Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 7

The Jews of the East: The Ottoman Empire, North

Africa and India


BY
DAVID WACHTEL
| 03 APR 2013

SHARE
Print

“When my brethren … have reason to weep, my eyes shed tears.”


—Sir Moses Montefiore, Diary, 1846

(l

eft) Jewish Merchant, drawn by Francois Claudius Compte-Calix, steel engraving by Monnin. Musée Cosmopolite, Paris: Aubert, 1850. Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological
Seminary. (right) Jewish Children, drawn by Benjamin Roubaud, lithograph by Janet-Lange. Gallerie Royale de Costumes, Paris: Aubert, 1842. Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish
Theological Seminary.

Although the Jews of the Ottoman Empire had flourished both culturally and economically in
previous centuries, by the nineteenth century the empire was in decline after a long period
of stagnation and on its way to earning the commonly quoted epithet “The Sick Man of
Europe.” The general weakening of Ottoman power on the world stage led to its increased
submission to outside pressures, mostly from European powers. One of the results of the
exertion of that influence was a formal declaration of equality for all minorities, leading to a
short-lived improvement in the condition of Ottoman Jewry. The influence of European
Christian nations, however, was broadly resented by Muslim populations, who frequently
directed that resentment toward Jews who had benefited most from, and whose
advancement was seen to have been a direct result of, foreign intervention. Jews, caught in
the vicious circle of pervasive European influence and the rise of hostility against it,
subsequently sought the protection of Western powers.

In 1840, the Jews of Damascus were falsely accused of having murdered a Christian monk
and using his blood to celebrate Passover. Jews were tortured, killed, and forcibly converted
to Islam. The intervention of leading Jewish advocates such as Moses Montefiore, Adolphe
Cremieux, and the Rothschild family helped bring the incident to the attention of numerous
governments and launched the modern era of Jewish political involvement on an
international scale. In 1858, another international incident that helped to consolidate Jewish
unity revolved around the illicit baptism and subsequent kidnapping of a young Jewish boy,
Edgardo Mortara, by Papal authorities in Italy. Jews again responded through widespread
public protests and political action.

These events, though tragic in their own right, demonstrated to Jewish communities their
own ability to organize and lobby their respective national governments in support of their
brethren overseas. The strong expression of international Jewish solidarity never before
experienced was abetted by the emergence of a modern Jewish press in France, Great
Britain, and the United States.
A group of Cochin Jews, Kochi, India © 19th era 2 / Alamy.

Among the responses to these events was the 1860 founding, by a group of French Jews, of
the Alliance Israelite Universelle to defend the interests of Jews throughout the world,
particularly in those countries where they were subject to persecution. The Alliance went on
to develop an extensive network of elementary and vocational schools that would serve tens
of thousands of impoverished Middle Eastern Jews.

Notwithstanding the overall difficulties inherent in Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire, some
merchant families were able to parlay their success as local traders into international
commercial networks, achieving great wealth and fame and establishing strong Jewish
communities, most notably in India and the Far East. The Sassoon family, originally of
Baghdad, based their empire in Bombay while the Ezras of Aleppo, Syria, held sway in
Calcutta. Their presence in East Asia furthered their own commercial interests but their
philanthropy helped to sustain and revive the fortunes of the venerable indigenous
communities of Jews whose own origins could be traced back to traders of the Middle Ages.

As the century drew to a close, more and more Jews were turning their footsteps toward their
ancestral home in the Land of Israel. For over a millennium, the land lovingly called Eretz
Israel had been a place where Jews had come at the close of their lives—a place to die within
the sacred precincts of the Jewish past. Now, at the end of the nineteenth century, buoyed by
the dream of national renewal and imbued with the hope of nearly two thousand years, Jews
were coming there—to live, and to help to build a Jewish future.

This essay has been excerpted from the catalogue to A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and
Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, an auction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on 29 April.
To view objects from this period included in the sale go to lots 297-339.

