How poor were the Jews of Damascus?

Blogging in the Huffington Post Sami Moubayed takes issue with a book by Israeli professor Yaron Harel, Zionism in Damascus. Moubayed, who lived in Syria until the 1990s, feels that Harel exaggerates the poverty suffered by Syrian Jews. Yet it is well known that Syrians of all faiths were leaving the country in the 19th century to seek economic opportunities abroad.  

Wealthy Jews like Haim Farhi, owner of Beit Farhi in Damascus, hardly figure in the book

Harel’s book tells the story of Damascus Jews story from 1875 until
the early 1920s. His main theme is that they found solace in Zionism not
as a religious/political movement, but as social and economic life
jacket to save them from persecution and humiliation under Ottoman rule,
and within their greater Syrian environment. He claims that class
segregation, economic woes, religious/political bias against them by
Muslims and Christians, were all behind their support for the Zionist
project. The book implies that Damascene Jews never actually felt that
Damascus was their home, and that it was the fault of Damascus society. I
won’t debate the well-documented research that the book offers into the
covert and over activism of Zionism in Damascus from the late
nineteenth century onward, or the persecution that they faced under
Ottoman rule. Both are true and well-said in the book, making it a very
important addition to the Middle East library. Simply, nobody has done
the Herculean task before.

I have to differ with the author,
however, about the status of Damascus Jews.

 Denying their persecution at
certain epochs of Syrian history would obviously be incorrect, but so
would to claim that Damascus was hell on earth for its Jewish community.
That exactly is what the book tries to push through the reader’s mind,
quit intentionally. Without shadow of a doubt, the Damascus Jews had
their problems, like being prohibited from building grand synagogues
like the Ben Ezra one in Cairo, because Ottoman law obliged non-Muslim
houses of worship to be inconspicuous, and they were forced to wear
color-specific outfits to differentiate them from Muslims and
Christians. They did not, however, live in misery.

The book
starts with a quote by prominent Jewish musicologist and composer
Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, who was born in Latvia and came to Palestine to
set up a school for Jewish music in 1919. Speaking after World War I,
Idelsohn sets the mood by saying says that the street life of the
Damascus Jews reminds people “of the ancient ghettos from the Middle
Ages.” The author starts with the wide agony that swept throughout the
Jewish Quarter of Damascus when the Ottoman Government went bankrupt in
1875, refusing to repay Jewish creditors who had invested in Ottoman
bonds. The extreme wealth that the community enjoyed before 1875 is
completely ignored. The Ottoman Government owned them 20 million French
francs, and in 1877 it annulled all debts to Damascene Jews, “reducing
them to overnight paupers.”

The book then gives a horrifying
statement, “In 1903, it was reported that no wealthy individuals
remained in the (Jewish) community and that the veteran established
families had either left Damascus or been completed impoverished. Some
of them fell into such indigence that left them scraping for bread to
feed their children. By 1904, there remained in Damascus only one Jew
described as affluent.” One Jew — not a handful — not a “few” but one
single Jew who remained affluent in Damascus! The author, of course,
does not name him, but adds that when the Great War started in 1914, the
number of wealthy Jews who stayed behind in the city amounted to no
more than “three or four.” Meaning, the number of wealthy Jews in
Damascus rose from one in 1904 to 3-4 by 1914, at a pace of three over a
ten year period.

The author explains that the vast majority of
Damascus Jews were poor, working in metal and wood engraving, weaving,
painting and silk-weaving. He contradicts himself, however, saying that
in the 1880s, some Jews were employed in the Ottoman Government in
Damascus, which by all accounts, was a well-paying and respectable job.
He states: “At the start of the 20th century, those few educated Jews
who had not left Damascus found employment in the civil service, working
for the Ottoman Railway Company, the Imperial Ottoman Bank, and as
supervisors for the tramways that began running on the streets of
Damascus.” The state was reluctant to hire them, he adds, because they
observed Sabbath and would not work on Saturdays, meaning that does who
did work and make money were un-observant Jews. Among the Jews who
worked in high places were Nissim Beik Ades, chief director of the Hejaz
Railway, Yakov Moshli, its chief inspector, and the lawyer Josh Abbadi,
a jurist at the trade court of Damascus. These men were the upper-crust
of Damascus; well-educated and refined working professionals living in
beautiful homes, addressed as “beys” by the Damascenes, who mingling
well with Syrian high society.

