Professor J. B. Segal

Scholar of Semitic languages

Friday 07 November 2003 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Judah Benzion Segal, Semitic scholar: born Newcastle upon Tyne 21 June 1912; MC 1942; Reader in Aramaic and Syriac in London University 1955-61, Professor of Semitic Languages 1961-79 (Emeritus); Head of Department of Near and Middle East, School of Oriental and African Studies 1961-68, Honorary Fellow 1983; FBA 1968; married 1946 Leah Seidemann (two daughters); died London 23 October 2003.

J. B. Segal was a widely respected scholar of the Syriac and Aramaic languages and, as Professor of Semitic Languages at London University from 1961 until his retirement in 1979, promoted a comprehensive approach to the study of Semitic languages - making full use of the unique resources provided by Soas - the university's School of Oriental and African Studies.

As Head of the Near and Middle East Department at London, he sought to advance the study of the broad field of Semitic linguistics and philology. No longer were "Semitic languages" to be treated as an interesting sideline of a Hebrew-Aramaic curriculum, but the new BA degree in Semitic Languages that Segal was largely instrumental in introducing at London was to include, in addition to Hebrew, thorough coverage of Akkadian, Arabic and Semitic Ethiopian languages (these last introduced to the curriculum in 1964 at his instigation). The college thus became the only institution in the United Kingdom where "BA Semitic Languages" meant exactly what it said.

Judah Benzion Segal was born in Newcastle in 1912, the son of the distinguished biblical and Mishnaic scholar M.H. Segal and younger brother of the future MP for Preston Samuel (later Lord) Segal, who was to play an important role in setting up the National Health Service.

Educated at Magdalen College School in Oxford, "Ben" Segal entered St Catharine's College, Cambridge, in 1932 to read for the Oriental Languages Tripos, graduating in 1935 with a First, before proceeding to Oxford to continue his researches at St John's College. There he was awarded a DPhil in 1939. At both universities he won prestigious prizes and awards, notably the James Mew Scholarship at Oxford in 1937. He also found time to gain his colours in 1935 and 1936 with the Cambridge University Boxing Club. The skill acquired thereby was to prove of benefit when, later in life, he encountered an officious policeman while carrying out fieldwork in a remote part of Turkey. Fortunately, they made friends later.

Segal's scholarly career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, but he was able to spend his war service largely in the Near East and North Africa. From 1939 till 1941 he served as Deputy Assistant Director, Public Security, for the government of the Sudan and from 1942 until 1944, as captain, at the General Headquarters of the Middle East Force. In 1942 he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery behind enemy lines in an action which contributed to the final capitulation of the strategic city of Dema to the Allies in January 1943, though he was never very forthcoming on the details of this. Finally, he served as Education Officer in the British Military Administration in Tripolitania in 1945 and 1946.

On his return to civilian life in 1946 he resumed his professional career as a Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic at Soas, and was to remain there till his retirement. In 1961 he was appointed Professor of Semitic Languages, and in the same year head of department, in which role he was both conscientious and fair.

Although he had been able to publish an important, if recondite study, The Diacritical Point and the Accents in Syriac (1953), and the more popular The Hebrew Passover from the Earliest Times to AD 70 (1963) and was a frequent contributor of articles to learned journals throughout his life, he inevitably found that his college responsibilities now left him little time in which to pursue and develop his own research interests and he stood down as head of department in 1968.

Two subjects had particularly concerned him from the outset of his career, perhaps the more compelling being the origins of Syriac, the language, in its several forms, of the Eastern Christian churches with an extensive and important literature. The roots of Syriac trace back ultimately to the East Turkish city of Edessa, now Urfa, and it was to this ancient centre that Segal had devoted most of his research interest.

In 1970 Edessa: "the blessed city", probably his most significant work, appeared. Thoroughly researched, written in an attractive style and beautifully illustrated, it appealed as much to the layman for its general interest as to the scholar for its authoritativeness. It touched Segal very deeply that in 1973 he was granted the freedom of the city of Urfa in recognition of his lifelong devotion to its history and culture.

