This weekend in Paris I toured the Musée Nissim de Camondo, an exhibit of eighteenth-century French art in a Belle Époque mansion overlooking Park Monceau. It features a stunning collection of Louis XVI furniture, paintings, Porcelain sets, and Japanese lacquerware. Even more compelling, however, is the story of the family behind the collection.
Moïse de Camondo, the manor’s last owner before he bequeathed it to the French state, was born in Istanbul in 1860 to a powerful family of Jewish financiers during a time of great change. The Ottoman sultanate, awakened to the challenges posed by a modernizing Europe, enlisted the Camondo elders to reform its banking sector and to rebuild Istanbul’s urban grid. Having outgrown Istanbul, the Camondos then moved to Paris, where their banking empire grew along with their art collection. By the eve of World War I, Moïse became the patriarch of a clan poised on the abyss; his aviator son, Nissim, was shot down and killed over northeastern France in 1917. Moïse himself passed away in 1935 and the rest of the family perished at Auschwitz.
The Camondos were products of the once-vast Sephardim, Jews with roots in North Africa and the Middle East. For centuries they thrived under the Arab and Ottoman empires, not only as bankers but also as scientists, artists, musicians and administrators. The twelfth-century rabbinical scholar Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, was revered as astrologer, physician and philosopher to the caliphal court in Cairo. The Farhi dynasty in Damascus served as treasurers to the Ottomans and in their chateau was stored the gold that backed the imperial coin. Sassoon Eskell, a prominent member of Mesopotamia’s legendary Sassoon clan, was a financier, statesman and architect of modern Iraq.
Sassoon died in 1932 and for his character and achievements was eulogized throughout the Arab world.
The Sephardim, however, would not survive the Franco-British partition of the Levant. It lingered on until the mid-twentieth century, when the creation of Israel and the wars that followed forced their remnant communities to flee. Just as the rise of fascism scattered the European Diaspora before its terrible denouement, so too - however indirectly - did Zionist demands for a Jewish state all but chase Sephardic Jewry into oblivion.
The cost of this perverse and destructive exchange - Sephardim exile for an Ashkenazi-dominated ghetto in Palestine - is worth considering now that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to scupper Mideast peace talks with yet another red line of his own. By insisting Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu - well known for his opposition to Palestinian statehood despite wan recitation to the contrary - would have them prejudice Israel’s already marginalized 1.6 million Arab citizens as well as millions of refugees who yearn for the right to return. Such a demand would be, and should be, rejected.
As a recent story in The New York Times skillfully implies, Netanyahu’s obstructionism also exposes some inconvenient facts about Israeli democracy, the spirit, if not the letter of which generally eludes its Arab inhabitants. (Israeli-Arabs lags its Jewish counterparts in income levels and leads them in rates of unemployment, illiteracy and infant mortality; they account for twenty percent of the total population but control ten percent of parliament and less than ten percent of the nation’s wealth.) As the Times article posits, “What is the appropriate balance between being a Jewish state and a democracy with citizens of other faiths and backgrounds? With a largely secular population, who interprets Jewish law and custom for public institutions and public spaces? Is Judaism a religion, an ethnicity or both?”
Some distinctions cannot be finessed. As it struggles to reconcile its religious identity with pretensions to genuine democracy, Israel has more in common with Iran, Pakistan and Bahrain than its patron, the United States. Israel defines itself by one of the three Abrahamic faiths and its claim on Palestinian land - a primary source of the region’s instability - is based on the conceit that its people are “treasured” by the Hebrew God. The country has no constitution; its Basic Law stands as an uneasy compromise between the secular emigres who founded the country and demands from a powerful orthodox community that sacred religious texts serve as the basis for jurisprudence. Serious attempts to resolve such an existential dispute could ignite the kind of violent civil strife that now convulses Egypt.
The U.S., in contrast, does have a constitution. Its first amendment precludes a national religion and makes no reference to a higher power of any kind. America’s founding manifesto declares that “all men are created equal” and its only concession to a supreme being is the elegantly ecumenical “Nature’s God.” It is, to say the least, more Diderot and Voltaire than Leviticus and Jeremiah.
And so in their way were Jews like Moïse Camondo and Eskell Sassoon, informed as they were by the Enlightenment rather than the Babylonian Captivity. Ardent internationalists a century before Davos Man, they were less Syrians, Turks, or Iraqis - or even Jews, Christians and Muslims - than they were Damascenes, Constantinoplines, and Baghdadis. Unlike their European counterparts, they refused to distract themselves with vulgar notions of national or religious identity, nation-states and borders. This is why the global economy revolved around the Muslim empires for as long as it did. It is also what makes Israel, which fetishizes borders and barriers, more a creature of Europe than of the Mediterranean, and it is why the early Arab-Israeli wars were less about religion than hegemonism.
Otherwise, how could it be that Jewish power and influence in the Arab world was so much more profound before Israel’s creation than it is today?