In the autumn of 1927, the Rishon le-Zion or chief rabbi of the Sephardic Jewish community in Jerusalem, Rabbi Jacob Meir (1856-1939), wrote to the Sephardic congregation which had been based at the Bevis Marks synagogue in the City of London since 1701. An earthquake measuring around 6.3 on the Richter scale had struck Palestine just after 3pm on Monday 11th July 1927, damaging homes and public buildings and leading to the demolition of the community’s Beit El synagogue. Would the London Sephardim, they asked, please help their Jerusalem co-religionists with monies to rebuild their homes, synagogues and community buildings? The London community had already launched a fundraising effort and delivered their collected donations to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which was acting as a hub for British Jewish (and to some extent non-Jewish) relief efforts in the wake of the earthquake. The Board of Deputies duly transferred the funds, along with those from other congregations around the country, via its bankers, Samuel Montagu & Co, from where it was channelled into the Earthquake Relief Fund administered by the British Mandate authorities in Jerusalem, under the guidance of a mixed committee.
The apparently substantial funds raised by the London Spanish and Portuguese community did not, however, reach the Jerusalem Sephardim in the way that the latter had expected, and later in 1927 they complained to the London congregation about the manner in which the earthquake relief had been disbursed. It is this moment which I take as the point of departure for this article, arguing that here we can see a number of interests and assumptions coming into collision, namely: longstanding patterns of solidarity between Sephardic communities across the Middle East and Europe; new concepts of charity and humanitarian aid; the shifting status of Palestine’s Sephardim in relation to other Jews and the ruling power; and varying understandings of Palestine, citizenship and nation-building. Unpicking the threads of this disagreement and the various understandings of the situation which informed it, I argue, reveals much about the nature of communal and government relationships at this point fairly early in the course of British Mandate rule. In addition, this case study of competition between different understandings of aid and relief contributes to the growing history of humanitarianism, and in particular responds to calls to write histories which incorporate the viewpoints of the recipients of aid as well as of donors and relief organisations.1 While the expectations of the Jerusalem Sephardim may have been bolstered by longstanding practice, they also disrupted the shared dominant narratives of the British Mandate authorities and of mainstream Zionism, both of which saw earthquake relief as an opportunity to implement developmentalist visions of Palestinian society. Finally, the case of the Jerusalem Sephardim also complicates those genealogies of humanitarian intervention which draw single lines from European and American Protestant interventions in the nineteenth century, identifying overlaps between these and other social and religious practices.
Located on an active fault line which runs from the head of the Red Sea, up the Wadi Arabah and Jordan Valley and into Lebanon and southern Syria, Palestine had suffered major earthquakes at regular intervals of less than a century for at least two thousand years before 1927. In addition, smaller tremors occurred much more frequently, with at least 15 in 1921 and seven in 1922.2 The main 1927 earthquake took place early in the afternoon of July 11, emanating from an epicentre in the north of the Dead Sea and most severely affecting Nablus, Jericho, Jerusalem, Ramleh, villages in the Galilee and al-Salt in Transjordan. At least 287 people were killed by the main quake – small compared with the 5-6,000 dead in the 1837 Safed quake, but still traumatic and economically damaging. Several more probably died as the result of buildings which collapsed later, possibly because of several weeks of aftershocks which followed.
In Jerusalem, important buildings such as the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Government House and newly-built parts of Hebrew University suffered serious damage, but the damage to homes and businesses had more impact on the daily lives of ordinary people. Although on the surface they may appear supremely solid and robust, the overlapping centuries-old stone houses of the Old City were actually vulnerable to collapse because they tended to be built of an outer and inner stone wall with a filling of rubble in between. Although these are thick and provide good insulation, the lack of ties between the outer and inner layers meant they became comparatively unstable under earthquake conditions, and the bulky rubble and stone made them dangerous and destructive when they did fall.3 In the mindset of the British officials at the head of the Mandate administration, however, Jews lived not in these traditional homes but in newer buildings and in places less affected by the earthquake such as Tel Aviv, Haifa and the agricultural colonies established by the Zionist movement, rather than in the older, more ‘Eastern’ cities impacted most by the tremors, such as Nablus and Jerusalem.
In fact, the makeup of the Jewish population of Jerusalem highlights how unsophisticated this British imaginary was. According to the 1922 census, the Municipality of Jerusalem was home to 33,971 Jews, alongside 13,413 “Mohamedans”, 14,699 Christians and around 500 Hindus, Sikhs and Druze. Of these Jews, 5639 lived within the walls of the Old City and 28,332 outside them.4 By 1931, the total Jewish population was 54,538, with 57,762 Muslims and 20,309 Christians. The Jewish population of the Old City had dropped slightly to 5,222 and that of what in this census was termed the New City had risen to 46,000 (against fewer than 8,000 Muslims).5 Although the censuses gave numbers for the populations of the various Christian denominations, similar breakdowns were not included for Sephardi, Oriental and Ashkenazi Jews, so clear numbers do not exist for the distribution of different Jewish communities between the Old and New cities. However, descriptions of life in the old and new Yishuv and for Sephardi and Oriental versus Ashkenazi Jews make it a reasonable extrapolation that the rapidly-growing numbers outside the walls comprised new immigrants, many of them from Europe, and some wealthier Sephardim or those who had acquired missionary educations, whilst the more stable numbers inside the Old City are likely the established community, comprising mostly Sephardim.6 It does therefore seem that the Sephardic community of Jerusalem, along with some Maghrebim and other ‘Oriental’ Jews, were proportionally worse hit than Ashkenazis, especially in terms of community buildings such as synagogues rather than private homes.
Jewish communities which did not fit the British framing suffered a discursive invisibility in the official management of the earthquake; in the case of the Jerusalem Sephardim, this led them to attempt to push back against what they perceived as discrimination in the disbursement of official relief funds. This invisibility is clear from the letters of George Stewart Symes, Chief Secretary to the British Mandate government of Palestine, who quickly assumed control of the relief effort because the High Commissioner, Herbert Plumer, was in Europe. On 15th July, just 3 days after the earthquake, Symes was already reporting that “Most of the dead and injured are Moslems: there were some casualties in a group of Christian villages near Nazareth, while the Jewish population suffered little,”7 and repeated it five days later, writing that: “Felix Warburg called me from New York offering me the good offices of the Joint Distribution Committee for his earthquake Relief Fund – which isn’t required for Jews”.8 Symes was correct in that it is probable that no Jews were killed in the earthquake, but although his statements did not take account of physical injuries or damage to property they seem to have become embedded in official policy.
These assumptions about who had been affected by the earthquake align with recent scholarship which posits that the British colonial authorities thought of the European Jews they encountered in the Zionist movement as quasi-European – as “Semites” but as the most “advanced” of their “race”. They were certainly perceived as more ‘advanced’ than Palestinian Arabs, ideas expressed in discourses of Western hygiene and agricultural and industrial ‘progress’.9 This affected policy-making because Orientalist conceptions of Palestine framed the indigenous population as primitive and Other; the Sephardic inhabitants of the Old City Jerusalem, with their eastern culture, therefore fell through the gaps, not classed alongside Jews who had immigrated from Europe because they did not fit into one racial image, but equally not seen as Arab because of their ethno-religious identity. But loan requests for the area covered by the Mayor of Jerusalem show that (if the names of applicants can be taken as an indication), grants of reconstruction loans went to at least as many Jews as Arabs, if not more.10 This may have been influenced by social factors, such as availability of security and guarantors, but it does suggest Jerusalemite Jews, especially members of the Sephardic community, did indeed need help and support, even if Symes’ initial assessments failed to account for them.
As indicated above, the British mandatory administration’s response to the earthquake was led, in Lord Plumer’s absence, by Colonel George Stewart Symes, a career army office and colonial official who spent his professional life in a series of posts in Africa and the Middle East. In a territory proliferating with missionary groups, church and community bodies accustomed to delivering services to their constituencies, and what would nowadays be termed non-governmental organisations, one of Symes’ chief concerns seems to have been to run what he regarded as a simplified relief effort strictly under government control. Within just a few days of the earthquake, he was emphasising to regional officials in the Mandate administration that “confusion” should be avoided by making sure that relief activities, especially the distribution of funds, were co-ordinated by local authorities.11 This principle was applied to the use of international donations, which Symes began to actively solicit within 4 days of the quake, informing the Colonial Office that:
I am also organising a Central Relief Fund and have issued a public appeal, of which a copy is attached. It is obviously important to canalize funds subscribed for relief purposes, and thus prevent overlapping and waste.12
Whilst Symes’ centralised control may have been an efficient way to deal with the earthquake’s effects, it also meant that a single vision of how to manage the situation, who needed to be helped, and how this was to be achieved quickly dominated affairs. Several themes soon emerged: that (in common with the British government’s overarching concern that its colonies ‘pay for themselves’ and not represent a financial drain) the relief effort be kept to a minimum and delivered as cheaply as possible; that rebuilding damaged areas was the duty of local people and not of the government, and would in the vast majority of cases be supported through loans and not via any substantial programme of grants; and that Symes’ racialised visions of the natures and abilities of the region’s inhabitants would shape how aid was dispersed.
