Category Archives: Law, Politics & Military

Jews in the World of Law and Politics

Jews of the Week: Sasson ben Saleh and David Sassoon

Two years ago, for Jew of the Week’s 7th birthday in November, we featured a month-long series on one of the world’s most famous Jewish families, the Rothschilds. This year, for Jew of the Week’s 9th birthday, we will feature a month-long series on the Sassoon family, the “Rothschilds of the East”. This is Part 1. Click here for Part 2. 

Sasson ben Saleh (1750-1830) was born in Baghdad to a wealthy Mizrachi Jewish family that had lived in what is today Iraq since the 12th century. Some say they were descended from the illustrious Sephardic ibn Shoshan family. He took the reins from his father as Baghdad’s Sarraf Bashi, or Chief Banker, at the age of 31. In this role, he was essentially the finance minister of the Iraqi Pashas, and among other things oversaw tax collection and the financing of public works projects. A very religious man, he was renowned for his righteousness and humility, and was called “Sheikh Sasson” by Jews and non-Jews alike. He used much of his fortune to assist the Jewish community and was among Iraq’s greatest philanthropists. Of his seven children, the fifth would become world-famous:

David Sassoon

David Sassoon (1792-1864) was born in Baghdad. After finishing primary school, he got married at the age of 15, and began his training to succeed his father as Baghdad’s financier. However, a new pasha took over and began persecuting the Jewish community. Many fled to Bombay, India, among them David Sassoon and his young family. Sassoon started a textile business, focusing on trade with the British Empire. The conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842 opened China to Western business, so Sassoon began expanding East. He sent his son Eliyahu (Elias) to Guangzhou, making him the first official Jewish trader in China. A couple of years later, they opened a branch of their business—David Sassoon & Co.—in Hong Kong, and then another in Shanghai, making most of their wealth from yarn, cotton, and opium. During America’s Civil War, cotton exports from the Southern states declined so Sassoon stepped in to fill the supply, making a huge fortune. Around this time, the first modern oil rigs were devised, and Sassoon immediately recognized their potential. He began investing in oil, and soon operated 17 mills in India, with as many as 20,000 workers. Like his father, Sassoon never abandoned his faith and was deeply religious. He was a generous philanthropist, too, and supported both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. In Mumbai he built a school, mechanical institute, hospital, and library, as well as the Magen David Synagogue. The massive home he built for his family is now Masina Hospital, and another home is the city’s oldest museum. In the city of Pune, he built the grand Ohel David Synagogue, in addition to a hospital free for all Indians regardless of class or caste. He single-handedly supported all the orphans of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. He was so beloved by the local Indians that they made a marble statue of him to display in the city.

Clockwise from top left: Pune Hospital, David Sassoon’s 1860 gift to the City of Pune; Masina Hospital in Mumbai today, which used to be David Sassoon’s private home; David Sassoon Library and Reading Room in Mumbai; Exterior (top) and interior (bottom) of Magen David Synagogue, built in 1864, and once housing two Jewish schools; and Ohel David Synagogue in Pune, an official Indian Heritage site and the largest synagogue in Asia, built in 1863.

The Jewish Couple That Helped Free Thousands of Slaves

Words of the Week

Fear only two: God, and the man who has no fear of God.
– Hasidic proverb

Click here for Part 2

Jew of the Week: Yitzhak Rabin

In Memory of a Great Israeli Hero

Yitzhak Rabin in 1948

Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995) was born in Jerusalem to Russian-Jewish parents who settled in the Holy Land during the Third Aliyah. He was raised in Tel-Aviv, and at the age of 14 enrolled in an agricultural school founded by his mother, at the same time enlisting in the Haganah defense force. Though originally hoping to be an irrigation engineer, he ultimately decided to stay in the military and fight for the Jewish homeland. In 1941, he joined the Haganah’s elite unit, Palmach, and his first mission was to assist the Allied Forces in the invasion of Lebanon during World War II. After the war, he spent time training new recruits and worked against British efforts to restrict Jewish immigration. At one point, Rabin was arrested by the British and spent five months in prison. During Israel’s War of Independence, Rabin was the Palmach’s COO and commanded its second battalion. He was in charge of the southern front against Egypt, and was involved in the capture of the cities of Ramle and Lod, and the liberation of Ramat Rachel. He was part of Israel’s delegation during the 1949 peace talks that ended the war. He later headed Israel’s Northern Command, and in 1964 was made Chief of Staff, the top general of the IDF. It was under his tenure that Israel planned and executed the miraculous Six-Day War and recaptured Jerusalem. For Rabin, this was the culmination of his military career, and the fulfilment of his dreams. It was time to retire. The following year, he was made ambassador to the United States, serving in that role for 5 years. Rabin was instrumental in getting the US to start selling its fighter jets to Israel, and during his time the US became Israel’s biggest military supplier. He returned to Israel following the Yom Kippur War and was elected to the Knesset. Several months later, Golda Meir resigned and Rabin became Israel’s prime minister. In 1976, he gave the difficult order to plan a rescue operation for Jewish hostages held in Entebbe, resulting in the stunning Operation Thunderbolt. A year later, his Labour Party was defeated in the elections, but Rabin remained in the Knesset, and in 1984 was appointed Minister of Defense. As terrorism from the West Bank got worse, Rabin instituted an “Iron Fist” determent policy, and during the First Intifada was nicknamed “Rabin the Bone Breaker”. Nonetheless, the violence only worsened, and Rabin decided to give peace a chance. He won the 1992 election and returned to the role of prime minister, his main goal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. He signed the controversial Oslo Accords in 1993, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He also worked out the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994. Meanwhile, Rabin was a huge economic reformer, transforming Israel from a state with a more socialist bent to a fully capitalist one. His “Yozma” program encouraged foreign venture capital and led to the development of Israel’s booming high-tech sector. His government boosted spending in education by 70%, and in 1995 instituted Israel’s universal health care system. On November 4th of that same year, Rabin was tragically assassinated by an extremist for “capitulating” to the Arabs. The square where he was shot was renamed after him, as were many other streets and landmarks. Politics aside, very few people have done more for the State of Israel and its citizens than Yitzhak Rabin. He is rightfully remembered as one of Israel’s greatest heroes.

Video: Bill Clinton Describes His “Love Like No Other” for Yitzhak Rabin

Words of the Week

It does no good… to brand one as an “enemy” or “anti-Semite”, however tempting it is to do so even if that person vehemently denies it. It can only be counterproductive. On the contrary, ways and means should be found to persuade such a person to take a favourable stance, at least publicly. We haven’t got too many friends, and attaching labels will not gain us any.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the Lubavitcher Rebbe