July 3, 2022

The Jews of the Middle East: Zionists Before Zionism

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by Andrew Doran, Senior Research Fellow

The Sephardim whose forebears were driven from nearby countries make a unique contribution to Israel’s culture and character.

Jerusalem — One night in 1883 or 1884, Mordechai Lebovski, a Jewish businessman in Boston, had a dream about building a farm in Palestine. Oren, his great-grandson, recounts this family lore at the home of two friends, a husband and wife, in northern Israel. “He came here, to the Galilee, and purchased 900 acres and started farming,” Oren says of his great-grandfather a century and a half later. “And,” he adds with a laugh, “he failed.” Many Jews from around the world came to this land in the 1880s and the decades that followed — and like Oren’s great-grandfather, many of them failed. Yet Oren is still here, as are many whose ancestors came then.

“That’s my mother’s side,” he adds. “My father’s side came here from Spain 500 years ago and settled in Hebron,” a city sacred in Judaism, where Abraham and other patriarchs are entombed. Like the couple hosting the dinner, and most in the Galilee, Oren has the complexion of one from the Middle East rather than the West. The husband, tall and gregarious, was born in Pittsburgh and came with his parents to Israel as a child, though his family is from Iran, like hundreds of thousands of Israelis. His wife’s family came from Kyrgyzstan in the 1880s after a Muslim–Jewish romance ended in violence that resulted in flight to Palestine. “That’s when they came here,” says the wife. “But my grandfather was from Lebanon.”