A letter sent by Symes to Colonial Secretary Leo Amery at the end of July, less than three weeks after the main earthquake, illustrates all of these points. Symes asserted that:
In Trans-Jordan, where the people are generally simpler and more virile than in Palestine, Colonel Cox informs me that grants of small loans or donations not exceeding £5, coupled with remission of taxes in certain cases and advances on official salaries, would stimulate rebuilding operations in many places.13
In the villages of Palestine, meanwhile, Symes believed that cohesive local communities could be “left to fend for themselves”14 to deal with the longer-term needs of rebuilding, and that the state’s role was confined to helping the completely indigent and providing technical ‘expertise’ to ensure that unsafe structures were safely demolished. In the worst-hit city, Nablus, however, developmentalist notions of order, hygiene and social control were in evidence. Symes observed that “it is unthinkable, and fortunately not practicable, that they should be allowed or assisted to reconstruct the rabbit warrens of masonry which fell about their ears”.15 He, along with “experts” such as the visiting seismologist Bailey Willis,16 saw the catastrophe as an opportunity to remove the kind of architecture which the British associated with orientalist visions of mystery and chaos and which worried colonial administrators who saw them as places in which insurgents, alien social practices and disease could all take refuge.17
The first major international donation to the earthquake relief effort in Palestine seems to have been spontaneous, and may indeed have helped to inspire Symes’ appeal for charity. A telegram announcing the £5000 draft from the New York Jewish philanthropist Nathan Straus to the Hadassah Medical Organisation had been shown to Symes by, at the latest, daytime on the 14th July, within 72 hours of the main tremor.18 His reports of the donation both to his juniors in the Mandate administration and his seniors in the Colonial Office feature wording which would dominate public statements on the relief appeal, specifying that Straus’ funds were for “distribution among sufferers without distinction of race and creed”19 and “for the benefit of distressed persons irrespective of their community or creed”.20 Similar wording was to appear in the official announcement of the Central Relief Fund. This was initiated in the Palestine Gazette on the 15th July, whilst further letters and articles broadcast the appeal more widely, such as the letter signed by “Israel Cohen, General Secretary, the Zionist Organisation” which appeared in the Manchester Guardian on the 20th July and which repeated the formula assuring donors that their money would be allocated “without regard to creed or nationality”.21 This foundational principle may have allowed both the Zionist Organisation and Mary Adelaide Broadhurst’s National League, a pro-Arab campaign group in Britain, to advertise the appeal, and as discussed below it meant that donations came from different communities all around the world, but it was precisely the flattening, impersonal effects of it which were to draw criticism from the leaders of the Jerusalem Sephardic community.
The committees established by Symes to manage the Central Relief Fund also matched this concern to present a public face of sectarian neutrality. The General Committee, which oversaw the fundraising effort, was initially chaired by Symes himself,22 with Edwin Samuel replacing him when he left the country at the end of 1927 to take up the British Residency at Aden. The secretary was George Antonius, who at the time was a senior civil servant with the British Mandate administration, and the membership of the committee was carefully assembled to bring together prominent Muslim Palestinians (Said Bey Husseini, Amin Bey Tamimi, Awni Bey Abdul-Hadi, Omar Effendi Saleh (al-Barghuthi?) and Sheikh Mahmud Dajani), along with Yaqub Farraj of the Greek Orthodox community, Sydney Moody, another senior civil servant within the mandate administration, and “Mr R. Lorenzo,” probably Raouf Lorenzo, a Catholic businessman who was killed in the Semiramis Hotel massacre of January 1948. Of the two Jewish members of the committee, Judah Magnes of the Hebrew University was a recent migrant to Palestine and “Mr I. Zvebner” was possibly Isaac (Itzhak) Zwebner, from an Ashkenazi family who had lived in Palestine since the eighteenth century. It is unclear if this is the same Ishak David Zwebner who registered a legal partnership for securities, debt and import/export dealing (all skills highly relevant to the relief effort) in 1928.23
