“When my brethren … have reason to weep, my eyes shed tears.” 
                                                                 —Sir Moses Montefiore, Diary, 1846

(left) Jewish Merchant, drawn by Francois Claudius Compte-Calix, steel engraving by Monnin. Musée Cosmopolite, Paris: Aubert, 1850.  Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary. (right) Jewish Children, drawn by Benjamin Roubaud, lithograph by Janet-Lange. Gallerie Royale de Costumes, Paris: Aubert, 1842.  Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Although the Jews of the Ottoman Empire had flourished both culturally and economically in previous centuries, by the nineteenth century the empire was in decline after a long period of stagnation and on its way to earning the commonly quoted epithet “The Sick Man of Europe.” The general weakening of Ottoman power on the world stage led to its increased submission to outside pressures, mostly from European powers. One of the results of the exertion of that influence was a formal declaration of equality for all minorities, leading to a short-lived improvement in the condition of Ottoman Jewry. The influence of European Christian nations, however, was broadly resented by Muslim populations, who frequently directed that resentment toward Jews who had benefited most from, and whose advancement was seen to have been a direct result of, foreign intervention. Jews, caught in the vicious circle of pervasive European influence and the rise of hostility against it, subsequently sought the protection of Western powers.

In 1840, the Jews of Damascus were falsely accused of having murdered a Christian monk and using his blood to celebrate Passover. Jews were tortured, killed, and forcibly converted to Islam. The intervention of leading Jewish advocates such as Moses Montefiore, Adolphe Cremieux, and the Rothschild family helped bring the incident to the attention of numerous governments and launched the modern era of Jewish political involvement on an international scale. In 1858, another international incident that helped to consolidate Jewish unity revolved around the illicit baptism and subsequent kidnapping of a young Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, by Papal authorities in Italy. Jews again responded through widespread public protests and political action. 

These events, though tragic in their own right, demonstrated to Jewish communities their own ability to organize and lobby their respective national governments in support of their brethren overseas. The strong expression of international Jewish solidarity never before experienced was abetted by the emergence of a modern Jewish press in France, Great Britain, and the United States.

A group of Cochin Jews, Kochi, India  © 19th era 2 / Alamy.

Among the responses to these events was the 1860 founding, by a group of French Jews, of the Alliance Israelite Universelle to defend the interests of Jews throughout the world, particularly in those countries where they were subject to persecution. The Alliance went on to develop an extensive network of elementary and vocational schools that would serve tens of thousands of impoverished Middle Eastern Jews.

Notwithstanding the overall difficulties inherent in Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire, some merchant families were able to parlay their success as local traders into international commercial networks, achieving great wealth and fame and establishing strong Jewish communities, most notably in India and the Far East. The Sassoon family, originally of Baghdad, based their empire in Bombay while the Ezras of Aleppo, Syria, held sway in Calcutta. Their presence in East Asia furthered their own commercial interests but their philanthropy helped to sustain and revive the fortunes of the venerable indigenous communities of Jews whose own origins could be traced back to traders of the Middle Ages.

As the century drew to a close, more and more Jews were turning their footsteps toward their ancestral home in the Land of Israel. For over a millennium, the land lovingly called Eretz Israel had been a place where Jews had come at the close of their lives—a place to die within the sacred precincts of the Jewish past. Now, at the end of the nineteenth century, buoyed by the dream of national renewal and imbued with the hope of nearly two thousand years, Jews were coming there—to live, and to help to build a Jewish future.

This essay has been excerpted from the catalogue to A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, an auction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on 29 April. To view objects from this period included in the sale go to lots 297-339.

Next essay: The Jews in the Age of Migrations