Next essay: The Jews in the Age of Migrations

The Jews of the East: The Ottoman Empire, North


Africa and India
BY
DAVID WACHTEL
| 03 APR 2013

SHARE
Print

“When my brethren … have reason to weep, my eyes shed tears.”


—Sir Moses Montefiore, Diary, 1846
(l

eft) Jewish Merchant, drawn by Francois Claudius Compte-Calix, steel engraving by Monnin. Musée Cosmopolite, Paris: Aubert, 1850. Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological
Seminary. (right) Jewish Children, drawn by Benjamin Roubaud, lithograph by Janet-Lange. Gallerie Royale de Costumes, Paris: Aubert, 1842. Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish
Theological Seminary.

Although the Jews of the Ottoman Empire had flourished both culturally and economically in
previous centuries, by the nineteenth century the empire was in decline after a long period
of stagnation and on its way to earning the commonly quoted epithet “The Sick Man of
Europe.” The general weakening of Ottoman power on the world stage led to its increased
submission to outside pressures, mostly from European powers. One of the results of the
exertion of that influence was a formal declaration of equality for all minorities, leading to a
short-lived improvement in the condition of Ottoman Jewry. The influence of European
Christian nations, however, was broadly resented by Muslim populations, who frequently
directed that resentment toward Jews who had benefited most from, and whose
advancement was seen to have been a direct result of, foreign intervention. Jews, caught in
the vicious circle of pervasive European influence and the rise of hostility against it,
subsequently sought the protection of Western powers.

In 1840, the Jews of Damascus were falsely accused of having murdered a Christian monk
and using his blood to celebrate Passover. Jews were tortured, killed, and forcibly converted
to Islam. The intervention of leading Jewish advocates such as Moses Montefiore, Adolphe
Cremieux, and the Rothschild family helped bring the incident to the attention of numerous
governments and launched the modern era of Jewish political involvement on an
international scale. In 1858, another international incident that helped to consolidate Jewish
unity revolved around the illicit baptism and subsequent kidnapping of a young Jewish boy,
Edgardo Mortara, by Papal authorities in Italy. Jews again responded through widespread
public protests and political action.

These events, though tragic in their own right, demonstrated to Jewish communities their
own ability to organize and lobby their respective national governments in support of their
brethren overseas. The strong expression of international Jewish solidarity never before
experienced was abetted by the emergence of a modern Jewish press in France, Great
Britain, and the United States.

A group of Cochin Jews, Kochi, India © 19th era 2 / Alamy.

Among the responses to these events was the 1860 founding, by a group of French Jews, of
the Alliance Israelite Universelle to defend the interests of Jews throughout the world,
particularly in those countries where they were subject to persecution. The Alliance went on
to develop an extensive network of elementary and vocational schools that would serve tens
of thousands of impoverished Middle Eastern Jews.
Notwithstanding the overall difficulties inherent in Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire, some
merchant families were able to parlay their success as local traders into international
commercial networks, achieving great wealth and fame and establishing strong Jewish
communities, most notably in India and the Far East. The Sassoon family, originally of
Baghdad, based their empire in Bombay while the Ezras of Aleppo, Syria, held sway in
Calcutta. Their presence in East Asia furthered their own commercial interests but their
philanthropy helped to sustain and revive the fortunes of the venerable indigenous
communities of Jews whose own origins could be traced back to traders of the Middle Ages.

As the century drew to a close, more and more Jews were turning their footsteps toward their
ancestral home in the Land of Israel. For over a millennium, the land lovingly called Eretz
Israel had been a place where Jews had come at the close of their lives—a place to die within
the sacred precincts of the Jewish past. Now, at the end of the nineteenth century, buoyed by
the dream of national renewal and imbued with the hope of nearly two thousand years, Jews
were coming there—to live, and to help to build a Jewish future.

This essay has been excerpted from the catalogue to A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and
Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, an auction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on 29 April.
To view objects from this period included in the sale go to lots 297-339.

Next essay: The Jews in the Age of Migrations