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India, Israel and the Jewish People

(This section on the Jews of India draws from a large number of sources, but does not present a comprehensive summary of the academic literature on the subuject. For a detailed study of the history and anthropology of India’s Jews see, among others, the numerous publications of Hebrew University’s Dr. Shalva Weil.)

A history of people-to-people links between the Jews and Indians must begin with the Indian Jews. Jews came to India and remained there since times immemorial. Several groups can be distinguished:

Bene Israel: Prior to the 1950s when the overwhelming majority moved to Israel, this was the largest Jewish community in India, numbering around 25,000. There are significantly more than twice that number in Israel today. Approximately 4,000 remain in India, but according to informal estimates by Indian Jewish leaders, there are also 25,000 Indians with one Jewish parent, and 100,000 with one Jewish grandparent. Many of them have not forgotten their Jewish roots. The majority of the Bene Israel lived in the Konkan south of Mumbai. Estimations of when they first arrived in India vary widely between the 8th century BCE and the 6th century CE. Some traditional narratives place their first arrival in the wake of the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. In the 20th century, members of this small community played, widely beyond their small numbers, distinguished roles in India’s artistic and cultural life, including in the film industry, the professions, public health sphere, and, not least, in the armed forces. They have not enjoyed similar success in Israel’s turbulent melting pot, which has been Israel’s loss as much as theirs.

Cochini Jews of Kerala: Jewish traders and sailors have visited the Malabar Coast (southwest India) since Biblical times. Precisely when Jews settled in Cochin and other Kerala cities and created thriving communities is disputed, but here, too, the years following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE are credible but not currently definitive. A copper tablet from 1000 CE, which was issued by local rulers and granted the Jews substantial economic privileges, is undisputed. They numbered 2000 to 3000 in the 1950s when nearly all of them moved to Israel. The Jews of Kerala developed forms of cultural symbiosis unique in Jewish history. The Jewish women of Kerala had an old tradition of writing poems, composing music to accompany them, and singing their creations before public audiences. The themes were Jewish, the language Malayalam, one of the Dravidian languages of South India.1

Sephardi Jews: A small stream of refugees fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal settled mainly in Kerala between the 16th and 18th centuries. They became known as “Paradesis” (foreigners). Among them were important professionals and intellectuals. The Paradesis did not intermarry with the Cochinis. Also, in contrast to the great majority of Sephardi Jews, they abandoned their native Iberian languages but remained Jews and spoke Malayalam.

Baghdadis: Since the 18th century, Jews from Baghdad and other places in the Middle East fled Arab persecution and found refuge in India. They mostly did not integrate but remained linked to British rule. Though latecomers and few, their contribution to India was important. Best known is David Sassoon, business tycoon, philanthropist, and leader of the Jewish community of Mumbay who founded schools, hospitals, libraries and more that still bear his name today.

Bene Menashe: They are a tribal group from India’s remote northeastern states who speak a Burmese dialect. They appeared in the 20th century, claimed to descend from one of Israel’s lost Ten Tribes, and as self-declared Jews demanded the right to settle in Israel. Israel has accepted thousands of them after conversion, and thousands more are waiting. The case of the Bene Menashe demonstrates how the creation of a Jewish state changed the dynamics of the Indo-Jewish relationship. It is not the traditional Jews of India who attracted the Bene Menashe to Judaism, on the contrary, the Bene Israel rejected their claims. It is the soft power that Israel, the Jewish state, exerts in a remote, barely accessible corner of the earth.

Western Jews:2In modern times, a small heterogeneous stream of Western Jews came to India – some for a limited time, others settled permanently. They came for professional, artistic, or economic reasons. A few made real contributions to India, for example, Doctor Mordecai Haffkine from Odessa who in the late 19th century developed the first effective vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague in India. Some also were searching for adventure, others for Eastern wisdom. The latter are a mixed group, with one prominent Jewish devotee among others, Mira Alfassa born 1878 in Paris who became the companion of the famous spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo Gosh in Pondicherry. In their time, the most prominent Jews temporarily residing in India were two senior British politicians who served in the Indian Raj, Edwin Samuel Montagu (Secretary of State for India 1917-1922), a strong opponent of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration (1917), and Rufus Isaacs who as Lord Reading became Viceroy of India (1921-1926). India has forgotten both of them. These and other Western Jews who lived in India rarely if ever contributed to the links between India and the Jewish people, and even less to the Zionist struggle. They may have loved India’s culture, its people, and its food, but they did not seek a symbiosis between Judaism (which most of them had abandoned anyway) and India, and those who remained Jews generally functioned as individuals without any Jewish agenda.

