Fantastical Tales of Jewish Dealings (Part 2 of 3)
Prior to the creation of Israel and with the subsequent establishment of Israel, the Arabs saw Zionist plans, ambitions, projects, designs and their territorial agenda through their own particular lens. Their views were informed by their very own inimitable understanding of Jewish power, financial control, political influence, and capability. It was a view that was greatly colored by Arabs’ perceptions and understanding of their own Jewish business and mercantile elites. Numerically small in numbers, the Sephardic Jews were, however, very influential engines of change in the Arab world in the modern era.
The Jewish business elites in the Islamic world are unique and very interesting. These communities, which have all now been expelled, played an utterly outsized, commanding role as middleman and financiers. Also beginning in the early 19th century, Jewish entrepreneurs performed a particularly significant function as agents of industrialization and modernization. They were notably involved with integrating the inchoate and emerging economies of the Arab and Middle Eastern countries into the financial and trading markets of the larger world.
Conspiratorial and fantastical views of Jewish schemes and plans have their own very particular Ali Baba and One Thousand and One Magic Carpet Ride twist in the Arab and Islamic world. Much of this incredible mindset was driven by actual larger-than-life individuals and Jewish mercantile clans as much as by the hugely popular “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” fabrication, which captured the imagination of the entire Arab World in the early part of the 20th century.
The Arabs, like people everywhere, were especially attuned in the 19th and early 20th centuries to the role of wealthy Jewish banking dynasties in financing colonial projects around the world. Rothschild’s dominant and controlling position in the international bond, gold and financial markets was a subject of worldwide fascination and obsession. Jewish-led railway consortiums financed the great railways that traversed Europe and the Middle East. These included the famous Orient Express and the massively ambitious 1600 km Berlin-to-Baghdad railway that transformed the region’s geopolitics and the many other Balkan, Ottoman, Hejaz, Haifa and Egyptian rail networks. Rail networks were incomparable symbols of industrial power and wealth in the 19th and early 20th centuries, conveying a sort of might and power that is hard to conjure up in today’s world. The wealth and power of the largely Jewish-dominated capital networks that financed these gargantuan projects shaped the general perspective for generations of Arabs (and many other nationalities) of Jewish wealth, political control and power.
At the same time, the Arab world’s small Jewish elites exercised a tremendous influence over Arab tribal and political leaders. The Jewish communities of Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia had their origins in merchant families whose histories could be traced back in many cases to pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal.In addition, some families had long old familial lineages, particularly in Baghdad, stretching back a millennium or more. Other Jewish trading families had their origins in Persia, and in the ancient cities on the silk routes to China. Others comprised refugees from Europe and elsewhere, eking out an existence as craftsman and traders and small-time money lenders. These small ‘Arabic’ merchant communities possessed formidable business skills, and trade and market knowledge.
Dozens of such families could be used to illustrate just how interesting and integral these communities were to the economies of the Arab and Islamic World.The Baghdadi Sassoons make for a good example, as the so-called Rothschilds of the Orient. The Sassoons acted as chief treasurers to the Pashas of Baghdad and Basra for centuries before transferring their business interests, in the late 18th century, to India.A great number of Arab-Jewish merchants did the same. The Sassoons pioneered India’s massively important global trade in cotton and silk — an industry that literally transformed the world. To support their manufacturing investments, the Sassoons also built the first ocean-going wharves and docks in Bombay. The Sassoon family then resettled in China in the early 19th century, building much of downtown Shanghai, most notably its famous skyscraper-defined, Bund district, along with other Baghdadi families. The Jewish Baghdadi business families are credited, alongside Scottish and English merchants, with opening China to enormous commercial banking and commodity ventures.
Another illustrative example might be the Bagdad Kadoorie family. They built up a commercial empire in India, only to duplicate it in China and Shanghai. In the post-Communist era, they moved their entire portfolio of activities to Hong Kong, where they control to this day many of Hong Kong’s largest industries, including its main power and electrical utility, China Light and Power, its tramlines, wharves and luxury hotels (Peninsula Hotels), amongst many other assets.
