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Don’t forget our heroes

Sephardic Jews are not without heroes. Ignoring them leaves us poorer, writes Ben Judah

    J.F.R. Jacob pays his respects to the martyrs of the war during a function in Kolkata on December 16, 2012.
    J.F.R. Jacob pays his respects to the martyrs of the war during a function in Kolkata on December 16, 2012. (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

    There are many unsung heroes of the Jewish people. I just feel most of them are Sephardic. The further south and east you go from the shtetl in our collective memory the less the warrior-queens, rabbis, commanders of amazing deeds are remembered.

    Sephardic history is not properly taught in Jewish schools. It is given little respect in our yeshivas. Even in Israel, when designs for new banknotes were proposed in 2013, they omitted any Sephardic heroes — even though Jews whose roots lie in North Africa and the Middle East make up nearly half of Israeli Jews.

    Sephardic Jews are not without heroes. Ignoring them leaves us poorer. Our story is so much richer — and unexpected. Who remembers General J.F.R. Jacob? Outside of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — no small place — the story of one of the greatest Jewish generals of the 20th century is practically unknown. It was the tactical genius of a Jew that liberated Muslim Bangladesh . Yet Israel and the Diaspora barely took notice of him as he did it.

    Born in Calcutta in 1924, at the heart of the Baghdadi Jewish community, streets away from my grandfather, Jacob Farj Rafael (“J.F.R.”) Jacob signed-up in the Second World War when news of Holocaust first reached him. The Jacob family, which like the Judah family, left Iraq for India in the 18th century, sheltered Ashkenazi refugees in Calcutta in 1942. Their stories from Germany and Poland spurred the young man into the war against Hitler.

    Devoted to the British Indian Army, which in 1947 became the army of the new India, J.F.R. was the mastermind of the Indian invasion, which liberated the 65m Muslims of what was then known as East Pakistan and later became Bangladesh.

    Convinced that victory lay in fighting through the monsoon and in circling the big Bangladeshi cities, Jacob spread his forces through the marshes and riverine swamps which form the Ganges delta and secured a total victory. The 93,000 Pakistan forces surrendering to him in Dhaka marked the largest military surrender since the Second World War.

    Across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, General Jacob is seen to this day as a military hero and a Jew unflinching in his devotion to India. Why have we done so little to remember his memory for ourselves?

    Spend time in the bougainvillea-decked bungalows of New Delhi politicians and you will quickly realize that J.F.R.’s achievement was not only military but also diplomatic. After his military career was over he served as the Governor of Goa, India’s richest state, and the Punjab, arguably one of its most important. Entering into politics with the Bharatiya Janata Party of Narendra Modi, he was a tireless advocate for closer ties between India and Israel.

    A year after J.F.R. was laid to rest in New Delhi’s only Jewish cemetery, Jacob’s dream of an alliance between Israel and India has started to form a reality. The visit of Narendra Modi, a man he advised, was the first visit of an Indian premier to Israel. Where just a generation earlier, the talk in New Delhi was of support for the PLO and not extending more than de jure recognition of Israel, the talk in the Indian capital today is of intelligence sharing and scientific partnership. Little acknowledged, little supported, but with an uncanny resemblance to Ariel Sharon, J.F.R. was a one man AIPAC in New Delhi. Like so many other Sephardic heroes, he deserves a mention in our textbooks – at the very least.

    There are so many more Sephardic heroes, from the French Nobel Prize winning novelist Patrick Modiano, to the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose legends deserve to be right at the centre of the Jewish story we tell in our community — and not forgotten at the fringes.

    Ben Judah is the author of ‘This is London’

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