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David Reubeni, Hero and Paradigm of Israel’s Striving
By Eugene Narrett, PhD
In 1510 the Islamic rulers of central India pressed southward and came up against an ancient Jewish kingdom termed “the black Bnei Israel” and the prosperous towns and ports they had established in the Malabar region in cities like Cochin and Calicot . At the same time, they heard reports from anousim and conversos among the Portuguese sailors, for example the great physician and botanist Abraham ben Samuel Zacuto of the extreme distress of the Jews in Portugal and Spain. From these dual threats to life and national continuity a young Jewish leader from a line dating back two millennia developed an audacious strategic plan of redemption spanning five continents and twenty five years. His name was David HaReubeni, more commonly known as, “Reubeni.”
As has been done to heroes who might have saved the Jewish people in recent decades, some 20th century historians, not least Jewish ones have trivialized Reubeni’s diaries and travel. But many more, British, Israeli, Afghans and Indians of the region have provided verifying details of the background for his bold and brilliant efforts . Suffice to say that the ten tribes of Israel defeated and exiled by the Assyrians twenty-seven hundred and thirty years ago have long been spread thickly throughout Afghanistan and portions of Pakistan from Kandahar to Kabul to Peshawar. The Pashtun, synonymous with the fiercely independent, autonomous Pathans of whom we heard when America invaded Afghanistan were Jewish until a few centuries ago. They still call themselves by Jewish tribal names and observe fundamental Jewish commandments from circumcision on the 8th day, fringed garments and baking challah on Shabbat .
This background is germane to this essay for it is from these remarkable and warlike people that David Reubeni planned to form one prong of a fighting force that he hoped not only would save the Jews of Cochin and Canganore in Southern India but also redeem the Jews of Europe and liberate the Promised Land.
There were no email or cell phones in those days; they even lacked fax machines, radio and railroads. Their energy, genius, liberty, courage and faith are inspiring and have some striking modern analogs to be noted in closing.
Shachan speculates that Reubeni may have heard of the plight of the Jews faced with the inquisition from Jewish sailors like Gaspar de Gama, originally from Poland, assistant to the well-known Vasco da Gama (whose name he took when agreeing to formal conversion) and navigators like Zacuto, Francisco Albaquerque and Alisandro de Altiada . Rather than simply seeking the new European technologies of cannon and muskets in a dual assault against a common enemy, Reubeni, in consultation with Jews of Malabar, Gaza and Jerusalem conceived a more complex plan: armed with cannons, the Bnei Israel of Afghanistan and Pakistan, “the desert of Chabor” would move in force westward toward their ancient homeland while some of them with Jews from southern India sailed up the Red Sea and, with Amharic Jews of Ethiopia attacked the Mohammedans from the southeast. Meanwhile the kings of Portugal, France and Austria would attack the Turks by sea and land aided by the army of Jews who would leave Iberia and perhaps other parts of Europe. This breathtaking strategic genius was possible only in an age of flux and discovery and would find no parallel till the 25 years of diplomatic and military efforts by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in Europe, England, the Promised Land and America.
David Reubeni had the presence to push the plan through. He was the son of King Solomon of the Bnei Israel in southern India and well known to the Jews of Chabor. “Dark-skinned short, thin, fasting daily, very pious” as both Christian and Jewish observers recorded [Shachan 235].
Modern strategies seem staid by comparison but when Julio De Medici, Pope Clement VII heard the plan on Shushan Purim, 15 Adar I of 1524 he supported it and wrote letters of introduction to King Juan III of Portugal; Vatican officials had the letters delayed. Rather than stay in a Cardinal’s residence, in Rome Reubeni stayed in the Jewish quarter and paraded on a white horse through the streets with a banner reading, Mi Kamokha, Hashem (“who is like You, Eternal One”). Crowds of all faiths flocked around him.
When Reubeni arrived in Portugal the desperate conversos thronged to him; scenes like those in Rome were repeated for the man and his plan was prodigious and people were less “practical” than now in the days of Annapolis and the “War on Terror.” The enthusiasm created some problems: King Juan was restless with the expectations of the conversos. Francois I and Austrian Emperor Karl created further problems by becoming embroiled in a war that involved the city states of northern Italy and the Pope, too. But the main problem, -- and here is where one feels that some things never change – was “that Jewish informers scuttled the plan, placing obstacles in Reubeni’s path when he tried to recruit followers. These informers allied themselves with anti-Semitic bishops and the Portuguese consul to the Vatican who was known for his hatred of Jews. They slandered Reubeni to the Pope,” creating a climate of hostility that slowed the project when time was of the essence .
