In early 1917, most members of Bombay’s financial elite would have felt the horrors of the Great War unfolding a world away. After three years, the tide was turning in favour of Britain and its allies, but the human cost it exacted was heavy. In Bombay, all trading communities kept a close watch on the war, but the one that lost sleep over it was the city’s Baghdadi Jews. Many members of this community had strong family connections to the area that was the theatre of bloody battles between British forces and the Ottoman Army.

By the end of April, telegrams and distress calls from Jews in West Asia were pouring into Bombay. A series of reports appeared in the international media, confirming the worst fears of Bombay’s Jews – that the Ottoman Empire had turned on their brethren in West Asia.

An article in the May 9 issue of The Manchester Guardian described how Jews were expelled from the city of Jaffa. “On April 1, all Jews were ordered to leave the town within 48 hours,” the newspaper said. “No means of transport were provided or obtainable; fares reached fabulous prices, 100 to 200 francs were charged for a carriage from Jaffa to Petah Tikwah (a distance of about nine miles), instead of the normal fare of about 15 to 25 francs.” A week before this, 300 Jews were forced to leave Jerusalem.

Although the Ottoman authorities claimed the entire civilian population of Jaffa was evacuated, the Muslims and Christians of the town were allowed to live in nearby villages and visit the city and access their property. No such privilege was extended to the Jews.

The Guardian laid the blame for the evictions on Ahmed Djemal Pasha. One of the three pashas who ruled the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, Djemal was the military governor of Syria, which at the time included Palestine.

“Djemal Pasha openly declared that the joy of the Jews on the approach of the British forces would be short lived, as he would make them share the fate of the Armenians,” the newspaper said. This was obviously a reference to the Ottoman genocide of Armenians, in which one million are said to have died.

A total of 8,000 Jews were evicted from their homes and forced into destitution. “The roads to the Jewish colonies to the north of Jaffa are lined with thousands of Jewish refugees,” The Guardian said.

Appeal for help

Special committees were formed by the Jewish diaspora to reach out to wealthy members of the community in Asia and Europe to help the evicted Jews of Jaffa and Jerusalem.

“Please communicate following message to Sassoon, Bombay,” a telegram from Cairo said. “During Passover entire Jewish population Jaffa expelled towards north homes property sacked population in flight robbed connivance Turkish authorities Jews resisting pillage hanged (stop) Thousands wandering helplessly on roads starving overcrowding colonies increasing misery disease (stop) Masses young Jerusalem Jews deported northwards destination unknown forcible evacuation of colonies imminent.”

The telegram – signed by Jack Mosseri, P Pascal and Waitz Alexander – requested the Sassoons to “remit funds immediately”.

The Sassoons were a wealthy business family with a multinational empire that stretched from Europe to West Asia to China besides India. Their patriarch, David Sassoon, was born in Baghdad in 1792 and had moved to Bombay in the 1830s. The family had a strong philanthropic streak that made it contribute generously to diverse causes, with the result that its name can still be spotted at docks, educational institutions and a library in Mumbai.

Even before the telegram from Cairo arrived, the family had been informed about the disturbances in Palestine by friends and relatives in Baghdad. Concerned about the plight of fellow Jews, the Sassoons sprang into action.

Their first step was to arrange funds to be sent to Baghdad (then spelled Bagdad). The city was wrested from Ottoman control by the British using largely Indian troops in March 1917, and was a safe space for Jews in West Asia. Around 80,000 Jewish residents lived in the city, comprising more than a third of its population. Its chief rabbi was leading the relief efforts for Jews from Palestine, and the Sassoon family wanted to send money to him from Bombay.

“We have the honour to inform you that we have received an appeal from Bagdad for pecuniary help for the Jews who have suffered from the effects of the war,” Nissim, a manager at David Sassoon and Co, wrote in a letter to the deputy secretary of the Political Department in Bombay. “We wish to remit about Rs 15,000 by telegraph in view of the urgency of the appeal but as telegraphic communication with Bagdad is not yet open to the public and we have no means of forwarding the money we shall feel highly obliged if Government would kindly receive the amount from us and telegraph to the Bagdad authorities to pay the same to the Chief Rabbi or to the Jewish Committee for distribution to the needy Jews there.”

For reference, Rs 15,000 in 1917 is equivalent in purchasing power to about Rs 90 lakh in 2023.

This Sassoons’ proposal was accepted since the British authorities in India had a good relationship with the family and seemed to be favourably inclined towards Jewish people. Once the money was sent to the authorities, the Accountant General in Bombay made arrangements for it to be remitted to the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Cox, who was in Basra at the time.

Second contribution

As tensions grew in Ottoman Palestine over a British advance, the Sassoons continued to get reports of Jews being forced out of their homes. This prompted them to once again approach the British authorities for a contribution.

Sassoon David, presumably the grandson of David Sassoon, wrote a letter to J Crerar, the private secretary to the governor of Bombay, requesting an immediate money transfer to Cairo:

“With reference to your letter to Messrs David Sassoon and Co. Ltd, dated 15th Instant, communicating the telegraphic message received by the Viceroy from Cairo regarding the lamentable plight of the Jewish population in Jaffa and Jerusalem, I fear it will take a little time to form the proposed Local Committee to accumulate adequate funds, and as it seems best to afford relief without loss of time, I enclose a cheque for Rs 5,000, and shall thank you to remit the amount to Cairo either through the Bombay Government or the Government of India as you think best.”  

The British authorities in India immediately telegrammed the High Commissioner for Egypt to distribute the money to the needy Jews from Palestine who had taken refuge in the country.

By the end of the First World War, the Ottomans were driven out of the Levant, and in 1920, Mandatory Palestine was established by the British. The Indian Archives contain a wealth of information about Jews who came to Bombay from places such as Bukhara and Herat and then moved to Palestine with the help of both the local Jewish community and the British.

Some Jews who were driven out of Jaffa and Jerusalem managed to find their way back after the establishment of the British mandate. The financial help from the Sassoons went a long way in sustaining them during the dark period at the closing stages of the First World War.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.