The three subcommittees all had similar compositions.24 The Credits Committee, dealing with loans and reconstruction credit, included “Mr M. Caspi” (probably the insurance broker, Zionist activist and honorary Latvian consul Mordechai Caspi), the economist and politician Ahmad Hilmi Pasha, who at the time was Director of Awqaf in Palestine, and Dimitri Salameh, a well-known Orthodox Christian businessman whose longstanding role at the head of the Jerusalem branch of Thomas Cook meant that he had considerable experience of financial management. This group was chaired by Mr (later Sir) Steuart Spencer Davis, who was Treasurer of the Mandate administration. The Relief Committee, overseeing direct relief to the worst affected earthquake victims, was headed by the director of the Department of Health, George Heron, and included Dr Edward Blatchford (Jerusalem director of the aid organisation Near East Relief), veteran civil servant and politician Isma’il Bey Husseini, Dr Ephraim Bluestone, head of Hadassah, and Dr Tawfiq Cana’an, a well-known Protestant Arab physician. The Reconstruction Committee, finally, was chaired by J.F. Rowlands, the director of the Public Works department, and was comprised of Richard Hughes (a government land surveyor), engineer Rushdi al-Iman, and architects George Shiber and Bernard Chaikin. Most of the committees, therefore, followed the format of a civil servant as the chair, with membership comprising at minimum a Muslim Arab, a Christian Arab and a Jew – always an Ashkenazi, and usually a newcomer to Palestine. This echoed Symes’ notion that the relief effort must be guided by the Mandate government, but that it must also be seen to be strictly neutral as regards what the British perceived as the main religious groups making up Palestine’s population. The members were, in most cases, clearly selected for their relevant expertise (and occasionally for their community/political clout), but they were also there to nominally represent the constituent units of Palestinian society as the British saw it.
The Central Relief Fund and the Mandate government’s approach had two main stages, although – as some of the quotations above reveal – they were developed concurrently. First was the immediate humanitarian effort, comprising activities such as feeding those rendered homeless by the earthquake and providing basic accommodation in tent encampments outside the worst-hit cities, such as Nablus and Ramleh. The bulk of the money from the public fundraising effort was used for these activities, as indicated by the emphasis in Nathan Straus’ announcement of his donation and in the appeals on aid for the destitute, not on repairing damaged buildings.25 The second phase was that of rebuilding. The inclusion of a Credits Committee amongst those established to manage the relief effort shows how early the idea of loans, rather than outright grants, was seen as part of the medium- and long-term solution to the earthquake’s impact. A detailed account of the loans procedure for Transjordan highlights the extent to which the process of assessing who was eligible for reconstruction loans became an opportunity for the state to extend its control and its notions of expertise into private homes:
special committees inspected and assessed the damages of each affected building, estimated the cost of repairing the rooms required to house the owner and his family, and recommended a loan, in amount less than that estimate and adjusted to his financial resources. The Financial Advisor then considered applications for loans; his decision was final. Personal guarantees were accepted for loans of less that £P30; for larger amounts a mortgage of immovable property was demanded. Each loan was issued in two equal instalments: the first when the grant was approved, the second when the Municipal Engineer certified that half the work of repair had been completed.26
It must be remembered that until the end of the Ottoman period, state attempts to register land or carry out censuses had been regarded with suspicion by much of the population, who saw them as connected to taxation and/or conscription.27 But just a decade later, in order to be allocated help to rebuild damaged homes, people were compelled to admit inspectors into their houses and to hand over financial and family data. The use of mapping and land registration by colonial authorities as mechanisms of control and social change have been widely documented, including for Palestine,28 but more ad hoc opportunities such as earthquake loan assessments were also ways in which the colonial state extended its oversight of people’s lives. The focus on loans also meant that only those who were assessed as being able to repay were given money, and the amounts granted were – as the description above notes – to be less than the sum which the committees regarded as necessary to repair the basic family quarters, which implies that recipients needed to be able to cover the difference out of their own funds. These regulations run very much in line with the notion of the ‘deserving poor,’ those able to demonstrate thrift and moral virtue, rather than those dismissed as having been rendered destitute by some fault of their own.
