Month: February 2022

The rise and fall of the Sassoon dynasty

Baghdad-born David Sassoon built a global business empire in the 19th century centered on India and the Far East, but within three generations, the fortune his family made was dissipated, and his descendants were more focused on enjoying their social lives. Now a distant relative,  academic Joseph Sassoon has deciphered  an archive of Judeo-Arabic correspondence which throws new light on the Sassooon enterprise. The result is his new book, The Global Merchants: the Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty. Review in The Guardian: 

The Prince of Wales visiting the Sassoon residence in Bombay, ‘Sans souci’, in 1876

By the end of the 19th century, the Sassoon family were regularly referred to as “the Rothschilds of the East”. This wasn’t just lazy, it was wrong. For one thing the Sassoons’ interests and influence stretched right around the world from Shanghai via Bombay, London and Lancashire, all the way to the Atlantic coastal plain of the United States. Then there was the fact that, unlike the Rothschilds, the Sassoons were not bankers but traders, specialising in opium, cotton and oil. What perhaps the late Victorians really meant when they compared the Sassoons to the Rothschilds was simply this: they were very rich and they were Jewish, a combination that conjured ambivalent feelings not just in “polite” society through which antisemitism flowed like a subterranean river but, over time, in the Sassoons themselves.

Joseph Sassoon, who is a descendant of the dynasty’s founder David, believes that it was his family’s experience as serial immigrants that drove their success and explains their decline. Their original role as treasurers to the pashas of Baghdad meant that they seamlessly acquired the Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Persian that equipped them to do business throughout the vast Ottoman empire. When in 1828 they were forced to flee to Bombay as a result of a pogrom, they quickly added Hindustani to their repertoire and settled down to rebuild their lives, using their tried and tested methods of exemplary ethics and ferocious hard work.

In order to avoid a repeat of that first expulsion, though, the family needed to become adept at reading the political landscape and adapting accordingly. Joseph Sassoon points out that the treaty marking the passing of India’s governance from the East India Company to Queen Victoria in 1859 was signed not in the residence of the outgoing governor but in “Sans Souci”, the home owned by the man whom the Illustrated London News described as “Mr David Sassoon, the well-known wealthy Jew Merchant of Bombay and China”. In the face of such antisemitic sneers, these early Sassoons were careful not to draw unwanted attention to themselves. While their fortune was one of the great wonders of the industrialising world, it was offset by a thoughtful philanthropy that built hospitals, libraries and schools for the whole community.

These productive years as “good immigrants” did not last, and it is the Sassoons’ fall from fortune that gives this somewhat dry family history its emotional heart and narrative pace. Within a hundred years of hosting diplomatic milestones, younger members of the family were pawning their jewellery and filing for bankruptcy. It is, Joseph Sassoon thinks, a story of assimilation and gentrification going hand in hand with the dissipation of cultural capital.

Read article in full

FT review (with thanks: Miro)


Pre-19th century Sephardi forerunners of Zionism

It is a myth to suggest that Zionism was a movement which originated in Europe at the end of the 19th century and was alien to Jews in Arab countries : in fact there were plenty of Sephardi pioneers who advocated the return of the Jewish nation to its land, well before the first Eastern European aliya of 1882, according to Yosef Charvit of Bar Ilan University  speaking at the Dialogia colloquium: Juifs heureux en terres d’Islam? (1:28 into the video). 

Haim Amzallag bought land in Petah Tikva and Rishon Lezion


Yosef Bey Navon built the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway

‘I am in the West, but my heart is in the East, ‘ lamented the great medieval poet Yehuda Halevi (1100 – 1148). Writing at a time when Jews were caught up in a great power struggle between Islam and Christianity, Halevi dreamt of the resurrection of the Jewish nation. During the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, prominent rabbis Maimonides, Nahmanides and Ishtori Haparhi attempted to return to Eretz Israel. They were followed by Rabbi Yosef Caro, who developed the Shulhan Arukh in Safed, Rabbis Reuveni and Molho in the 16th century and the Rishonim between the 17th and 19th centuries.  In the 18th century the Moroccan rabbi Haim Benattar set up an important yeshiva.

Theodor Herzl’s father was said to have been influenced by the sermons of Yehuda Bibas (1789 – 1852) in the Balkans. Marco Yosef Baruch (1872 – 99) of Istanbul was known as the Sephardi Herzl.

Sephardi figures bought and developed land in Eretz Israel well before modern Zionism. Fugitives from the Spanish Inquisition Doña Gracia and her nephew Yosef Hanasi re-established the Jewish community of Tiberias in the 16th century. Rav Yehuda Halevi Meragusa from Sarajevo (1840 – 79) owned orchards in Jaffa. Sir Moses Montefiore established the first neighbourhood outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Rav David Bensimon built Mahane Israel, the second. Adolphe Crémieux, president of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, set up the agricultural school of Mikve Israel., while the bankers Jacob and Haim Valero helped develop modern cities in the Old Yishuv. The British consul Haim Amzallag bought land in Petah Tikva and Rishon Letzion. Yosef Bey Navon created the Jaffa- Jerusalem railway.

Abraham Moyal,  merchant, Alliance delegate, and supervisor of the Rothschild project,  was an important figure in Hovevei Zion together with Pinsker and Wissotsky.

