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The “Rothschilds of Arabia”

Jewish-Yemeni Merchants in Palestine and Beyond

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On the corner of Rothschild Boulevard and Nachlat Binyamin Street in downtown Tel Aviv stands an office building: the Benin House. Dwarfed today by skyscrapers, in its day it was an urban landmark, built in the International Style by architect Zaki Chelouche. More curious than its architecture, however, are its origins. In a city mostly built by immigrants from Europe, the Benin House bears a Yemeni name. On a boulevard dedicated to the renowned French baron Edmond James de Rothschild, the building commemorates a far less remembered Yemeni merchant dynasty, once known as the “Rothschilds of Arabia.” Its history also illuminates a forgotten side of the migration of Jews from Yemen.

The Benin House was commissioned in 1937 by Maurice Benin. It appears on a list of Maurice’s possessions from 1941 together with several other lands in Palestine. Remarkably, the list also includes dozens of properties in Port Said, Alexandria, Aden, Djibouti, Berbera, Addis Ababa and Diredawa – Maurice’s share of his family’s commercial empire run from Aden. It ends with “etc.,” perhaps referring to the family’s real estate in Bombay (Mumbai) or Massawa.

The list does not merely reflect Maurice’s wealth, but outlines the broad space across which Yemeni Jews spread in the nineteenth and twentieth century. At that time, India, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Egypt all became attractive destinations for merchants and immigrants from Yemen. The firm of Maurice’s uncle Benin Menahem Messa – head of Aden’s Jewish community since 1864 and the wealthiest Jewish merchant in the city – played an active role in the migration process. From Aden it sent out agents, established trade offices and acquired real estate overseas – thereby preparing the ground for settlement of other Yemeni Jews. In Addis Ababa, for example, a migrant community clustered around the firm’s complex, known after its patron as Benin Säfär (Amharic: Benin Compound).

Maurice Benin’s possessions from 1941. Central Zionist Archive, Z5/159
Maurice Benin’s possessions from 1941. Central Zionist Archive, Z5/159
Maurice Benin’s possessions from 1941. Central Zionist Archive, Z5/159
Maurice Benin’s possessions from 1941. Central Zionist Archive, Z5/159
Tel Aviv, Alexandria: Maurice Benin’s letterhead. Israel State Archives, M-76/8
Maurice Benin's letterhead referencing his branch in Alexandria, Israel State Archives, M-76/8
The Hibshoosh Bros in Tel Aviv. Similar letterheads were printed for the branches in Sanaa and Aden. Israel State Archives, M-4329/48
Letterhead of the The Hibshoosh Bros in Tel Aviv. Similar letterheads were printed for the branches in Sanaa and Aden. Israel State Archives, M-4329/48

Members of the Benin family themselves settled in Port Said and Alexandria, where they joined the local commercial elites. Benin Menahem Messa used to spend his summers in temperate Port Said, from where he sometimes traveled to Palestine. There, he would give alms, buy lands and conduct business, for example with the Chelouche family, whose son would later design the Benin House. At the festive reception thrown for him on his arrival in Jaffa in 1920, Benin even expressed his hope to establish a permanent branch for his firm in Palestine. This was never realized as he died two years later.

While Benin Menahem Messa only visited Palestine briefly, his younger brother, Selim Benin, settled there permanently. After leaving Aden for Bombay, Selim arrived in Jerusalem around the turn of the twentieth century. He opened a bank in the Old City and settled in a beautiful villa on Jaffa Road, where his son Maurice was born. At the outbreak of the Great War the family left for Alexandria. There, as a young adult, Maurice Benin started his own shipping company in the 1930s, operating in both Egypt and Palestine. Since 1937, the firm’s office was located at the Benin House on Rothschild Boulevard.

A few minutes’ walk from the Benin House, on a narrow street in Levinsky Market, stands the spice shop of the Hibshoosh (Ḥibšūš) family. Its history goes back to 1883, when Benin Menahem Messa first laid eyes on a newcomer to Aden, the Sanaani peddler Sulaymān Hibshoosh. Returning from Bombay, Sulaymān arrived at Aden with Indian goods which attracted Benin’s attention. Benin eventually employed Sulaymān as his agent, entrusting him with a camel caravan loaded with Indian tobacco to be transported to Sanaa. After making a fortune in Sanaa, Sulaymān set out his own business path. He founded a new firm, passed on after his death to his sons: the Hibshoosh Bros.

Besides branches in Sanaa and Aden, the Hibshoosh Bros maintained a network of agents across Yemen and beyond. One agent was the Aden-born Gabriel Levy, who after trying his luck in Jerusalem settled in Port Said. The Hibshoosh brothers would also travel themselves to Egypt or Syria for business. On the way to Damascus in 1924, one of them passed through Jerusalem. Seeing the miserable condition of the city, he warned his brothers to stay away from the Holy Land. But where he saw neglect, the others recognized potential. In 1929, the family opened a shop in Jaffa, which joined – rather than replacing – the branches in Sanaa and Aden. In 1936 it relocated to Tel Aviv, where it stands till today.

Yechiel Hibshoosh of the Tel Aviv branch maintained the company’s old business relations until as late as the 1970s. He made frequent business trips to Addis Ababa, where he could still find Yemeni merchants living in the old Benin Säfär. He also visited Aden, where he met his friend Bentob Messa, grandson of Benin Menahem Messa and since 1937 the president of Aden’s Jewish community. The two resumed the business partnership between both families started almost a century earlier.

With the British departure from Aden in 1967, Bentob Messa was among the last Jews to leave the city. One Hibshoosh brother was arrested over a blood libel in 1948 and left Sanaa shortly thereafter, as did the entire family soon thereafter. Maurice Benin’s family, still in Alexandria, left Egypt around the time of the anti-Jewish riots in 1947. In 1954, with the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Maurice was ultimately expelled from Egypt. Leaving his property behind, he settled in Tel Aviv.

Running in and out Palestine, the intertwining trajectories of the Benin and Hibshoosh families eventually found their final destination in Israel. With the mass migration from Yemen in the 1950s, their settlement there might in retrospect appear inevitable. But against the sweeping telos of Aliyah, leading uni-directionally from Yemen to Zion, their life stories suggest a more complex constellation. As reflected in Maurice Benin’s list from 1941, a broader horizon of opportunities once stood open to Yemeni Jews, one encompassing at the same time Aden, Bombay, Addis Ababa, Alexandria, and Tel Aviv.

Shaul Marmari is a PhD Candidate at the Leibniz-Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow. His project focuses on Jewish commercial networks around the Indian Ocean in the modern imperial period | marmari(at)dubnow.de

Cover Picture: The Benin House around 1947 © Courtesy of Dana Sokoletsky