This emphasis on distributing the proceeds of the Central Relief Fund appeal without reference to the “community or creed” of the recipients, but with reference to their moral standing, stemmed not just from the British government’s hubristic belief that they could construct a new society in Palestine, based on racialised strata of Arabs, Jews and Britons. It also tied into wider trends within global humanitarianism which had been unfolding since the nineteenth century. In contrast to earlier forms of charity, which were often tied to missionary efforts or to senses of linkage and loyalty between communities, this “scientific philanthropy,” an “ideology of organized compassion” entangled with Protestant values, colonialism, sociotechnical change and ideas of civilisation and development, was supposed to be secular and neutral.29 This was not an exclusively Euro-American affair; similar shifts had taken place within the Ottoman Empire too, influencing ideas of how the poor and indigent should be dealt with by wider society.30 Importantly, as Keith Watenpaugh emphasises, its emphasis on neutrality at times has led the humanitarian system to stand “in mute witness to the politics and forms of injustice that cause mass suffering,” and that it was the interwar period – precisely that in which the earthquake we are currently examining took place – which was the pivotal point for an ideological change which institutionalised and depersonalised charity.31
In tandem with the institutionalisation of charity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, went the marketisation of the philanthropic sector, with the competition between proliferating causes leading to new and more inventive ways of attracting donations. As Roddy, Strange and Taithe highlight, this meant that, although personal connections were increasingly stripped out of the charity process, the act of donating was increasingly linked by those canvassing for it with identity and a more ephemeral notion of linkage, in which rather than being connected to the recipients of their money, donors were encouraged to think of themselves as part of a community of givers with common values, even a ‘brand’ – whether compassion in general, or something more specific.32 Thus the appeals made by the Central Relief Fund in Jerusalem and its supporters in Europe, North and South America and the Middle East, by stressing that money would support the destitute irrespective of religion or ethnicity, allowed donors of any identity to contribute to single fund and deterred them from seeking more specialised routes. They did so under a brand of Palestine, whether this meant to them a Protestant vision of the Holy Land, a Jewish ‘national home,’ solidarity with a strand of Arab nationalism or an Islamic religious identity. Donations could be called for – as seen in the letters printed in the Manchester Guardian – by both Zionists and supporters of Arab nationalism, and could be sent by everyone from Egyptian statesman Sa’ad Zaghlul (who died only a few weeks later) to the Anglo-Jewish Association of London, the California Chapter of the Red Cross, Bethlehem community associations in Latin America, and the Banco di Roma.33
The request made by the Jerusalem Sephardim to the London Spanish and Portuguese congregation for specific support, outwith the terms of the Central Relief Fund, was not a new or unusual occurrence. As I argue in this section, it represented a continuity in thought and practice from eighteenth and nineteenth century systems, and my case study can thus be located amongst works which argue for social, economic and cultural continuities between Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine.34 While many studies of the Sephardic community of Jerusalem on either side of World War One have focused on their written output and its melding of a culturally Zionist position with an amity towards Palestinian Arabs absent from most European Jewish Zionists,35 this paper instead considers the implications of continuity as social and economic practice in a time of crisis, and its quashing by newly dominant views of the Jewish place in Palestine.
Since the seventeenth century, Sephardic emissaries had visited communities across Europe and the Ottoman Empire, calling on them to donate funds to the Jews of the holy cities of Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed. This was not understood as charity, but as the duty of Jews in the Diaspora to support those who continued to maintain a Jewish presence in the Holy Land, and was to some extent part of a reciprocal relationship in which the rabbis, kabbalists and other theological, spiritual and legal experts of the Palestine were expected to respond to requests for advice and rulings.36 It was also experienced as a relationship that was specific to Sephardic communities, binding them together by personal relations and separate from similar but, initially, less lucrative relations between Ashkenazi populations in Jerusalem and the Diaspora.37 These relations, and the networks along which they travelled, were not uniform in nature; they were embedded in and contingent upon the political and economic environments in which they functioned, mapping onto trade routes or family ties, temporarily cut off by wars, piracy, and border closures, and subject to internal disagreement and dissent.38
