China Review International: Vol. ii, No. 1, Spring 2004 and Points East, Vol.19 No 1 March 2004
Reviewed by Professor Jonathan Goldstein
Professor of East Asian history at the State University of West Georgia, Carrolton, and a Research Associate of Harvard University’s Fairbank Centre (excerpts).
Maisie J. Meyer and University Press of America are to be congratulated for bringing out a new book on the Baghdadi Jewish community of Shanghai that provides an overall history of the community from its founding in the mid-nineteenth century until its dissolution after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The book’s particular strength is that it deals head-on with three controversial issues: the question of whether Baghdadis should be classified as Sephardim, technically Jews of Iberian origin; the role of Jews in the importation into China of Indian opium, a severely debilitating narcotic drug; and the hotly debated question of whether Shanghai’s Baghdadis “did enough” to help the German and Austrian refugees from Hitler who poured into Shanghai beginning in 1938.The Hebrew word “Sephardim” translates as “Spaniards” and technically refers to Jews who left the Iberian peninsula in 1492—1493 and retained medieval Spanish or Portuguese as their household tongue in varied places of exile. Meyer states that the ancestors of the Baghdadi Jews did not transit through the Iberian peninsula and that their household language was Judeo-Arabic, not Spanish or Portuguese. She cites a history of unbroken residence in Mesopotamia as far back as 598 B.C., “when Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, conquered the kingdom of Judah and transported Jews from Jerusalem to Babylon” (p. 29). Meyer points out that when the Spanish consul in Shanghai published Spanish King Alfonso Xl11’s decree of December 1924 permitting Sephardi Jews to become Spanish subjects once again, only four Shanghai Baghdadi Jews with their families, out of a population of nearly one thousand, claimed such lineage and took advantage of this protection. She notes that David Sassoon was erroneously referred to as a descendant of the Ibn Shoshan family, which emigrated from Toledo to Baghdad in the twelfth century (p. 37). As the title of her book suggests, she nevertheless categorizes the Shanghai Baghdadi community as Sephardi, arguing that they shared some theological similarities, and a variety of Hebrew pronunciation, with the Jews of medieval Iberia. She also argues that usage determines correctness, noting that the term Sephardi has become a widespread if inaccurate description of Baghdadis and many other Oriental Jewish communities. On this point Meyer differs from Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah of Calcutta and Philadelphia as well as this author, who continue to see the terms “Baghdadi” and “Babylonian” as more accurate references for Jews who emanated from Mesopotamia/Iraq.
Meyer’s study of Baghdadi Jewish merchants who made the basis of their fortunes in the opium trade is welcome in that she confronts the moral issue head- on and advances the discourse pioneered by Fairbank and Downs. She builds on the scholarship of Joan Roland, Chiara Betta, Stanley Jackson, and others to delineate the Baghdadis’ involvement in the exportation of Indian opium to China, beginning with David Sassoon’s arrival in Bombay in 1833. Sassoon’s second son Elias opened branches of the family firm in Guangzhou in 1844 and in Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1845.
Meyer delineates how other Baghdadi families followed the Sassoon example and, from a base in Shanghai, won fortunes in the trade: Abraham, Benjamin, Elias, Ezra, Hardoon, Kadoorie, Raphael, Silas, Solomon, and Toeg. According to Meyer, these merchants “justified and continued this business despite growing adverse public opinion” from the time of the legalization of the trade in 1858 up through the Sino-British Ten Years Agreement of 1907, which provided for the gradual prohibition of imported opium by ii’ (pp. 58, 67). Meyer concludes that “there is no evidence of any dispute” among Shanghai Baghdadis on the opium issue, a sentiment consistent with that of most other foreign traders, with the notable exception of the small dissenting minority mentioned above (p. 67). She makes an important contribution by documenting the unanimity of the Baghdadi community in support of the opium trade.
Meyer takes the side of the Baghdadis in the ongoing debate over whether they contributed “enough” to ease the plight of approximately eighteen thousand largely penniless Jewish refugees from Hitler who thronged into Shanghai between 1938 and 1941. In this respect she differs from Shanghai refugee and historian Ernest Heppner, originally from Breslau, who asks provocatively “whether more could have been done by some of the resident Jews and their leaders.” If financial aid had not come from “a few individuals” as well as from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, “would the Jewish residents who were not interned in Japanese POW camps and not living in the ghetto have considered themselves their brothers’ keepers and helped to feed all their hungry brethren?” Meyer concedes, citing Joan Roland, that by 1938 many Shanghai Baghdadis had become the “Rothschild’s of the East” (p. 32). She then cites numerous examples of Baghdadi charity toward German and Austrian immigrants, concluding that “whether or not the Shanghai Sephardim could have done more for the refugees is a moot point. . . . In their own estimation, at that time, they believed they had acquitted themselves creditably” (pp. 216—217). The debate over aid in Shanghai is a microcosm of the broader debate over who-could-have-done-what to stop Hitler, the ultimate cause of the refugees’ misery. These arguments will doubtless continue as long as there are survivors of refugees and of those who tried to help them. Meyer has made a valuable contribution in recording the point of view of Shanghai Baghdadis on this issue.
Over and beyond Meyer’s willingness to tackle controversial issues head-on, other commendable features of her book are the vignettes about the efforts of the Shanghai Baghdadis to reach out to the indigenous Chinese Jews of Kaifeng; occupational histories of the doctors, lawyers, and rabbis of the community; and descriptions of Hebrew and secular schools, charities, clubs, cemeteries, real-estate transactions, lawsuits, kidnappings, publications, entertainment facilities, synagogues, women’s associations, sports teams, and cadets in the British-organized Shanghai Volunteer Corps.