The Talmud describes one of the features of the end of days as consisting of Jewish leaders who will ally with gentile haters of Jews and even encourage the latter to treat Jews with brutality by their own injustice . This situation pervades the 20th century with Chaim Weizmann demanding there be no “illegal” (as the British defined it) Jewish immigration to Israel and he, with Ben Gurion combining to demand that the dissenting Jabotinsky, who spoke repeatedly of the urgent need for millions to leave Europe, “submit to [Labor-Histadrut and official Zionist] discipline” for “the official Zionist position was not to attack [criticize] the British government.” Even when a mortally ill Jabotinsky, working mutual acquaintances secured meetings with Weizmann and his agreement to support formation and training of a Jewish army in North America, the deal was killed by Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise and top Labor Zionist apologists for Britain . Top level Polish officials, ambassador to London Count Edward Raczynski, Foreign Minister Count Josef Beck, Count Michael Lubienski and President Slava Skladkowski planned to assist the Jews materially and in numbers while the Laborites worked with the British as their heirs would work with the EU, Vatican and Washington . In the end, delays by puppets within the ranks and then onslaught from without, the German invasion
Reacting to the fervor and enthusiasm sparked by Reubeni’s appearance and status, and by the preaching of his new Portuguese disciple, Solomon Molcho, Juan III ordered Reubeni out of his land. He went to Rome and, in 1530 with Molcho to Germany to consult with Emperor Karl who, he reasoned, might be more practical having had the Turks at Vienna just a year previously. But Karl was not a reasonable man on the subject of the Jews, no more than the English have been the past hundred years, -- and not only them. He marched with the emissaries to Italy, giving Molcho to the inquisition and a fiery death in Mantua and sending Reubeni to Spain where, after a long imprisonment he was burnt in 1538. In the meantime, the Muslims in southern India had overrun both the Bnei Israel and the Portuguese forts and it would be left for Donna Gracia Nasi and her son-in-law, Joseph to purchase favors and free passage to Turkey and Tiberias from the Sultan. The magnificent and achievable plan for redemption, a plan that would have changed history fell before the wrath of the cowards, envious, mad and wrathful.
Shachan writes, “It is surprising to see how Jewish historians minimized, falsified, and distorted the image of HaReuveni, one of the bravest of our people, a fighter, statesman, and visionary who envisioned the establishment of a Jewish army to free his land, the land of Israel from Muslim conquerors 350 years before Theodore Herzl” . Except for the dates, he might have written the same of Jabotinsky who worked tirelessly to create coalitions of the sensible and humane to found the Jewish Legion, Hagana, Beitar, NZO, Jewish immigration groups (Af-Al-Pi), and almost an army in North America. Reubeni’s plans may have had less back ups but were cogent and bold: in contact with Jewish navigators both in India and Portugal, Reubeni planned that at least masses of Jews could be transported to the western hemisphere, the New World that Jewish navigators with their instruments and maps had enabled the Portuguese to explore and thus saved from the fires of Europe that claimed him and so many millions in more recent times. Instead of being forcibly converted, the Jews beyond the Gozan (now called the Jazzan or Khoz) could have returned home in triumphant conquest and the Jews of Europe gone en masse to the Promised Land or the New World. Instead of the World Socialist Order of Hi Tech feudalism, words of Torah would go forth from Jerusalem and from Washington. Instead of mad cow disease there would be widespread practice of kashrut; instead of RFID chips and tyranny there would be abundance, privacy, and land for all, modeled on Israel.
Reubeni’s fascinating link to Garcia de Orta and his strategic journey to Bnei Israel in India ended ‘only’ in ground-breaking medical-botanical research published years later ; in closing let us simply absorb the parallels to events of the late 1930s and those of our days now darkening toward climax, the promise and example of Hanukah their only saving grace.
1. The main text for this essay is Avigdor Shachan, In the Footsteps of the Ten Lost Tribes (Jerusalem 2007), translation by Laurence Becker of Shachan’s original Hebrew version, Towards the Sambatyon River: in the Footsteps of the Ten Lost Tribes (Tel Aviv 2003); 231-60 for the account of Reubeni.
2. Shachan, 25-41 passim; 80-99. Shachan calls the hero “HaReubeni.”
3. “Ever since the Temple was destroyed they wear a black fringe until they return to Judaism.” “We know that our origins are Israelite; [we] agreed to convert to Islam to avoid annihilation but secretly continued to maintain the traditions of our Jewish origin.” Yitzhak Ben-Zvi; Abba Koret, Reuven Kashani, the Ten Tribes (Jerusalem 1984) ; T.L. Pennell, Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier (London 1909) wrote, “the Afghans are the most intelligent residents of the region…Almost all consider themselves as Israelites.” In his fourth book on the area, Dr. Henry W. Bellew answered his own question, Are the Afghans Jews largely in the affirmative while all acknowledge that formally, and in public they insist on being Sunni Muslims as intensely as they do on the fact that they “are not Jews but Israelites” Colonel T.H. Holdich (1919). The royal Pathan family claims descent from Benjamin and resides in Kabul (Kashani) while they observe ceremonies of dabbing the doorpost on Pesach and Yom Kippur sacrifices (Pennell).