Jerusalem’s Sephardi leadership would not, therefore, have seen their letter to London as a unidirectional request for charity. For them, it was part of a well-established pattern of relations between two parts of the same branch of the Jewish people. But these links had been declining over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under pressure from social changes such as assimilationism in Europe and the growth of the Ashkenazi community in Palestine, as well as in concert with those broader trends in the institutionalisation of philanthropy outlined above. The differing expectations of charity and its control had resulted in previous intra-communal disputes: in the 1890s, Central Asian Jews in Jerusalem had sought direct aid from their communities in Bukhara and Samarkand, provoking the ire of the Sephardic leadership who saw these as their own territories for collecting halukka, while during World War I, aid for Palestine’s Jews coming from the USA generated friction founded in the old Yishuv’s resentment of new Yishuv control of American funds.39
The nature of the Sephardic community had also shifted, rendering the Sephardim of the Holy Land recipients of charity rather than participants in a reciprocal relationship. In some cases this stemmed from centralisation and conflict amongst Jewish communities in Europe, while later the change can also be traced to the influence of enlightenment ideas of progress and nationhood, in which European Jews and a small number of European-educated Middle Eastern Jews increasingly saw those of the Ottoman Empire as oriental, primitive and poverty-stricken, and wanted to bring the separate groups into a wider pan-Jewish community.40 The effects of these long-term trends were cemented in place by the fall of the Ottoman Empire in WWI; the organisation of Jewish networks in support of the Holy Land had shifted from ad hoc to regular donations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries under committees based in the millet capital in Istanbul. With the political separation of the Jerusalem Sephardim from those in Istanbul, therefore, the networks were finally cut.41
These dynamics also combined with the declining socio-political status of the Jerusalem Sephardic community. They had once been a clear majority of Jews in the Holy Land and the community’s head, Rishon le-Zion, was recognised as the head of the Jewish millet by the Ottoman state (and as responsible for paying taxes for all Jews).42 But the increasing number of Ashkenazim with foreign citizenships (and Maghrebi Jews who accused the Sephardi authorities of discriminating against them, and so asked for British support43) who came to Palestine in the nineteenth century shifted the balance of power, which tipped further as Zionist immigrants with pan-Jewish, modernist and secularist notions of Jewish identity joined them in the run-up to the First World War.44 This process of side-lining the Sephardic and other religious leaderships amongst the Jewish (in contrast to the Islamic and Christian) communities was continued by the British Mandate authorities, which saw the formal institutions of the Zionist political movement, headed for the most part by Jews who came to Palestine after 1900, as their official interlocutors.45 The process may have been hastened by fragmentation within the Sephardi community – the splintering of Bukharan and other groups exacerbated, during the Mandate period, by the enthusiasm of some young Sephardim for the vigour of the Zionist movement and the new use of Hebrew against what some saw as an aging, Spanyolit-speaking community leadership dominated by aristocratic families such as Valeros, Meyuhas and Eliashars.46 The Sephardim were relegated by the British to the position of picturesque relics, along with many Palestinian Christian and Muslim voices, and subsumed – politically, discursively and historically – under the label of the Yishuv.47 They were also, in the eyes of the British, racialised, in the sense that they were viewed as a group of specific deep-rooted and immutable characteristics. Their social and cultural proximity to the Palestinian Arab population – in particular in Jerusalem, where Muslims and Jews especially lived at close quarters, often in the same courtyard compounds48 – rendered them subject to British notions of the Oriental, whilst their Jewishness, however different they may have seemed and felt from many of the Ashkenazi newcomers, made them officially invisible.
On the institutional level, relations between the Sephardi, Ashkenazi and other kollelim in Palestine are generally depicted as imbued with longstanding tensions deriving from competition for halukka, differences over Ottoman citizenship, or later from varying attitudes to and interpretations of Zionism.49 Only two years before the earthquake, the World Sephardi Federation had formed to demand better treatment of Sephardim by the Zionist Organisation.50 However, amongst elites co-operation was also a feature of the relationship, as seen, for instance, in the presence of both senior Sephardim such as Albert Antebi and David Yellin and of newly-arrived Zionist activists like David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and Moshe Sharett on the committees which sought to promote Ottoman citizenship amongst Ashkenazim during WWI, and the selection of Yellin as the first president (1920-29) of the Va’ad Leumi.51 At the local level in Jerusalem the Sephardi leadership had a long history of both tension and co-operation; during the Ottoman period collaboration had at times been necessary in order to present a united front to the state, whilst – as mentioned above – groups which fragmented from the official millet might at times resort to the local authorities to assert their independence.