Segal's other passion was for the Jews of Cochin, and as early as 1962 he had written an article on the subject for a learned journal. He maintained this interest into his retirement and in 1981 was awarded a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship, which enabled him to conduct fruitful research in Cochin itself. This eventually bore fruit with the publication of his authoritative A History of the Jews of Cochin in 1993. Two other works which stem from this period are concerned with Aramaic and Phoenician, both languages related to Syriac: Aramaic Texts from North Saqqâra, with some fragments in Phoenician (1983) and a Catalogue of the Aramaic and Mandaic Incantation Bowls in the British Museum (2000).

A number of honours came his way, not least his election to a Fellowship of the British Academy in 1968. In 1979, just before he retired, he was invited by Ain Shams University in Cairo to come as a Visiting Lecturer. As a Jew he derived particular satisfaction from this positive and friendly gesture, and it is perhaps typical of his generous spirit and recognition of the worth of all cultures and societies that he felt so honoured by the invitation. In 1980 he was appointed a Research Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. And in 1983, in recognition of his long service, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the School of Oriental Studies.

On his retirement Segal was also very much involved with the Jewish community in north London. He was active in his support for the Leo Baeck College, a Liberal Jewish Talmudic school, and was Principal there from 1982 till 1985, when he became President. He promoted his ecumenical approach as an active member of the Council of Christians and Jews and was also President of the North Western Reform Synagogues. From 1985 to 1991 he served as Vice-President of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain.

As a person, Segal was friendly and approachable, and at the same time modest and self-effacing. He led a happy family life with his wife Leah and their two daughters; and, if he found the pressures of work building up, he would seek solace in long and pensive walks.

A. K. Irvine

A.K. Irvine's splendid obituary of Professor J. B. Segal (above) did not describe how he earned his MC. He wrote a privately published memoir for his family about this episode, entitled Time of War (1996).

As an Arabic expert, Lieutenant Segal was posted to British Intelligence in Cairo in 1939 and also served in Khartoum and Jerusalem. In early 1942 he was sent for special training in the identification of enemy tanks, aircraft etc and was introduced to David Stirling, founder of the SAS. The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) then, in March 1942, conveyed Segal, with two other men, 200km behind the enemy lines at Benina, to lay up for three months in very primitive conditions and radio back to Cairo HQ all intelligence on enemy tank and aircraft movements, so that the Allies could bomb appropriate targets to slow up Rommel's advance.

Segal's team would move from cave to cave to avoid detection; they used local informers to obtain details of planned enemy attacks and thus the Allies were able get advance warning. Thousands of Allied lives were saved as a result of his work. After a successful mission, Segal and his team were withdrawn by the LRDG on 31 May.

Then, at the end of October 1942, he was again sent behind the lines. His second team worked in similar circumstances but this time only just keeping one step ahead of an intense search for them by Italian troops. Betrayed by local Arabs posing as friends of the Allies, Segal and his group had several close escapes from German and Italian search parties, but they continued reporting back all intelligence for many weeks, walking hundreds of kilometres in the process from hideout to hideout. Though given "licence to kill" any spies among the Arabs, Segal preferred always to move hideouts rather than take a life.

In November 1942, after further forays and adventures, and together with some friendly Senussi tribesmen, he fashioned a small Union Jack and took the surrender of the Italian garrison at Derna, the second largest city in Cyrenaica, at the same time releasing some Allied POWs in the hospital there. For his courage, initiative and persistence, Segal was awarded the MC. To protect his identity, however, he was referred to in W.B. Kennedy Shaw's 1945 book The Long Range Desert Group as Capt Seagrim; not until its reprint many years later is his true name used.

Segal stayed in North Africa in intelligence for the remainder of the Second World War but in November 1945 witnessed "the dreadful pogrom in which 130 Libyan Jews were murdered"; his forces arrived too late to prevent it. But, on a happier note, it was while on leave in Jerusalem visiting his parents that he met his future wife, Leah, when she was a sergeant in the Palestine (Israel) ATS.

Martin Sugarman

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