on pain of death, and later admitted the falsehood of his preaching.
Among prominent Sephardic Zionists, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel was probably instrumental in letting Jews back to England – after three centuries of exile – for the purpose of ushering in the Messianic era, to occur after Jews had been dispersed in all four corners of the earth.
Many Sephardic Zionists had settled in the North African coast – present-day Libya and Tunisia — since the Babylonian Exile of 586 BCE. The Sephardic liturgy distinguishes itself by its indigenous poetry, composed by poets such as Yehuda Halevy who also stressed the necessity to settle in the Land of Israel before the coming of the Messiah. He did as he preached, and he died shortly after setting foot in Jerusalem.
The notion of the “return” of the Jews to the Land of Israel was particularly strong among the Sephardim, in spite of the shattered hopes created by false messiahs and their sometimes primitive dwellings in North African caves. Contrary to European Jewry, they never flirted with the notion of “assimilation.”
When Jews from Arab lands settled in Israel in the 20th century, they did not benefit from UNRWA-type international assistance reserved to “refugees.” Jewish money assisted this migration, in accordance to the centuries-old tradition of Jewish communities worldwide.
Jewish scholars from Morocco, such as Rabbi Isaac Alfassi in the 11th century, had a significant impact on later Sephardic religious and philosophical thought, leading to Rabbi Yehuda Alkalay (d. 1878), a precursor to the modern Zionist movement and an inspiration to Herzl. Several Sephardic communities originating from the North African coast settled in Ottoman Palestine in the first half of the 19th century, much earlier than the First Aliyah of the late 1800s. These Jews interacted in Hebrew in their daily lives, turning it actually into a live language before the advent of Eliezer ben Yehuda.
At about the same time, many non-Jewish “Zionists” promoted the repopulation of Palestine by Jews. Among them was Colonel Charles Churchill who, in 1842, favored the notion of a “Jewish people” entitled to be sovereign in Palestine. Many others in Victorian England nurtured similar views (Palmerston, Disraeli, Shaftesbury, etc.) and were confident on the positive effects that Jewish settlement in Palestine could have.
In the late 1800s there was a substantial migration of Yemenite Jews to Palestine, at about the same time as the First Aliyah from Europe. The 2,500 year old Yemenite community have kept their strong Jewish heritage and aspirations with pride in spite of relentless persecutions carried out by the Arabian Muslims, as described by Maimonides in 1172.
For other Sephardic Jews from North Africa, their attachment to Israel was based on their notion of Jews as a “people” – an idea strengthened by the decolonization process and the self-determination of Muslims in their newly established sovereign states. This and other reasons, linked to lack of freedom and opportunities, may explain why even non-observant Sephardic Jews rarely converted in recent times.
The living conditions of the new immigrants (or better, “Jewish returnees”) to Israel were difficult at the beginning. In spite of the insurmountable difficulties faced by Israel, these Jews were absorbed into Israeli society in record time. Their nostalgia toward their country of origin did not alter their deep joy of being, at last, living in their own land.