When, in the autumn of 1927, Rabbi Jacob Meir wrote to the Spanish & Portuguese congregation at Bevis Marks synagogue in London to complain about the dearth of earthquake relief for the Jerusalem Sephardim, he seems to have been seeking to revivify the personalised practices of charity and solidarity which had helped to support the Jews of Palestine for several centuries. Meir’s request, read as the hope that ethnic and religious links would translate into financial aid, was not unique: Protestant missionary magazines of the period carried advertisements asking for donations from supporters around the world.52 But Meir was not just making a request for help; he was laying specific claim to monies already sent via the Central Relief Fund, and asserting the specific right of the Sephardic community to the exclusive use of those donations, signaling his suspicion of mainstream Zionists,53 and perhaps even seeking to reinforce his position and resist the Zionist and secular organisations overshadowing the former authority of the Ottoman Hakham Bashis.54 According to Yehuda Sharim’s arguments about the trajectory of the Sephardi Federation, he may even have been trying to push back against a Zionist crackdown on Sephardic bids for autonomy.55
Rabbi Meir’s original letter has not survived, but the correspondence which it sparked between Paul Goodman (Secretary of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation based at the Bevis Marks synagogue in the City of London), Jack Rich (Secretary of the Board of Deputies of British Jews), and Harry Viteles (general manager of the Central Bank of Co-operative Institutions in Palestine, and the Middle East representative for the Joint Distribution Committee) indicates its contents. On receipt of Meir’s initial letter, Goodman replied with reassurances that the London congregation had indeed raised funds for the earthquake relief effort, believing that a proportion of these would help the Jerusalem Sephardim:
through a special appeal issued by this congregation, a considerable sum was collected by us for the benefit of the sufferers from this earthquake, and I feel sure I am expressing the hope held here that the needs of the Sephardim in Jerusalem will be met by the Relief Committee in an adequate measure.56
Meir seemingly responded to this, reiterating his feeling that his community had not been supported, either from the Central Fund or with specific help from the Spanish and Portuguese congregation in Britain. Goodman thus took the matter to Jack Rich, whose organisation had been responsible for channelling a total of around £2,500 in British donations (over 150,000 pounds sterling in today’s money) to the Central Relief Fund in Jerusalem: “I have now had another letter from [Meir]… which bears out his complaint that nothing out of the Relief Fund has been received by the Sephardi Community in Jerusalem”.57
Although Goodman shows a specific concern for the rights of the Sephardic community in Jerusalem, this does not seem to translate into agreement with Rabbi Meir’s belief that there was a direct line of responsibility under which the London Sephardim should specifically be supporting their co-religionists in Jerusalem. Goodman’s letters to Rich are instead very much in step with the mainstream position taken by the Central Relief Fund and the Board of Deputies that, while Jews of all kinds might have a particular interest in Palestine, their donations should be allocated according to need, and not personal or communal affinities. In a letter of 2nd February 1928, Goodman makes it clear that Jewish claims – not differentiated into Sephardi or Ashkenazi – should be assessed alongside those of other sufferers:
It is probably quite true that Mr Nathan Straus and other Jewish contributors to the Relief Fund expected that a large part of their donations would go to relieve the needs of sufferers other than Jewish, but it does appear strange that, out of the £5,000 given by Mr Straus, only £200 should have been allocated to Jews, and I should think that many of the contributors to the Deputies’ fund would hardly be satisfied that their generosity was to be interpreted as a desire that Jewish claims should not be considered adequately.58
Goodman and Rich also appear to have wanted to keep their concerns quiet, at least while they were investigating Meir’s claims, so they contacted Harry Viteles in the hope that he could make discreet enquiries.
To their discomfiture, however, Viteles approached Edwin Samuel, the son of Sir Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner of Palestine.59 Edwin Samuel had taken over from Symes as secretary of the Central Relief Fund and was also preparing a report on how the money had been spent, so he provided a detailed breakdown. His reply also highlights the gap between Rabbi Meir’s ideas about how money raised by the London Spanish and Portuguese congregation should be spent, and the assumptions underpinning the official relief effort. Indeed, Samuel’s summary of the situation as he saw it is rather terse and not particularly sympathetic to Meir’s position:
Rabbi Meir appears to be under the impression that: a) The Board of Deputies contributed to the Earthquake Relief Fund at his suggestion; b) The Sephardic Community of Jerusalem is therefore morally entitled to the whole of their contribution; c) The enclosed letter from the Bevis Marks Synagogue to him is an authority to that effect. After careful enquiry, I can find nothing to substantiate any of these assumptions.60
Samuel also reiterated that according to the system developed by the fundraising committee, and contrary to Meir’s claims and Goodman’s fears, money had in fact been allocated to members of the Jerusalem Sephardim – but to individuals, not to the community’s organisations for use in repairing communal buildings:
With regard to Rabbi Meir’s specific complaints, of £E483 allocated to Jerusalem for distribution to individual families immediately after the earthquake, £E182 or other a third went to Sephardic families, while the remainder went to Ashkenazic families and to members of the numerous Christian and Moslem communities… No grants were made for the repair of the Talmud Torah and Hospital, nor to any other public institution. The General Committee of the Earthquake Relief Fund decided that the fund should be used primarily for housing homeless families and not for repairing public buildings. If we started on this, we would require hundreds of thousands of pounds.61
He also observes that “None of the letters from the Board accompanying their contributions earmarked any portion of the funds for the Sephardic or even the Jewish community”.62 Edwin Samuel’s position therefore reiterates the official narrative of the earthquake relief effort and of the British government and Mandate administration more broadly: that the money was for Palestine as a single territorial entity, would be allocated according to need, irrespective of identity, and affirming the Board of Deputies’ participation in this position. Indeed, in the wake of Harry Viteles’ letter forwarding Samuel’s response to the London Jewish organisations, Paul Goodman felt the need to emphasise to Sir Osmond d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, President of the Board of Deputies, that he had not been advocating for the Jerusalem Sephardim or even for Jews in general:
I am sorry that Mr Viteles sent our letter to Mr Edwin Samuel. I think we are bound to explain that we had no reason to believe that the Administrators of the Fund were acting otherwise than impartially, and that we had no intention of earmarking our contributions for the relief of the Jewish community.63
Personal affinities and community links, it was clear, had no place in this vision of international aid.