Eliyahu Yosef Chelouche

Naturally, Jews made aliya for practical reasons when conflict between Algerian Muslims and the French in the 19th century led to repression of the Jewish community. The Chelouche family was not only active in building the new Jaffa suburb of Neve Tsedek, but developed the coastline down to Gaza. The Abbo family founded the first settlements in the Galilee.

The first mass wave of immigration came from Yemen in 1881 – a year before the first Aliya from Russia.

To see the full video (French) click here




MENA Jews urged to tell their stories to the UN

The US-based organisation JIMENA, which advocates for Jews from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), has launched a drive to collect testimonies from individuals and groups in an effort to ensure that the UN does not ignore the experiences and human rights abuses suffered by MENA Jews. The initiative is being supported by HARIF,  the UK Association of Jews from the MENA.

Jews arriving from Yemen in Israel (Photo: Zoltan Kluger)

In May, 2021, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) created a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This ongoing, permanent commission will publish reports every June to the UNHCR in Geneva and every September to the UN General Assembly in New York. Numerous Jewish institutions, the Israeli government, members of congress and the Biden administration have accused the UNHCR of ongoing discrimination against Israel and there is heightened concern that the Commission’s report will refer to Israel as an “apartheid state.”

The Commission invites individuals, groups, and organizations to submit information and documentation relevant to its mandate. JIMENA states: “We, the descendants of the one million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are committed to ensuring the stories of our parents and grandparents are no longer ignored or erased by the UN. As such, we demand that the UNHCR consider the human rights violations endured by Jewish refugees from Arab Countries and Iran whose descendants now comprise more than half of Israel’s Jewish population. Many of these descendants of Jewish refugees from MENA countries continue to endure antisemitic human right violations tied to Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations that target Israel and the Jewish people.”

Jews from the MENA and their families are urged to join the call to combat the revisionism and erasure of Jewish experiences at the UNHCR simply by filling out this form.

Israel recognises Mizrahi Jewry studies as separate discipline

The study of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry is to be recognised as a discipline in its own right, Ha’aretz has announced: this largely symbolic move, based on the 2016 Biton Report, which was never implemented, is to be commended. However, it is not enough to study heritage and culture – this topic must also include the tragic recent history of Mizrahi communities, and must not be used to reinforce a myth of peaceful coexistence. (With thanks: Lily)

Education minister Yifat Shasha-Biton

Israel’s Council for Higher Education recognized the study of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry – or Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin – as an academic discipline that merits study and research, in a move its supporters say “corrects a historical injustice.”

Seventeen of the council’s 22 members voted in favor of the move on Tuesday, according to sources, following a heated debate over the measure, seen as part of a broader inclusivity push in Israeli education and academia.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who chairs the council, said “the human mosaic that makes up Israeli society must also be expressed in curricula and fields of knowledge and research.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Ben David, of the “Masorti Union” of mostly Mizrahi Jewish communities, said the decision “far exceeds the academic field,” and is “an important milestone in our ability to tell a new story throughout all of Israeli society.”

Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews make up roughly half of Israel’s Jewish population, but the community was long impoverished and faced discrimination by Ashkenazi Jews – those of European heritage – who traditionally dominated government, religious institutions and academia.

Council members, including Prof. Haviva Pedaya of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, were lobbying to recognize the study of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry as an independent academic discipline.

Four years ago, Prof. Pedaya was appointed to lead an internal panel within the council to examine the possibility of “research and instruction on the heritage and culture of Sephradi and Mizrahi Jewry” at the country’s universities and colleges.

In response to opposition to legitimizing the subject as an academic discipline, several supporters of the initiative spoke about it as correcting a historical injustice.

Read article in full

First Sephardi woman appointed to Israel’s Supreme Court

A woman of Sephardi background has been appointed for the first time to Israel’s Supreme Court.  Judge Gila Kanfei-Steinitz, who is married to Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, is known as a moderate conservative. The appointment comes as MK David  Amsalem accuses Supreme Court President Esther Hayuk of discrimination in a bitter and unprecedented exchange. The Jerusalem Post reports: 

Judge Gila Kanfei-Steinitz, first Sephardi woman appointed to the Supreme Court

In a rare public letter response to a politician, Hayut fired back at Likud MK David Amsalem last Thursday, rejecting his claims of discrimination against Sephardim in top court appointments.

The day before, Amsalem insinuated to the Knesset plenum that Hayut racially discriminates against Mizrahim, descendants of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa.

Of the four justices appointed, only Kanfei-Steinitz comes from a Sephardi background.

Most of the negotiations over the candidates revolved around right-wing versus left-wing issues, having a private-sector appointment, having an Arab-Israeli appointment and equal opportunity for women.

The new group checks most of those boxes even if it does not make a major change on the Sephardi diversity issue.

That said, the Supreme Court has had ethnically Sephardi justices, as do other court levels.

Amsalem seemed to call on Hayut to be more transparent with her feelings toward him.

“What is Justice Hayut on?” he asked. “Instead of writing nonsense [in her judicial opinions], why don’t you write, ‘Mr. Amsalem, I can’t stand you: not the Amsalems, and not the Machlufs.’”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Hayut wrote in a letter. “I wonder where this intense hatred comes from that brings you to say such harsh things.”

Read article in full


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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