The Curious Case Of Doresh Tov Le-‘amo, India’s First Hebrew Newspaper

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The title page for vol. 3. no. 35 of Doresh tov le-‘amo, published in Bombay in June 1858. Acquired from the Valmadonna Trust, 2005 (ORB 40/595). British Library. Image: Public domain.
What can India's first Hebrew newspaper, started by a Baghdadi Jew from Bombay, tell us about journalistic integrity?

In the early nineteenth century, business was good for the Sassoon family. After moving to Bombay from Baghdad, Iraq, they started trading in opium, cotton and other commodities. In a few decades, they established a global business empire, amassed enormous wealth and became one of the wealthiest Jewish families in the sub-continent.

David Sassoon, the pioneer who started trading in Bombay, ran his business empire with his sons like a well-oiled machine. One of David Sassoon’s sons, Sason ben David Sasoon (S.D) took a keen interest in the affairs of the world. Running a global empire meant he needed to understand how the ebb and flow of world events would affect the family business.

That was also a time when the press was starting out in India. A few decades after the Irishman James Augustus Hickey established Hicky’s Bengal Gazette in 1780, and Richard Johnston started the Madras Courier in 1785, enterprising individuals and social reformers started newspapers aimed at Indian readers. In 1811, a few merchants from Calcutta started the Calcutta Chronicle (edited by James Silk Buckingham), Raja Ram Mohun Roy started a Bengali newspaper Samband Kaumudi and a Persian paper Mirat-ul-Akhbar in 1822, Fardanoji Murzaban, the pioneer of the ‘vernacular press,’ started the Bombay Samachar in 1822, and the Times of India started its first edition as The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce. The press was slowly starting to take on a new role in India. Newspapers were becoming the new tools to speak and be heard.

Taking a cue from the emerging newspaper revolution, in 1855, S.D.Sassoon started a bi-weekly Hebrew newspaper in Bombay – Doresh Tov Le’amo. This Hebrew title, taken from a biblical verse, Esther 10:3, roughly translates to ‘Bears good tidings to his people,’ and was aimed at informing and educating the small Baghdadi Jewish community in Bombay who were not well versed in English. As S.D. wrote:

much external affair as came to the knowledge of the editor through the medium of English newspapers…much space is devoted to current matters of interest to the small matters of interest, to the small settlement of Baghdad Arab speaking Jews who were not well versed in the English language.

S.D. took the role of the editor of the newspaper and hand wrote the first two issues himself in Baghdadi Judeo Arabic script, on a blue four-page paper, penning his editorial vision in the opening essay.

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The title page for vol. 1. no. 16 of Doresh tov le-‘amo (The Hebrew Gazette), published in Bombay in the spring of 1856, lithographed on blue paper (ORB 40/595). Image: British Library. public Domain

Written on a distinctive cursive script, it was the first Jewish newspaper in India to use Hebrew characters. The front pages of the issues were decorated with unique calligraphy. The title panel was flanked by floral designs and a pair of steamboats served as text markers. On the eleventh issue, the English sub-title – The Hebrew Gazette – was added to the paper, primarily to appeal to the British rulers.

After publishing two issues, S.D. passed on the editorial responsibility to David Hayim David but kept a close watch on the editorial. News about the movement of ships in and out of Bombay, commercial information from India and China, police reports, notices relating to local Baghdadi Jewish community (such as weddings and philanthropic acts), historical articles and accounts of overseas Jewish people were published along with details of the weekly Torah portion and prophetical readings for the Sabbath service.

Two years into its operations, in 1857, British India was engulfed in an extraordinary turn of events. The Sepoy mutiny broke out and was turning into a full-scale war, threatening the stability of the British rule in India. Covering the events of the Sepoy mutiny on a regular basis, the Doresh Tov Le’amo started publishing weekly instead of bi-weekly. A report about the capture and brutal execution of the mutineers reads:

Two soldiers were blown from the cannon mouth. One was a Mohammedan Major Subedar, and the other, a sepoy. Before they were blown up, their crimes were read out. The marine battalion were present to see and tremble. When they were blown up, they became a hundred pieces.

Far from questioning the government’s brutal public execution aimed at terrorizing the mutineers, this disturbing report ended with a strange comment – ‘Rachmana Litslan’ – a Jewish expression of awe which means ‘May the merciful one save us from such fate.’

The Doresh Tov Le’amo kowtowed to the powers that be and submitted itself as an instrument of social capital.

Astute businessmen that they were, the Sassoons knew how to convert their social capital into commercial capital. Much like the media owners of today, the Sassoon’s knew that the commercial success of their business empire is, to a large extent, dependent on the relationship they maintained with the powerful officials who ruled British India. Besides, for businessmen from the East, such as the Sassoons, becoming a British subject was a passport to privilege. The Sassoon family also had ambitions to expand their empire to England.

So, a month after the mutiny started, David Sasson and other Jews wrote a letter to the Governor of Bombay expressing their ‘feelings of horror and indignation, at the accounts of the cowardly and savage atrocities perpetrated by the ruthless mutineers.’ Despite seeking refuge from persecution – and amassing all their wealth from trading in Bombay, they expressed their loyalty to the British rule in India and offered their services to the Governor of Bombay ‘to be employed in any manner that your Lordship may consider most conducive.’

Lord Elphinstone, the Governor, welcomed their support but understood their commercial pragmatism. As he wrote:

You justly feel that any attack upon the power and dominion of England is a blow aimed at your prosperity, at the developments of your trade.

Being in the good books of the government helped. Three years after setting up India’s first Judeo Arabic newspaper, S.D. Sasson moved to England to establish the family’s business presence in England. He ‘heralded his family’s Englishness’ by applying for a coat of arms with Jewish symbols which was granted in December 1862. As S.D. and his family prospered and flourished, they moved into the upper echelons of the society. But after publishing as a weekly for over a decade, the Doresh Tov Le’amo ceased publication in 1866.

The Doresh Tov Le’amo remains an indelible part of India’s Jewish history. Today, its remaining prints, stocked in the vaults of the British Library offer a fascinating account of the socio-cultural habits of Bombay’s Baghdadi Jews in the mid-nineteenth-century.

But the Doresh Tov Le’amo also remains a classic case study in the history of journalism for highlighting two important issues that the newspaper industry has to grapple with even today:

  1. The newspaper’s reluctance – and inability – to hold power to account and/or question the brutal and repressive methods of the government.
  2. It also highlights the newspaper’s commitment – not to journalistic integritybut to the commercial and ideological interests of its owners.

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