Tag: Alliance Israelite Universelle

The rise and fall of Ezekiel Shahmoon, Baghdad-born millionaire

With thanks to Stella Joory, whose mother Rachel Darwish (nee Elia) studied at the Alliance teacher-training school in France

A grainy, three-minute silent clip records the inauguration of the Versailles Alliance teacher-training school 100 years ago. The graduates of this school would be dispersed into the 200 schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, which educated the Jewish communities of the Muslim world. The millionaire who funded the new building was a Baghdad-born Jew of French nationality, Ezekiel Shahmoon, now barely remembered. At the ceremony,  Shahmoon is presented with the Legion d’Honneur. He was the first Iraqi Jew to be granted such an honour. But who was Ezekiel Shahmoon? 

Female graduates of the Versailles Alliance teacher-training school at its inauguration in 1922. (Below) Ezekiel Shahmoon wearing the Legion d’Honneur medal bestowed on him at the inauguration ceremony. (Bibliotheque de l’AIU)

Born in 1890, Ezekiel Elia Shahmoon came from a large Baghdadi family and had four sisters and three brothers. He made his money out of trading gold and silver. He never married, and was an avid collector of china.

In 1907 Ezekiel (17) and his brother Salomon ‘Charlie’ (14) left Baghdad and went to Bombay. After a short time in India, the two brothers moved on to Shanghai, China, where they lived with their uncle, Sassoon Somekh (their mother’s brother) and their aunt Rebecca. Ezekiel’s father also had business interests in Shanghai where there was a large Jewish community.

According to Dick Hogbin of the Stansted and Fairseat History Society, Ezekiel Shahmoon started his career as an office boy in China and he and his brother became wealthy after WW1 started in 1914, through selling food to Europe and other business deals (including interests in rubber) and through trading gold and silver on the stock market. By this time they had been joined by their brother, Ezra. One newspaper report said that in 1917 he had put through a £4m deal with the British government.

Ezekiel’s sister Rachel (back row, far left) died a few days after her wedding. This photo shows the Shahmoon family in 1920.

Very sadly, his sister Rahel became ill at her wedding a short time after the photograph was taken and died within a week. As a lasting tribute, her father raised money and added it to her dowry to rebuild a property (formerly the Taawen School) in the centre of the Jewish quarter of Baghdad, with modern classrooms, science lab, gymnasium, a stage and a beautiful synagogue. It was called the Rahel Shahmoon school and was inaugurated in 1924 by Chief Rabbi Hakham Ezra Dangoor.

Two years earlier, the Versailles Alliance teacher-training school was inaugurated. Ezekiel Shahmoon, the benefactor,  was lauded at the inauguration ceremony as ‘a man with a big heart and magnificently generous’.

He was described in various travel documents as a French citizen and his race and religion as ‘Hebrew’.

Early in 1934, Ezekiel Shahmoon was included on a US list of ‘Hoarders of Silver’ as he owned more than 50,000 oz of silver.  In 1934, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that all privately owned silver (not coins) in the US should be surrendered to the Treasury in return for a payment of 50¢ per troy ounce. A major intent of the 1934 silver nationalization was to call in idle silver bullion holdings in order to make more silver coins for monetary circulation. It is not known how this affected  Shahmoon’s finances but it does show that he was a major player in silver trading. His address at the time was The Dorchester Hotel, London.

In 1937, the cigar-smoking batchelor walked into a Regent St showroom to buy a present for his sister. Shahmoon offered to put up the money for the two furniture salesmen who served him  to start a business. Their business venture was a failure and cost Shahmoon  money, but it was a sign of his generosity that he committed to helping them: ‘I gave them a chance because I  know what it’s like to struggle for success,’ he said.

In 1935 Ezekiel Shahmoon bought Trosley Towers near Vigo in Kent, its woodlands and some of its properties. The previous owner of the estate was Sir Philip Waterlow. Some of the houses were bought by tenants;  Shahmoon told a local resident that he had intended to live in Trosley Towers but had been away for a long time with an illness. On his return, he found that the property had been stripped of all its lead and was in such a poor state that the best course of action was for it to be demolished. It is believed that  Shamoon’s plans were to build a new house on the site with a golf course but this never materialised. He did, however, create the Trosley Construction Company and built a large stable block at the rear of Hamilton Lodge. One story suggests that the stables were constructed to accommodate the Shah of Persia’s racehorses on his visits to England. The stables at Hamilton Lodge were still standing until about 1960 when they were demolished and the rest of the site cleared to make way for the development of Vigo Village.

