Judah Bibas - Proto-Zionist of Hebron

Rabbi Bibas was a pillar of the Hebron community and a pioneer in the repatriation of Jews in Israel.

20.8.17, 20:34
Today Bibas is small, narrow street in Jerusalem's historic Nachlaot neighborhood. 
This obscure ally actually contains several historic synagogues, and a quaint community garden. Fittingly, the equally obscure, yet equally significant Yehuda Bibas, for whom the street is named, was a historical icon who influenced later generations that went on to create the modern State of Israel.
Life and Career

In 1789, Yehuda Aryeh Leon Bibas (also spelled Judah Bibas, or Bivas) was born in Gibraltar to a Sephardic Jewish family. One of his maternal ancestors was Chaim ibn Attar (1696 - 1743) one of the most prominent rabbis of the Moroccan Jewish community and author of the influential book Or Ha-Hayyim.

Bibas's father came from a line of rabbis in Tétouan that emigrated to Gibraltar after a pogrom. Bibas studied as a child in Gibraltar and after the death of his father he moved in with his grandfather in Livorno, Italy, home to a prestigious and educated Jewish community. It was there that Bibas received his Jewish education, became a doctor and gained fluency in English, Italian, Spanish and Hebrew. He then returned to Gibraltar where he established himself as head of a local yeshiva, attended by students from England, Italy and North Africa. 

In 1810 he came to London, England where he met with the famous Jewish activist and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore. The two later collaborated on many projects, Montefiore also being a staunch advocate of strengthening the Jewish population of the Land of Israel. 

In 1831, Bibas was appointed as the Chief Rabbi of Corfu, Greece.

By 1839, Bibas was well on his path of activism on behalf of uniting world Jewry in the Land of Israel. It could be considered the beginning of the Zionist movement -- proto-Zionism. The Land of Israel at the time was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey, which was not always hospitable to the indigenous Jewish community. Inspired by the series of  Serbian and Greek revolts against the Ottoman Turks, Rabbi Bibas advocated mass repatriation of Jews to Israel. In 1839 he embarked upon a tour of European Jewish communities to advocate aliyah. It was in that year that he met Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai and became his mentor. 

Rabbi Alkalai, inspired by Bibas,  would go on to write several books detailing the need for mass aliyah from both a halachic and a political perspective. It was Rabbi Alkalai that first used the term "Israelis" and envisioned a new country in what was then Ottoman controlled "Palestine" where these new "Israeli citizens" would have self-determination.
Move to Israel

By 1852, one year after his wife passed away, the 63-year-old Rabbi Bibas made the permanent move to the Land of Israel and was welcomed by his students in Jaffa. 

Later he moved to Hebron were he built his extensive library and was appointed supervisor of the Magen Avot fund, a local Hebron organization that helped purchase property and maintain community institutions.

After years of advocacy work on behalf of the Jewish homeland, he died only two months after his arrival to the Land of Israel and was buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Hebron, near the graves of many other great Jewish sages. The Jewish community of Hebron used to hold a ceremony for him every year on the eve of Yom Kippur.

His vast collection of rare books was donated to local Jewish institutes of higher learning in Hebron.

According to brief article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency dated October 23, 1952, the now world renown Dead Sea Scrolls may have been originally housed in Rabbi Bibas's library.

The article states:

"The charge that the Hebrew Scrolls discovered sometime ago at the Dead Sea came from looted synagogues and the library of Judah Babis [sic] in the city of Hebron, which were sacked by the Arabs in the bloody riots of 1929, is made by Prof. Solomon Zeitlin in the current issue of the Jewish Quarterly Review, published by Dropsie College."

"Prof. Zeitlin, who from the beginning questioned the antiquity and authenticity of the Scrolls, claims that they were not in fact discovered in caves near the Dead Sea by Bedouins, but were stolen by Arabs in the Hebron massacres and then hidden for many years before being produced as new finds. He points out that for the last few years many of the Torah Scrolls which were stolen from Hebron were offered for sale by men connected with the Syrian Convent who also bought the Dead Sea Scrolls from an Arab."

“The Hebrew Scrolls, supposedly found by Bedouins, and brought to the Syrian Convent by merchants, may also have come from Hebron, concealed for a time in local caves,” Dr. Zeitlin says."

Whether or not Rabbi Bibas, knowingly or unknowingly had possession of one of the world's most important ancient documents may never been known. The ransacking of his precious library and the selling of Jewish holy texts was followed by the razing of the cemetery and desecration of his final resting place by the Jordanians who controlled Hebron (and all of Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem's Old City) from 1948 -1967.
Today the legacy of Rabbi Bibas is in the philosophy of a Jewish right to self-determination and a return to the ancestral homeland based on religious precepts and national aspirations. These concepts were revolutionary at the time, but went on to influence the creation of a thriving Jewish State that today is in the forefront of high-tech, environmental and medical fields, and a haven for seekers of spirituality.
In 2021, Esther Azulai, PhD student in the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan University, spoke at the annual Hebron Conference about Rabbi Bibas and his legacy.
In 2022 Israeli president Isaac Herzog celebrated the Jewish holiday of Mimouna at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.  

The celebration included a memorial to the early Zionist leader Rabbi Yehuda Bibas, who lived in and was buried in Hebron, marking the 170th anniversary of his passing.

President Herzog called Rabbi Bibas “one of the first forerunners of Zionism… his story is also the story of the Jewish infrastructure at the core of political Zionism. His tremendous historical contribution has not received sufficient recognition, and we are very pleased with the correction here today.”
Yehuda Bibas (Wikipedia English)