The Rise and Fall of an Indian Jewish Family’s Commercial Empire

Nov. 30 2022

For a significant part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Sassoon family directed a sprawling business concern, trading in opium, cotton, tea, and silk—and, eventually, much else besides—that shaped the history of Britain, India, and China. Various members of the family would rub elbows with the House of Windsor and are even mentioned in Queen Victoria’s diaries. Robert Philpot reviews a recent book about the so-called “Rothschilds of the East.”

The story begins with David, the dynasty’s founding father, escaping Ottoman Baghdad for Iran in the late 1820s. The son of Sheikh Sassoon ben Saleh, a long-serving former chief treasurer to the city’s pashas, David had been threatened and held hostage by Baghdad’s notoriously greedy and rapacious governor. When the aging sheikh, once “the most eminent Jew in Baghdad,” joined him soon after, it capped a remarkable fall from grace for the family.

The sheikh’s death in 1830 hastened the departure of David and his young family for Bombay where British rule provided safety and the administration adopted a liberal posture towards the city’s Jewish community.

In the First Opium War of 1839-42, Britain quashed China’s effort to stem the flow of the powerful narcotic into the country. David saw the opportunity, dispatching [his son], the “energetic and tenacious” twenty-four-year-old Elias, to scout the lay of the land and seek out new customers. The die was cast. Over the following decades, the Sassoons supplanted bigger traders to become the dominant player in the export of opium from India to China.

Business acumen was combined with epic levels of philanthropic giving: one-quarter percent of each trade, whether profitable or not, was recorded as a charitable surcharge, or ts’dakah, in branch ledgers. In Bombay, David established a school for boys, one for girls, and a third for underprivileged juveniles. Later, hospitals, libraries, and the renowned Sassoon Mechanics’ Institute would follow.

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Anglo-Jewry, China, Indian Jewry, Iraqi Jewry

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy