Tag Archives: Ottoman Empire

Jew of the Week: Sir Sassoon Eskell

Father of Iraq

Sassoon Eskell (1860-1932) was born in Baghdad to a wealthy and illustrious Mizrachi Jewish family. At the time, some 40% of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. Eskell’s father was a rabbi, and at one point served as the chief rabbi of India’s large Baghdadi community. Eskell studied law and economics in Istanbul, London, and Vienna. He spoke nine languages fluently, and became the official translator (dragoman) for the Ottoman government in Baghdad. When the Ottomans drafted a constitution and established a new Turkish Parliament in 1908, Eskell was elected as Baghdad’s deputy representative. He also served as the under-secretary of state for trade and agriculture, and represented the Ottomans on multiple international delegations. At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Eskell was among the key figures that pushed for Iraqi independence. He was one of two Iraqi representatives that negotiated with Winston Churchill in creating the new state and choosing its first king. Eskell went on to be Iraq’s first finance minister, and continued in this role through the next five governments. He was the primary advisor to the Iraqi king and prime minister, and was described as “by far the ablest man” on Iraq’s governing council. Eskell was elected to the first Iraqi parliament in 1925, and continued to serve on it until his death. He is often referred to as the “Father of Iraqi Parliament”. Among his many significant achievements was making sure that Iraq’s oil was sold to the British for gold, not pounds sterling. While this was unusual at the time, the British pound soon lost most of its value and was no longer backed by gold. Sassoon thus ensured Iraq’s wealth was not diminished, and that it would continue to profit from its oil sales. These funds were critical in ensuring the success and viability of the nascent state. Eskell was also a major philanthropist and gave countless sums to charity. Much of his wealth went to the Jewish National Fund to support the re-establishment of Israel. The village of Kfar Yehezkel in Israel is named after him. Among his many other awards and honours, Eskell was knighted by King George V. Several years ago, the Iraqi government demolished his historic 100-year old home in a controversial move that made way for a new development.

Words of the Week

Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.
– Alexander Hamilton

Jews of the Week: Sinan Reis and Samuel Pallache

Jewish Pirates!

Sinan Reis (c. 1492-1546) was born to a Sephardic family that was expelled from Spain during the Expulsion of 1492 and settled in the Ottoman city of Smyrna. At the time, many Jews became pirates, attacking Spanish vessels both for revenge and to reclaim some of their confiscated wealth. Sinan joined the Barbary corsair pirates that sailed under the Ottoman flag. He became the right-hand man of the well-known pirate and Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. The two fought and won many battles against the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire. The most famous was the Battle of Preveza in 1538. Barbarossa took Sinan’s military advice, leading to a magnificent Ottoman victory. Two years later, Sinan’s young son was captured at sea and forcibly baptized. The Christians refused to release him to the “infidels”, so Barbarossa led a fleet to bombard the Italian city of Piombino until Sinan’s son was finally freed. Barbarossa later dedicated his memoirs to Sinan, who was often referred to as Sinan Reis or Rayyis, Arabic for “chief”. Historical records from England describe him as “the famous Jewish pirate”, while the governor of Portuguese India at the time called him “the Great Jew”. Sinan went on to become Supreme Naval Commander of the Ottoman fleet.

Scholars believe Rembrandt’s famous painting ‘Man in Oriental Costume’ is a portrait of Samuel Pallache.

Samuel Pallache (c. 1550-1615) was also born to a Sephardic family, one that had fled Spain long before the Expulsion and settled in Morocco. His father and uncle were renowned rabbis, and Pallache became a rabbi, too. He also engaged heavily in commerce, and often took his merchant ships to the Netherlands, where other members of the Pallache family lived. When the Dutch made an alliance with Morocco against the Spanish in 1608, the Moroccan sultan appointed Pallache as his envoy to the Dutch. Two years later, Pallache negotiated a free trade agreement between the Dutch and the Moroccans, possibly the first such treaty ever made between a European and non-European state. Around the same time, the Dutch prince Maurice made Pallache a privateer (a pirate for hire). Pallache’s merchant fleet became a pirate fleet, and for the next several years his job was to capture Spanish and Portuguese vessels. In 1614, a storm diverted his ship to England, where he was arrested at the request of the Spanish. Prince Maurice got him released, and Pallache returned to Amsterdam where he lived out the rest of his life. Records show that he was a co-founder of Amsterdam’s illustrious Jewish community. His son was one of Amsterdam’s greatest rabbis, and a teacher of (former Jews of the Week) Menashe ben Israel and Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. Another descendant is the renowned Rabbi Haim Palachi.

Words of the Week

I like the impossible because there’s less competition.
– Walt Disney

Jew of the Week: Sarah Aaronsohn

Israel’s Joan of Arc

Sarah Aaronsohn

Sarah Aaronsohn (1890-1917) was born in Zikhron Yaakov to a Romanian-Jewish family which had settled in the Land of Israel during the First Aliyah to co-found a moshav. The moshav was later financed and supported by Edmond James de Rothschild (who renamed it Zikhron Yaakov after his father). Aaronsohn studied languages, and could speak Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, French, Arabic, and English. She married a wealthy Jewish-Bulgarian businessman and lived with him briefly in Istanbul. When the marriage unraveled, Aaronsohn returned to Israel. During her journey, she personally witnessed the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, and was deeply affected by what she saw. This inspired her to work against the Ottoman Turks, both to stop what was happening to the Armenians, and to prevent the same happening to Jews, as was rumoured at the time. Aaronsohn and her siblings started the NILI spy ring to supply important information to the British. (NILI stood for the Biblical words Netzach Israel Lo Ishaker, “the God of Israel does not lie”, from I Samuel 15:29.) Their spy ring grew to include 40 operatives, making it the largest British spy network in the Middle East during World War I. The information they provided was so vital that General Allenby later admitted he would not have been able to liberate the Holy Land without it. And without Allenby’s conquest, there would probably not have been a State of Israel (at least not so soon). Aaronsohn was also in charge of taking care of the Jews expelled from Haifa and Tel-Aviv by the Ottomans. At one point she worked with Lawrence of Arabia, and many believe the “S.A” to whom he dedicated his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is Sarah Aaronsohn. Unfortunately, the Ottomans caught one of Aaronsohn’s carrier pigeons to the British and arrested her shortly after. She was gruesomely tortured for days, refusing to give any information and insisting that she was the sole spy, thus saving the lives of many others. While being transferred to a different torture chamber, she asked to stop at home to change her tattered and blood-soaked clothes. Aaronsohn managed to get a gun and shoot herself in the head. She survived the blast, and suffered for another four days before succumbing to her injuries. In her suicide note, she wrote that she hoped the blood of martyrs like her would one day be avenged, and that her work would speed up the establishment of a Jewish state. History has shown that it certainly did. Aaronsohn was hailed as a new “Joan of Arc”, and is one of Israel’s great heroines.

The Spiritual Purpose of Jewish Exile and Wandering

Words of the Week

Before the Endlessness of God, the highest saint and the lowliest commoner are equal.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788)