Research Unit Knowledge

»New Horizons«

Jewish Migration from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean in the Modern Period

The historiography on Middle Eastern Jewries is commonly shaped by one movement: towards Zion. Since the late eighteenth century, however, thousands of Arabic-speaking Jews chose to migrate elsewhere, sailing and settling across the Indian Ocean. By the twentieth century, migrant communities of Halabi, Baghdadi, and Yemeni Jews emerged in India, Burma, and China, as well as in Somalia, Eritrea, and Egypt. In all these places, it was merchants who pioneered the migration movement, paving the way for others to follow.

This dissertation project aims to bring together all these seemingly unconnected migrations of Middle Eastern Jews. However, instead of dwelling on the different local contexts, say, of Sanaa or Baghdad, it investigates what possibilities opened up for Sanaani or Baghdadi Jews across the sea. It shifts the view away from the Middle East and towards the Indian Ocean, where, during the heyday of the so-called »Empire of the Raj,« a wide horizon of opportunities presented itself to merchants - Jews and non-Jews alike. Those looking for profits and willing to adapt could break new ground in faraway lands.

Relying on memoirs, travelogues, periodicals, and archival material from British and Israeli archives, the dissertation follows the trajectories of selected traders from their hometowns of Baghdad, Basra, Sanaa, and Aden and across the Indian Ocean, looking at the factors that enabled, encouraged, or hindered their migration. Following the merchants allows for outlining the particular topology of this area stretching between Shanghai in the east and Port Said in the west. Only with the decline of that Jewish space towards the mid-twentieth century did Zion rise as the new, absolute center for all Jewish immigrants.