Although Trosley Towers had been demolished, a number of discrete properties remained and these were occupied by Shahmoon and by members of his extended family in 1939. This was at a time of great threat to Jewish people in Europe and beyond and it is conceivable that many members of his family had fled their homes in Baghdad and Shanghai and come to join  Shahmoon in England rather than be caught up in an impending catastrophe. Ezekiel Shahmoon’s business was badly damaged by the war and he was deeply in debt. He never did realise his grandiose dreams. in 1941, an order was made on Shahmoon for bankruptcy.

He never married and died in 1972 aged 81.


Albert Antebi, forgotten Ottoman Zionist

He is almost forgotten now, but despite his premature death aged 46, Albert Antebi had exceptionally good relations with the Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century. He became an effective intermediary between the Zionists and the Ottoman Turks, obtaining Turkish passports for Palestinian Jews during WWI and the release of Ben-Gurion from jail.  David Ben-Gurion described him as the ‘mirror image of Lawrence of Arabia’. Interestingly,  this article by Mehmet Hasan Bulut in the Turkish newspaper The Daily Sabah shows Turkish sympathy for the Zionist enterprise.


Albert Abraham Antebi

Albert Abraham Antebi was born in Damascus in 1873. His family was famous for their rabbis. He studied at the Alliance School and went to Paris with a scholarship he won at the age of 15. He met his wife there and graduated from the Paris Institute of Technology. After graduation, he returned to Palestine.

Antebi, who started his duty at the Alliance schools in Jerusalem as a teacher, later became the administrator of these schools. He wrote columns for the newspaper ha-Herut, published by Sephardic Jews. He became Baron Rothschild’s right-hand man and translator in Palestine. He began buying lands from the Arabs and settled refugee Jews there. Through the Anglo-Palestine Company, which had a branch in Jaffa, he provided loans to Jewish colonies to start and expand their businesses.

He gained the trust of Ottoman administrators, foreign consuls and Zionists because he had good relations with people. But he could not get along with the conservative chief rabbi of Jerusalem. He worked hard for the replacement of the chief rabbi with someone else. When Chaim Nahum became the chief rabbi of the empire after the 1908 Young Turkish Revolution, Antebi’s wish was fulfilled and the chief rabbi of Jerusalem was dismissed like all other conservatives in the country.

In this period, Antebi became close to the people who would be the founders of Israel in the future. Journalist Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben Yehuda – considered the father of modern Hebrew – was one of them. Antebi was even the one who first introduced Ben-Avi’s wife to him. Israel Shochat and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who founded the Hashomer (The Watchman) organization for armed struggle with the Arabs, were also among his friends. Antebi visited Shochat, Ben-Zvi and David Ben-Gurion while studying law in Istanbul in 1912. Taking advantage of the tolerance shown by the Young Turks to the Zionists, they engaged in political activities together.

With the start of the World War, the Young Turks, who had dethroned Sultan Abdülhamid II by joining hands in 1909, had a falling out with the Zionists. The Ottoman entry into the war on the side of Germany would lead to the deportation of Jews who were Russian citizens in Palestine. To prevent this, the Ottomanization Committee was established. Antebi, Ben-Zvi and Ben-Gurion joined this committee. The members of the Zionist office in Jaffa and the committee immediately started to work to provide Jews of different nationalities with Turkish citizenship. Antebi called for Turkish citizenship in the ha-Herut newspaper. But only 8,000 Jews took Turkish citizenship, some of the rest left Palestine while some were deported by the Young Turks.

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70 years since Beirut Alliance school bombed

With thanks: Ariel

In January 1950, the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Beirut was bombed. Two died when the roof collapsed – the headmistress Esther Penso and a member of the house staff.

At first it was announced that the school had collapsed as a result of a violent storm. A military expert quoted in L’Orient confirmed that the cause of the damage was the bombing. In Paris  AIU officials did not make great play of the incident. Two of the Beirut school governors, Rene L Farhi and Ezra E Farhi wrote a confidential note to AIU chairman Rene Cassin, confirming that the bombing was a Palestinian terrorist attack. They criticised the community council for wishing to suppress the incident.

There were emotional scenes at Mme Penso’s funeral, which was attended by pupils, local Jewish charities, school staff and many friends.