Professor Harel describes the
status of Damascus Jews at the late 19th and early 20th century as
living in “grinding poverty,” saying that in 1881, 25% were living in
“abject poverty” while 50% were just poor, and 25% were lower middle
class. This makes no mention of the bankers, money-lenders, and wealthy
businessmen who owned some of the most magnificent mansions of Old
Damascus, like Bait Lisbona, Bait Niyaden, or Bait Farhi, owned by Haim
Farhi, one of the richest men Damascus ever know who was the banker of
Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar, the governor of Sidon and Damascus in the late
18th century. He also fails to mention the beautiful three courtyard
mansion of Yusuf Bey Anbar, another wealthy Damascene Jew who started
construction in 1870 but eventually sold the property and it became
Maktab Anbar, the elite school of Damascus — named after him.

There is
hardly any mention of wealthy and prominent Damascene Jews like the
physician Ishak Totah, one of the most prominent doctors of internal
medicine in Syria in the 1950s whose clinic on Abed Street was
frequented by everybody who was somebody in Damascus, or the three-time
Damascus MP Yusuf Linadu, who ran for parliament with President Shukri
al-Quwatli on a National Bloc list in 1943. He actually served on every
Syrian Chamber since 1928. The author dismisses all of them one shot,
saying: “The few who had wealth weren’t considered rich” by the
standards of Damascus, which of course is utterly untrue.

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2 Comments

  • I have Harel's book in Hebrew but haven't read it. But Moubayed does not mention the 1840 Damascus Affair in which hundreds of Jews, including women and children, were arrested and four died under torture. They were accused of murdering for ritual purposes [using the blood to bake Passover matsot] of a European Catholic missionary and his servant, whose remains were never found. According to Jonathan Frankel who wrote: The Damascus Affair: 'Ritual Murder', Politics, and the Jews in 1840, a poor Jewish tobacco seller [or some such] was arrested after he testified to the authorities –beholden then to Muhammad Ali of Egypt– information that they did not want to hear. He was tortured to motivate him to recant but he did not. And he died under torture.

    So at least this individual was poor and there must have others although at the time [up to 1840] Jews played a prominent role in trade in that city.

    According to various authorities, including Frankel I believe, this episode motivated many Damascene Jews to leave the city before the end of the century.

    Masal [= Mazal] Pas Bagdadi grew up in a poor Jewish family in Damascus, her mother was illiterate, I recall her saying. Born in 1938, she was brought to Israel by the Youth Aliyah during WW2 with her older sister. She already had a grandfather living in Jerusalem. This woman too came from a poor background but succeeded and became educated, later moving to Italy with her husband. She became a psychologist and wrote several books in Italian, the latest an autobiography.

    So there you have some poor Damascene Jews. It also seems from Frankel's book that the French consul in Damascus circa 1840, and maybe the British and Austrian consuls too, were interested in lessening Jewish influence and wealth in the city and the Jews' role in commerce.

    Reply
  • First of all, the writer of this article should learn how to write in English if this article is for an English-speaking readership.

    Second of all, according to The Jewish Encyclopedia, written in 1905, under the heading "Damascus: Situation in 1901", "The majority of the Jewish population are engaged as engravers on copper and wood, or as weavers, carpenters, and smiths. There are a few bankers and some small merchants. Four or five Jews are employed in the government offices, among them being Jacob Ades Effendi, inspector-general of real estate on the civil list in the vilayet of Damascus. But the mass of the population lives in misery…"

    Reply

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