It was the Jews of old India who developed a close symbiotic relationship with Indian civilization. They adopted Indian languages, dress, patterns of behavior, and diet without ever ceasing to be Jews by religion. Hence, when the Protestant missionaries who came to India in the 19th century tried to convert Indian Jews, they failed and were surprised that these Jews adamantly refused to abandon Judaism. Jewish acculturation to India had many components. Jewish religious holidays, celebrations such as marriage ceremonies and folklore incorporated Hindu, and also a few Muslim, elements. The transfer of rituals and other practices between religions occurred in India more generally, it was not limited to Jews and Hindus. In this case, Jews appeared to intensify their Jewishness and Jewish pride by incorporating well-known and respected Hindu motifs into their practices. Paradoxically, incorporating foreign religious motifs or practices seemed to be easier in the case of polytheistic Hinduism, just because Hinduism had no links with, and no claims against Judaism – in contrast to the two successor religions. Such cultural bridge building also reassured Hindus that the Jews, in contrast to the conquerors from other faiths, respected them and did not intend to convert them.

This is how the Jews of India became a bridge between two civilizations. They were part of India and of world Judaism. They shared this double role with many Jewish diasporas, but their fate varied greatly from the others. All through history Jews tried to develop symbiotic relationships, for example with Hellenistic Alexandria, Christian Spain, and modern Germany. Those three relationships, among the most culturally productive in all of Jewish history, collapsed after one, two, or three hundred years. The Greeks, Spaniards, and Germans wanted no symbiosis; they wanted the Jews out. India was different. Hindu India did not seek conversion of other believers, was not jealous of Jewish success, and carried no negative religious memories in regard to Jews.

Indian Jews first became aware of Zionism in the 19th century. Zionist representatives established contacts with India’s Jewish community and invited the Bene Israel to send delegates to the first Zionist congress in Basel in 1897. The Bene Israel decided not to participate because they believed the return to the ancestral homeland should be accomplished through miraculous divine intervention rather than human endeavor. Still, after World War I a member of the London-based World Zionist Organization (WZO), Paul Tolkowsky, wrote a letter to the Bene Israel community in Bombay inquiring about their attitude toward Zionism and settlement in Palestine. He suggested that Indian Bene Israel farmers and other workers might play a significant role should they decide to return to the Jewish homeland. The letter sparked off a public debate among Indian Jews and led to the establishment, in 1920, of the Bombay Zionist Association and the Bene Israel Zionist Association.

Until 1948, however, there was almost no Jewish immigration from India to British Palestine. Indian Jews made no known interventions in Indian politics or high-level public declarations to support Zionism and the State of Israel. In general, they kept away from Indian domestic politics and foreign policy. They were too few to get involved in the often-violent struggles that accompanied India’s rise: Indians against the colonial power, Muslims against Hindus, and “Untouchables” against all others. Finally the Indo-Jewish symbiosis, which had lasted for centuries, came to an end with India and Israel’s independence in 1947 and 1948 respectively. No discrimination, persecution, or hostility put an end to India’s Jewry and their symbiosis. There were other reasons. India’s caste system had separated Indians into closed groups that did not intermarry. In this sense, the Jews of old India, the Bene Israel, Cochinis, and Baghadadis, were like castes. Their identity was protected and they did not intermarry. But long before independence, Gandhi and other leaders attacked the injustices the caste system had yielded and called for its abolition.

When the caste system began to weaken after independence, Jewish leaders understood that it would become difficult to preserve the identity of their small communities. Apart from the attraction of the old Biblical homeland and economic hardship in some cases, identity protection was the main reason Jewish leaders and parents with young children called for emigration to Israel.3The large majority of Indian Jews left for Israel. They became Israelis but kept their love for India and all things Indian. Some of them helped create links between India and Israel, generally in economic fields, but very few succeeded to enter Israel’s elites and they had no influence on Israel’s India policies. Was this the final end of the symbiosis? India’s own leaders and diplomats do not seem to think so. On India’s Independence Day and on Republic Day, the Indian ambassador to Israel hosts a public reception for Indian Israelis, and has done so for many years. Large numbers attend. In 2015, he went further and called on Indian Israelis to step up and begin to play a more active role in strengthening the growing links between India and Israel. Perhaps Indian Jewry has not spoken its last word, and the old symbiosis will emerge again in a new, Israeli form.

The story of India’s Jews is significant for two broader historical reasons. Their survival, creativity, and prosperity across 2,000 years, without external adversity, disproves Western theories that ascribe the survival of Judaism to external pressure and the hostility of Christians and Muslims alone. The historian Arnold Toynbee proposed his “Challenge-and-Response” model of history to explain Jewish longevity,4and so did the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in a much discussed 1946 book, Reflections on the Jewish Question, in which he argued that Jews have remained Jews only because others regard them as such. In addition, the Indian-Jewish symbiosis invites thought on how Judaism and the Jewish people would have evolved had the overwhelming majority of them not come under Christian and Muslim rule. This is a “virtual history” speculation.5The American Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel has considered this question: “Had Jerusalem been located at the foot of the Himalayas, monotheistic philosophy would have been modified by the tradition of Oriental thinkers. Thus, our intellectual position situated as it is between Athens and Jerusalem is not an ultimate one.”6