The Beirut AIU school reopened in 1951 and did not finally shut its doors until the 1970s.

The photos (from top) show the bomb damage. Two were killed in the incident, including the school headmistress, whose funeral was attended by hundreds of pupils staff, officials and personal friends. One year later, the school re-opened.

More information here (French)

Remembering Solaiman Haiim, Farsi dictonary pioneer

The author of what is widely considered the best English-Farsi dictionary yet produced died 50 years ago. Iranian Jews still revere the memory of Solaiman Haiim, while the Iranian regime has erased his legacy. Karmel Melamed writes in JNS News: 

As most Americans focused on Super Bowl Sunday last month, nearly 600 Iranian Jews gathered at the West Hollywood Temple Beth El to mark 50 years since the death of Solaiman Haiim, one of their community’s greatest scholars.

The name Haiim may not mean much to Americans or even most American Jews, but in Iran he was a legend, respected by Jews and non-Jews alike for creating the first English to Farsi and Farsi to English dictionaries. At the start of the 20th century, when Iran was modernizing and many Iranians were gaining higher education overseas, Haiim’s comprehensive two-volume dictionary was an invaluable resource, helping hundreds of thousands of students overcome the language barrier.

Solaiman Haiim: legacy erased by the regime

 While Haiim is still remembered and honored in Iranian Jewish circles, however, the Iranian regime has done everything in its power to erase his legacy. Haiim’s life story is something that must be kept alive for the new generation of Iranians.

 Haiim was born in 1887 in the poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto in Tehran to a religious Jewish family. His early education was in the maktab, or a grade school, but he later attended the Etehad High School in Tehran, established by the French Jewish non-profit organization “Alliance Israélite Universelle.”

The Alliance was created in 1860 by affluent Jewish philanthropists in Europe to provide a Western education to Jews living in Muslim lands.

It was not until 1898 that the Alliance was permitted by the Iranian Qajar dynasty to establish their schools in Iran. Indeed, Haiim was one of the first beneficiaries of the Alliance school in Tehran, later enrolling himself in the American College of Tehran to complete his education and learn English.

After graduating from the college in 1915, Haiim became a full-time teacher at the college and single-handedly began work on an English-Farsi dictionary.

His first, smaller dictionary received praise from students and scholars, but beginning in the 1920s, it became obvious there was a need for a more comprehensive work due to Western governments’ business and diplomatic activities in the country. Haiim worked nearly 18 continuous hours per day to complete this more comprehensive English to Farsi dictionary, finally completing it in 1929. It was published in two expansive volumes.

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Dictionaries of Judeo-Arabic

How education evolved for Jews in Beirut

In April 1856, the Austrian-Jewish writer Ludwig Auguste Frankl stayed in the old Jewish quarter of Beirut. He describes seeing a small room in  the  synagogue where 70 students were learning to read and write Hebrew and study the Bible. The rabbi was Aaron Yedid-Levy.

According to Nagi Georges Zeidan, a Lebanese researcher with a special interest in the Jewish community, this institution was the forerunner of the Talmud Torah school in Beirut. In 1922,
the Jewish newspaper of Lebanon announced that  the Talmud Torah school in Beirut  had celebrated its 42th anniversary.

When the school was founded in 1880, it was only attended by boys. It was located on Philip El Khazen Street,  later known as Wadi Abu Jamil.

A letter in Hebrew (left) dated 12 July 1920  was sent from the Torah Mizrahi in Beirut to notify the Central Committee in  Jerusalem of the school’s change of name.

According to Zeidan, the Maghen Avraham synagogue was built on the site of the school which was moved to the rear of the building and renamed Selim Tarrab school.

The Maghen Avraham synagogue prior to its restoration

A classroom in the Selim Tarrab school, 1960s (courtesy Charles Khodri)

The Selim Tarrab school acted as a primary feeder school for the Alliance Israélite Universelle*.  It took in mostly needy children and was the second largest Jewish school in Lebanon. The school’s director until 1970 was Joseph Khodri. The Selim Tarrab school was closed in that year and demolished in 2003. Khodri went on to become deputy head at the Alliance Israelite until he left for Mexico in 1974. The Alliance school closed a year or two later.

Joseph Khodri, director of the Selim Tarrab school until 1970 (Courtesy Charles Khodri)

*A second high school called the Ecole Commerciale, taught practical skills  such as shorthand typing, to less academic pupils


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