Jul 10

The Story of Ezra Sassoon and Kfar Yehezkel

In 1923, substantial funds were transferred from a Jewish businessman in Baghdad to the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, in order to provide much needed assistance to a newly founded village in the Jezreel Valley of then Palestine.

The donation was provided on two conditions. First, the moshav would need to be renamed as Kfar Yehezkel; second, the source of the donation would have to be strictly anonymous. After some discussion, the moshav members agreed to the renaming, and the funds flowed.

Ezra Sassoon

The unknown benefactor was Ezra Sassoon, my husband’s great-grandfather. Soon after, Ezra left Iraq with his family, en route to Manchester, and visited Palestine and Kfar Yehezkel along the way. He and his children often spoke about this visit and his contribution, but in most official records the name of Ezra Sassoon did not appear.It was dangerous in those times for an Iraqi Jew to have Zionist ties, and one of the reasons Sassoon chose to leave Iraq and immigrate to England may very well have been for security reasons. In 1918, 1919, and 1920 prominent Iraqi Jewish leaders signed and sent a letter to Sir Percy Cox, the British high commissioner, on behalf of the Jews of Iraq, requesting British citizenship, as a means to guarantee the future safety of the Jewish community as a minority group. Each petition was declined. One of the signatories was Ezra Sassoon. Perhaps he foresaw Iraqi Jewry’s fate.

Sassoon’s younger brother, Yehezkel, unmarried and childless, had died tragically in a drowning accident in the Tigris River. Ezra and his other brothers, Joe and Moshi, decided to contribute Yehezkel’s effective share of their business to an agricultural endeavor in the land of Israel, thereby commemorating his name through the dream of planting Jewish roots in the land of biblical prophecy and prayers.

 Plaque at Ezra Sassoon Park (credit: David Haran)

Plaque at Ezra Sassoon Park (credit: David Haran)

In the end, Ezra Sassoon’s foresight proved correct. Iraq persecuted its Jewish minority, which would result in the 1951-1952 airlift of 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel, known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Overnight, the oldest Jewish community in the Diaspora was expelled, and the few who remained behind in Iraq were fated to struggle and would gradually smuggle themselves out of Iraq through the Ba’ath Party era. Today, all that is left of a once glorious community are the shrines of prophets, such as Ezra, Ezekiel and Daniel, with Hebrew-lettered inscriptions, a memory that once al-Yehud lived there. 

Ezra Sassoon’s family members, by then, had left Iraq, and established themselves around the globe, from England to the United States, Brazil and South Africa. Iraq was in their food and Judeo-Arabic accents, in their embroidered gold-threaded veils and costumes brought from Iraq, and in their stories.

One of the stories that was passed from parent to child was about how Ezra Sassoon helped establish Kfar Yehezkel, and, over the years, many of his children and grandchildren would visit the growing settlement. 

LAST WEEK, the Sassoon family, together with Kfar Yehezkel and KKL-JNF, marked Ezra Sassoon’s generosity, foresight and legacy with the opening of a bike park on the moshav. The green space will serve young cyclists of the moshav and the surrounding areas.

Park Ezra Sassoon is a space for the future, but also of the past; of painted murals which tell the story of Kfar Yehezkel through the years, and of a pictured plaque at the park’s two entrances which tells Ezra’s story.

It was jointly sponsored by Ezra’s descendants from around the world, and by the residents of the moshav, to form part of Kfar Yehezkel’s 100-year celebrations.

Surrounded with olive trees and blooming rose bushes, amid cheers and laughter, the moshav’s children pedaled hard, falling and raising themselves up. Many of the moshavniks attended, including Drora Fenster, who was the first baby born on the Moshav, who recently celebrated her hundredth birthday.

Ezra’s descendants who live today throughout Israel shared stories with the old-time moshavniks of Kfar Yehezkel and the Sassoon family. Next year, a gathering of family members from around the world is planned to take place at the moshav. 

One of the stories told at the official ceremony was by Ezra Sassoon’s great-granddaughter Tamar Shashoua Horovitz, who some years ago moved to Israel from Brazil.

Over the years, the Brazilian branch of the family naturally became somewhat removed from the English-speaking branches, and by this time, Tamar’s father had died, and thus she never knew the story of Ezra’s donation.

When searching for a place in Israel for her young family to live, Tamar came across a small moshav in the Jezreel Valley called Kfar Yehezkel. She liked it and, soon after, moved there.

Ten years ago, at the brit milah of her son Yonatan, Tamar wrapped her baby in an intricately Iraqi embroidered blanket. On seeing the blanket, one of her neighbors, Adina Levin, whose family came to the moshav from Romania, exclaimed, “We are also Iraqi in this kfar.” She ran home and brought back a picture of Ezra Sassoon, his wife, Masouda, and their children, which she had received some years before by another descendant of Ezra. Tamar and her mother immediately recognized the photo, which included Tamar’s grandmother, then a small girl. Stunned and elated, they burst into tears.

“Today we cannot return to Baghdad, but we can visit Kfar Yehezkel,” a great-granddaughter of Ezra Sassoon said to me after the ceremony.

I realized then that this was his legacy, the legacy of all Jews who contributed to and invested in this land built on the sweat of plowing, sacrifice of blood, and biblical belief. This was the legacy of an Iraqi Jew a hundred years ago who supported a village of Eastern European Jews, which has since grown into a thriving community of around 1,200 people.

Ezra, Joe and Moshi did not know, when they invested significant funds to honor their younger brother, that the Zionist endeavor would succeed and eventually provide a haven for their Iraqi Jewish brethren when they would have to flee Iraq. Ezra did not know that his family would carry on their generosity and Zionism, and that, 100 years later, they would unite with one another and with the moshav he helped found, to honor his legacy. 

The Land of Israel has blossomed over the past 100 years. The fertile Jezreel Valley and its moshavim, including Kfar Yehezkel, have provided bountiful and much needed wheat, olives, citrus, almonds and milk. Like the dry bones in the Prophet Ezekiel’s prophecy, what was once buried in dust has come to life.