Finally, citing Israel’s Messenger as her source, Meyer states that “Hardoon was probably the only Westerner interested in promoting Chinese technology and preserving China’s rich cultural heritage” (p. 22). There are ten foreign members of China’s National People’s Consultative Congress, five of them of Jewish origin, who might dispute that generalization.
The following response was printed in Points East
by Maisie J Meyer
I thank Professor Goldstein for his review. There are several points that need clarification.
I too was uncomfortable with the label Sephardim, and used the term because, as I explained in my book, the Baghdadis deliberately chose the title “The Sephardi Jewish Community of Shanghai.” It was how they wished to be identified and I have suggested various reasons for their preference.1. In Calcutta, identification as Sephardim, with its European connotations, held the key to Baghdadi Jews being classified as European. Shanghai Jewry probably chose to be classified as Sephardim for similar reasons. (p.34)
2. The community warmly welcomed an invitation to affiliate with the Union of Sephardic congregations, launched at a Conference at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York in 1929 to promote the unification of Sephardim throughout the East. (p.38)
3. Another factor I took into consideration was the decline of Baghdad as a center of Judaism. The Israel’s Messenger categorically instructed the community: “We must look else where for inspiration. (pp.36-7)
4. The Baghdadis wished to differentiate between themselves and the Russian Jews, (their first encounter with an Ashkenazi community) who began arriving in Shanghai in 1895. The “Sephardi” label balanced with the “Askenazi” one.
Meyer delineates how other Baghdadi families followed the Sassoon example and, from a base in Shanghai, won fortunes in the trade: (and proceeded to name them.)
I specifically made it a point not to mention the names of Baghdadi families involved in the opium trade, as it served no useful purpose and I was sensitive to the feelings of their descendents.
I am well aware of the animated debate on the propriety of the pernicious opium trade; however, it was not my brief to record the debate, but rather to examine the Baghdadi Jews’ involvement in the trade.
I take issue with Goldstein’s statement that, as a Baghdadi, I take the side of the Baghdadis regarding their contribution to refugee relief work in Shanghai. I have been at pains to be objective and give an honest account of the community – warts and all.
Heppner’s question is flawed and arguably “what if” hypothetical questions have no place in a historical narrative.
If financial aid had not come from “a few individuals” as well as from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, “would the Jewish residents who were not interned in Japanese POW camps and not living in the ghetto have considered themselves their brothers’ keepers and helped to feed all their hungry brethren?”
Although some Baghdadis were conspicuously wealthy, the majority of this community, which numbered some 1,000, was in fact poor. I have shown how many Baghdadis tried to alleviate the plight or the refugees on a personal level – individuals provided discreet help, gifts of fruit, furniture, tea, and most notably invitations for meals. (p. 209, my reference was Israel’s Messenger 9 June 1939 p.13). Heppner himself noted, “every effort was made to alleviate the refugees’ suffering and restore their dignity”. (“On the Relations” draft paper for Harvard Conference p.1.) However, because of the vast number of refugees any relief work was just a drop in the ocean. Only a few were affected by the ripples and therefore many were of the opinion that nothing was being done.
David Kranzler has pointed out (Japanese, Nazis and Jews, The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai 1938-1945, pp. 454-5) that about one-third of the “Sephardi” (notice he uses this label) Jews had chosen British protection or citizenship. Some 340 Baghdadis were considered “enemy nationals” and placed in detention camps with British, American and other civilians. These included the wealthier members, who were the community leaders at the helm of refugee relief organization. They were therefore unable to give the refugees any further assistance. Ellis Hayim, who had a high profile in relief work, was placed in the infamous Bridge House prison.
Regarding “Jewish residents” who were not interned or in the ghetto. These stateless Baghdadis and those with Iraqi citizenship were overwhelmed with their own struggle for existence in the war torn city. Many middle class Baghdadis lost their jobs and had no family income. They were reduced to selling their jewelry to survive and envied Baghdadis in the camps. They, nevertheless, graciously sent food parcels, to their interned relatives. Some Baghdadis “created” jobs for the refugees to enable them to get passes to leave the ghetto.
As Kranzler pointed out, (Japanese, p.454), the United States, the chief source of funds for the refugees, was at war with Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The AJJDC, unable to remit money, broke off contact with the Shanghai refugees till December 1943 (Japanese, p.462) Heppner seems unaware of this.
Relief work was now in the hands of the stateless Russian Jews. Their role as caretakers of the refugees and their role vis-à-vis the Japanese who appointed selected individuals to this task still awaits investigation.
Meyer concedes, citing Joan Roland, that by 1938 many Shanghai Baghdadis had become the “Rothschilds of the East.” [p.32]
What I did in fact write, citing Joan Roland was:
Historians like Cecil Roth and Stanley Jackson emphasize the business acumen of Sephardim, notably of the Sassoons, “the Rothschilds of the East,” around whom the religious, financial, social and educational life of the Baghdadi Jewish community revolved.
It was only the Sassoons who were compared to the Rothschilds.
Regarding my quote from Israel’s Messenger:
Hardoon was probably the only Westerner interested in promoting Chinese technology and preserving China’s rich cultural heritage”, (IM, 3 June 1927; July 1931).
Israel’s Messenger made this claim in 1927 and 1931 some sixty years ago. Goldstein’s reference is to the current situation.