Other Syrian and Baghdadi Jewish entrepreneurs were to build world-spanning businesses of the first order. The Baghdadi-born Samuel brothers are a good example.They turned a modest late-18th century antique and seashell business in London into Samuel and Samuel Partners. This firm opened up Yokohama, Japan to Western business interests, at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. Samuel and Samuel went on to play a major role in the Industrialization of Japan. One of these brothers, Marcus Samuel, went on more remarkably to transform the petroleum industry by inventing the world’s first oil tanker, the Murex (named after Marcus Samuel’s favorite seashell), specifically designed to transit the Suez Canal. That company, Shell Transport, would become the largest oil transport company in the world. The company would then discover and develop the major oil fields and deposits of Indonesia and morph into the multinational corporation, Royal-Dutch shell, the 3rd or 4th largest company in the world by the time of Israel’s founding.
The Safra’s of Aleppo are another famous mercantile and banking clan that could be mentioned. Theirs was a banking dynasty whose history extends back to before the Spanish Inquisition —at least to the 15th century. The Safra’s have banked and managed the wealth of Sephardic Jewry and that of the Great Arabian Sheiks, Kings and Emirs, for centuries. Currently, they are largely based in Brazil and Switzerland. The Safra’s are probably the most influential and wealthiest private bankers in the world today.
Other Jewish promoters have played economically bold and defining roles in the Levant and Middle East. Their legacies and plans still affect the perspectives and views of the Arabs and the Persians/Iranians. Special mention could be made here of Julius Reuter, born Israel Beer Josaphat, the inventor of the telegraphic network and the singular pioneer of the world’s first electronic information service Reuters, which still exists prominently to this day. Reuters ostensibly bought, by way of a concession, all of Persia (i.e. Iran) in a famous 1871 transaction. The Reuters concession, as it is known, is generally considered the most extensive, comprehensive and far-reaching concession ever negotiated. The Reuters Concession largely put the entire development of Persia (modern day Iran) in the hands of a single entrepreneur, Julius Reuter. Secured with a two-million pound payment in gold (equivalent to 20 billion USD today in gold scarcity terms by some calculations), it was canceled on a technicality in 1872, due to the public’s outrage and a trumped up charge that he failed to start on a railway linking Europe to Persia. A decade and a half of litigation later saw Reuters partially reestablish his concession in 1889. More limited, this concession was still nevertheless extensive. It granted Reuters and partners, principally the Sassoon’s, control of Persia’s National Bank, currency creation, and banking system for close to sixty years. Complete telegraphic and some mining and water rights were held by Reuters and his descendants. These examples could be extended at great length.
Another reason for this adjacent exploration and excursus, is the strongly held personal view that modern Zionism does not have its genesis and initial organizing locus in 19th century Eastern Europe and Russia or principally within the Hovevei Zion or Lovers of Zion movement as is so often stated in most historical narratives; rather, I see the initiating locus much earlier: in the Jewish Expulsion of 1492 from Spain and Portugal in 1496. It is at this time that I see Zionism being understood not in Messianic terms, requiring some kind of divine intervention, but as a truly achievable ‘national’ project. And I see this understanding set solidly within the monumental economic, technical, and social revolutions attendant to the discovery of the New World. The modern Zionist project begins five hundred years ago, in my mind, with the desperate Jewish (and Converso/Marrano) refugees braving freezing cold, treacherous and never-before conquered waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The powerful yearning for a Jewish homeland can be intimated in these terrified Jewish refugees prepared to risk the two month ocean crossing to go to a new, utterly unknown land from which there was likely no return, for the sole purpose of sheer survival and the desperate necessity to find a single place of refuge on a planet where Jews literally had no place to go. We see at the same time a back migration to North Africa, Asia Minor, the Levant, and Palestine which is shot through with unmistakable Zionist impulses.