4. Shachan 252-5; on the remarkable collections of ancient maps that Jewish navigators drew, enabling the Portuguese discoveries were indications of a 1200 mile land bridge from Siberia to what we call Alaska, the use of longitudinal lines centuries before common in Europe, and detailed delineation of the coasts and terrain of Antarctica that astounded US Air Force cartographers with their accuracy in 1960, ibid. 101-07.
5. Ibid. 236
6. Daf Yomi version of Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sanhedrin volume III (NY Mesorah, 2004), 98a, Rashi followed by Yad Rama and Maharsha on hypocritical judges. “If the idolatrous judges [gazirpatai] who used brutality against the Jews disappear and the amgushai [sorcerers] would disappear than those who attack Jews covertly would disappear.” One need not comment on the sorcerers of the diplomatic-media cartel or the sorceries they work along with the intelligence cadres in church or state, nor on the idolatrous judges of the Supreme Court who worship their de facto omnipotence and relentlessly purge Israel of its sovereignty and of Judaism.
7. Shmuel Katz, Lone Wolf, a Biography of Zev Jabotinsky (NY 1996), 1140, 1380-90, passim; “The Labor people,” Jabotinsky wrote of the Zionist Conference of 1933, “was converted by Labor into a war on Jabotinsky, the Revisionists [NZO], on the religious Mizrachi…” Katz adds, “Labor was approaching the hegemony in Zionism of which Ben Gurion had always dreamed.” Ben Gurion, Katz notes in his Afterword often denied the feasibility of a Jewish state, ibid. 1730. For the scuttling of the Jewish army see 1763-6. Stephen Wise spent much of WW II assuaging whatever pain Roosevelt might have felt about yielding to the State Department and British diplomats about abandoning the Jews of Europe.
8. Ibid. 1495-1504; 1692-5, 1788-9; in September 1937, Raczynski told British FM Anthony Eden that “the Polish government attaches the greatest weight to [Jewish] immigration to Palestine because Jews in Poland are the greatest number of immigrants [there] and emigration is a burning need.” Eden, dominating much of Britain’s foreign policy for twenty years was “insanely pro-Arab” his personal secretary noted and “very much against the Jews.” See Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial (2002 re-print)
9. Shachan 247; Aharon Eshkoli, the Story of David Reubeni (1940) cites Christian and Asian sources as attesting Reubeni’s origin in India, the masses of Jews there, their flocks, elders and kings,” 248-9. Sailors and cartographers of Portugal in the 17th century note that the far east collectively often was referred to as “India” and, a century earlier, a Portuguese captain, freed from Muslim captivity averred that the Jews “indeed have kings” there (Shachan 250-1). H.W. Bellew writes of a Jewish monarchy in Dehli in the 13th century (ibid. 255) and to this day there are masses of assimilated Jews in and around Puna and Bombay. See also, inter alia Benjamin of Tudela’s Book o f Travels 1165-73 in Jewish Travelers in the Middle Ages (NY 1987; London, Routledge 1930), 49-57, tr. Elkan N. Adler from an MS in the British Museum #27089.
The river Gozan mentioned by numerous ancient and medieval travelers and in countless stories may be today’s Khoz that flows north and then east to join the Indus. At the Khyber pass was a Jewish city called Khaibar, as there had been in northern Arabia till ravaged by the initial burst of jihad.
Colonel John Henry Patterson praised Jabotinsky’s “healthy and simple political philosophy” and, as a lover of Israel, lamented the “peculiar inhibitions of the Jewish mind influenced by the abnormalities of centuries of life in dispersion.” Count Lubienski said in retrospect, “I hold Jabotinsky in the highest regard…but as I see it, Dr. Weizmann has all the chances to retain the allegiance of the majority of the Jewish people because his entire mentality is identical with that of the typical ghetto Jew…Jabotinsky will be applauded but followed only by those who have overcome the ghetto complex,” Katz, 1788. This is grimly ironic since early in his life, Weizmann derided the Jews of Poland as having “the stink of the ghetto” which he did not want in the new secular Israel, the “Monaco with a University” he and Judah Magnes at length preferred to see. Weizmann projected his own ghetto qualities onto other Jews and despised them; Jabotinsky loved all Jews and sought to save their lives and give them honor and strength.
10. A Collection of Plants and Medications (1563), Shachan, 258-60; when the Jesuits pursuing de Orta found his body, they exhumed and burned it. The relevant documents establishing that he was a hidden Jews were discovered in 1934.