This exchange of letters and the assumptions and misunderstandings embedded in them thus highlights, firstly, racialised British assumptions about the populations it ruled and, secondly, the changes taking place in the social and political roles of Jewish community institutions. Those members of the community whose homes were destroyed were eventually granted loans in the same way as Christian, Muslim and other Jewish Palestinians, allocated to individuals according to applications judged under common criteria, rather than via community organisations in the way the Sephardic leadership were used to. The latter did, however, manage to source the funds to rebuild communal buildings which they had hoped to gain from their London co-religionists. Although the destruction of the Beit El synagogue did result in some dispersal of its kabbalistic study circles, by the following year a member of the congregation wrote that: “it has already been rebuilt; and on the first of the month of Adar the year 5688 [22nd February 1928] they made a dedication ceremony with utmost pageantry and splendor and before an enormous crowd”.64
The case of the Jerusalem Sephardic community’s complaint to the Spanish and Portuguese congregation in London thus reveals the extent to which different visions of Jewishness (and the obligations it carried), of Palestine and of charity were current in the setting of 1927. The Jerusalem Sephardim wanted their coreligionists in London to provide exclusive support for them, helping them to rebuild not only individual homes but also community institutions, which were specifically excluded from Central Relief Fund help. Their view was rooted in a system which had functioned for several centuries, a two-way exchange between equal parties in which spirituality and wisdom flowed from Jerusalem in return from material support from Sephardim in the diaspora, and which fit within more general values which often saw charity as happening within communities, rather than being disbursed for strangers.
The Jerusalem elders who wrote to Paul Goodman probably knew perfectly well that this system had fallen into decline decades before,65 but the organisational memory was strong enough to at least make it seem worth a shot: even if actual aid was not forthcoming, the London community might perhaps be able to exert influence on the British administration so that more funds were allocated their way. But the interchange in 1927 was happening within a different, new, philanthropic system which had grown up over the second half of the nineteenth century, in which personal relations had been replaced by an increasingly bureaucratised, formalised and anonymous charity sector, whose stress on values of neutrality actively rejected preferential treatment based on religious and ethnic ties.66 I am not claiming that personalised and community charity had completely disappeared – the advertisements asking for donations which missionary organisations working in Palestine and Transjordan published in their magazines demonstrate that. But the Central Relief Fund for the Palestine earthquake, steered as it was by the Mandate administration with its particular, British colonial view of Palestine and its governance, did hew to these “scientific” values and modes of operation. And furthermore, in the matrix of ideologies and organisations which encompassed both the Mandate administration (with its roots in the British government, the Balfour Agreement and the League of Nations) and the “official” leaders of Britain’s Jewish community at the Board of Deputies, the latter had to be seen to toe the line. Some London Sephardim may, entirely understandably, have privately wished to support community institutions in Jerusalem rather than destitute Muslims or Christians in Nablus or the Galilee. But the dominant values of the charity sector at the time, combined with the British necessity of presenting Mandate rule as an impartial, developmentalist project, meant that unless they sent their money via routes other than the official fund, this was not an option. Whilst, as authors such as Salim Tamari and Abigail Jacobson have emphasised there were many social, cultural and economic continuities between Ottoman and Mandate Palestine, Rabbi Meir’s particular attempt to revive an Ottoman-era practice was doomed to fail.