Likewise, I see Zionism’s beginning in the supreme Jewish 16th century Portuguese mathematician and cosmographer Petro Nunes’s invention of the geometric loxodrome and navigational rhumb lines, and the Nonius measuring device allowing for very precise measurement (thereby enabling the entire instrument industry). And I see it just as clearly in (Rabbi) Abraham Zacuto’s invention of the copper astrolabe and in his sixty-five astronomical tables, which comprise his great Hebrew composed astronomical treatise, Ha-hibbur ha-gadol [Perpetual Almanac] allowing one to determine one’s astronomical position (by way of solar declination) from any point on the planet.
I see it in the Sephardic map makers and the long proud hereditary lineages of the Jewish cartographers of Majorca — of the world famous Majorcan School. I can see it in Zacuto’s entirely modern sense of Eretz Israel is his History of the Jews — the Sefer ha-Yuhasin. I see it at the same time in the extraordinary role of Jewish and Converso (Marrano) communities in building the “crypto-Jewish” state of Nuevo Leon in Northern Mexico, in Brazil and elsewhere in the New World.
It is within the grandeur and era-shifting historical dimensions of these events and breakthroughs that I see the vision of a Jewish homeland reestablished in Zion coming into focus and being born aloft. I see all of the technical and material inventions of the Age of Discovery as being as important as the development of the great European and Oriental rail lines, or the steamship and the telegraph and electrical inventions of the 19th century. I see the love of Zion and the desire to return to Eretz Israel amongst the Sephardic refugees as being as strong, as stirring, as palpable and as real in the masses of terrified Jews fleeing the Inquisition, as I see the same stirrings of Zionist sentiment in the multitudes of long-suffering pogrom-plagued Eastern European Jewry fleeing the Pale of Settlement.
I see a great Sephardic-Jewish arch of visionaries and pioneers beginning with the New World explorers, merchants, traders, financiers, and navigational pioneers and inventors. I see this tangent of trajectory in turn extending from Menasseh ben Israel proffering the keys and all the wealth of the New World, and his messianic premillennialist treatise Hope of Israel to Oliver Cromwell in 1655 while petitioning for Jewry’s readmission to England, and from there in final geometrical descent to the world creating and defining Sephardic Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1868, boldly laying out the imperial architecture of Great Britain while dwelling, at the same time, on his dream of a restored Jerusalem. This is a broad theme that I will try to return to in future blogs. There are many historical lines of thought and theses that could be developed here and that would allow for a deeper appreciation and understanding of the roots of modern Zionism.
To return to the principal line of development of this entry, one could look at the exclusion, expropriation, extortion, expulsion, and in some cases the murder of Jewish business figures (the prominent Syrian-Egyptian Shafiq Ades, owner of World’s largest Ford Motor Company concession in Iraq was publicly hanged in Basra, Iraq, on October 23, 1948) as having set back much of the modernization of the Arab world by generations, if not permanently. The few illustrative examples cited here make plain just how important Jewish talents and abilities were to the functioning of the “Arab” world. Their role was crucial and instrumental. The function of the upper tier of Jewish entrepreneurs has not been replaced by any subsequent populations or immigrants. The absence or non-presence of these families and their unusual business acumen and skills have played no small role in the rapid decline of the Middle East, a decline which is gaining speed and momentum.
It must be emphasized that Jews were, of course, only one part, but a very important part, of a broader mosaic of commercial communities that played a pivotal role in the economy and social organization of the Arab countries. Other minority and diaspora communities played outsized roles as well, including Greeks, Persians, Armenians, Parsis, Lebanese as well as ex-patriot Europeans from England, France, Germany, and Russia amongst many others. These communities, along with much of the ancient long settled Christian populations, with the exception of the modern day expatriates in the contemporary Emirates, have all been diminished to near non-existence.
(Part 3 of 3 to Follow)