DAVIDE SALA was a legendary survivor who escaped death several times and was twice exiled from his country of origin, Iraq. He moved countries four times and on each occasion succeeded in business in his new home. He spied for the British during the Second World War and was instrumental in organising the mass exodus of Iraqi Jews to Israel in the early 1950s.
In Britain, where he had lived since 1978, Sala will be best remembered for bringing about a revolutionary change in Jewish communal affairs through involving a large section of the Sephardic Jews who had previously been ignored. These Jews had come from the Arab countries of the Middle East and settled in Britain after 1956. They did not fit in easily with the Anglo-Jewish establishment of mainly east European extraction and differing traditions. Thanks to Sala's efforts, however, they became united in their common cause of helping Israel.
Sala and his wife, Irene, who was tragically killed in an air crash last year, were instrumental in funding a vast number of charities. This meant not just donating money but developing close relationships with the staff of all the institutions they supported, and sharing the burden. Most of this was done behind the scenes, for the Salas never strove to impress or to publicise their efforts.
Among the large number of causes he supported were the Ethnography Wing of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; the Art Activity Centre of Tel Aviv Museum; the Molecular Genetics Laboratory at Hebrew University, Jerusalem; and the nuclear medicine chair at Ben-Gurion University, Bersheba.
One of Davide Sala's favoured causes was the encouragement of young immigrants to Israel of Iraqi origin. I remember once talking to him about a young man who was doing his postgraduate studies. The affectionate way Sala spoke about him made me think he was talking about one of his children. Only later did I discover that he was describing one of his many proteges.
The son of an established assimilated Jewish family in Baghdad, he was born Daoud Yehuda in 1914, and came across anti-Semitism at his Muslim secondary school. It was then that he decided to change his surname to his father's first name - Salman. Although he was only 15 when his father died and he had to become the breadwinner of the family, he gained a scholarship and graduated with full honours at the American University in Beirut. It was here that he first became involved with Zionism. After returning to Iraq he taught at a number of different schools. He continued with his Zionists activities, was discovered, and exiled internally in 1937 and 1940 to remote areas of Iraq where he was kept under constant surveillance.
He later joined the family textile business - which also acted as agent for Tate & Lyle, The Royal Insurance Company and Gordon's Gin - and became a leading member of the Jewish community in Baghdad. During the Second World War he formed an anti-Nazi underground movement consisting of 80 people (not all Jews) who fed information to the British as well as to the Jewish Agency of Palestine. But there was more work to do after the foundation of Israel in 1948, when the lives of Jews in surrounding countries were threatened.
Sala was a key figure in abortive talks to exchange populations between Middle East Jews and Palestinians. More importantly, he was instrumental in helping with the exodus of 500,000 Jews to Israel between 1950 and 1952. He and his wife were among the last to leave Iraq legally and they settled with their baby daughter in Milan. A few years later, Sala's business ties with the oil business in the Middle East led the family to settle for several years in Tehran, where he became an influential member of the business and Persian intellectual communities.
Sala sold his flourishing business in Iran and returned to Italy in 1975, four years before the Shah's downfall. Despite success in his business in Italy, he left for London in 1978 because he wanted to bring up his children in Britain. He continued his international business from London, but devoted an increasing amount of time to philanthropic causes.
The Jewish community in England is lucky to have known such a giant of a man - modest, charming, and one whose generosity was limitless.
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