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29 June 2017, Gateway House

India, Israel and the chosen people

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel (July 4-6) marks 25 years of India’s diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. Forging political and economic ties with it has not been smooth sailing, and it’s the Indian Jewish community that has kept a tenuous relationship going

Bombay History Fellow

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Prime Minister Modi’s tight schedule during his official visit to Israel has a special event pencilled in. On July 5, he will meet the Indian diaspora in Tel Aviv, Israel’s financial capital. It will be an audience made up largely of Indian Jews, who number approximately 85,000 [1] in Israel today, and for whom this promises to be a historic and emotion-laden moment as they consider India their motherland, and the State of Israel, which was formed in 1948 soon after India won its independence, their spiritual and religious one.

Despite this symbiotic connection, the two countries have shared a tenuous political relationship. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s de jure recognition of Israel in 1950 may have paved the way for the opening of a consulate in Bombay in 1953, but it was explicitly to cater to the immigration needs of India’s Jews and did not result in a reciprocal gesture from India.[2] It was only 42 years later (in 1992), that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s Congress-led government opened full diplomatic relations with Israel, normalising travel, and business–diamond trading, in particular–and defence interests between the two countries.

The history of India’s Jewish communities has shown that they faced no anti-Semitism on the sub-continent, except from the Portuguese. This holds true of both the older groups, such as the Marathi-speaking Bene Israel (lit. ‘children of Israel’) and Malayalam-speaking Malabar Jews, and the more recent immigrants, such as the urbanised Baghdadi Jews, and the well-known Pardesi (White) Jews of Cochin. The Bnei Menashe community, tribals from Manipur and Mizoram who practise Judaic rites, and a group of Andhra Jews, claiming Lost Tribe origins [3], also constitute the community from India, one that has enjoyed a privileged position in the political, economic and social hierarchy of native kingdoms in Mughal India, and even under colonial rule, whether Dutch or British.

The family of Abraham Reuben Kamarlekar, a Bene Israel from Karachi, on pilgrimage in Jerusalem (then in Palestine) in 1902. Note the Turkish guard (Courtesy: Dr. Sarah Israel. From: India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art, & Life-Cycle by Marg Publications)

Bombay’s Jews: a case study

The island city of Bombay under English rule was representative of the Jewish experience on the sub-continent, drawing the Bene Israel, popularly known as the Shanwar tellis (Saturday oil-pressers) [4], from the villages of the Konkan. They were also a martial race, having joined the armies of Shivaji, the Marathas and the Angres in large numbers. They began settling in Company Bombay from the early 18th century because of job opportunities in the Bombay Army. They had lived in the Konkan for centuries after being shipwrecked (sometime after 175 BCE, but before 70 CE)[5], but were only discovered as a Judaic community in the 11th CE by Baghdadi Jewish merchants, trading with the north Konkan ports.

The Bene Israel underwent years of destitution before being discovered and re-amalgamated into the global Jewish mainstream as one of the 10 Lost Tribes of the Kingdom of Israel. Their oral tradition speaks of the linkages of this community to the Jewish Holy Land. Soon after their shipwreck, the survivors are believed to have had a visitation from the Prophet Elijah. The Eliyahu Hanabi ceremony, practised only by this community, is regarded as a thanksgiving to the Prophet, and is also perfomed prior to a celebration.

In Bombay, the essentially rural Bene Irael had their first sustained contact with the mercantile and more religiously conversant Baghdadi Jews: the most famous of them was the David Sassoon family, originating in the Middle East. Like other Baghdadi Jews who migrated to Bombay from the early 18th century, either from the Mughal port of Surat, the Middle-East and sub-Saharan Africa, many settled in the city for its business opportunities and the Company’s guarantee of religious freedom.

With Bombay becoming a node for the circulation of capital, trade, and people during the 19th century, it also became home to the largest concentration of Jews on the sub-continent. The Census of 1891, shows 5,021 Jews resident in the city, but it makes no distinction between the different communities.[6] Smaller communities were formed across British India in Aden, Karachi, Poona, Cochin, Madras, Calcutta, and Rangoon. This led to the building of community institutions: Bombay has in operation seven synagogues (including one in Thane), two prayer halls and three Jewish schools, in spite of the community’s reduced numbers.

More than the built heritage, it is the political, economic and military contributions of this small community that stand out. The Erulkar brothers, Dr. Abraham and David [7], and Maurice D. Japheth, were ardent Indian nationalists. The Sassoon family, which owned 15 mills in Bombay, the B.N. Elias family of Calcutta, and the Koder family of Cochin, had a substantial presence. In the armed services, Vice Admiral B.A. Samson, and General J.F.R. Jacob, a hero of the Indo-Pak War of 1971, are part of naval and military lore.

Their cultural imprint

The Indian movie buff will have fond memories of the many Jewish actors and actresses who worked in the Bollywood of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, enjoying a degree of freedom for being outside the Indian caste hierarchy. An early entrant during the silent era was the actress Sulochana (Ruby Myers) from Poona, followed by two Calcutta cousins, Miss Rose (Musleah) and Pramila (Esther Abraham)[8]. Bombay had Nadira (Farha Ezekiel) and David, the much loved actor from the Bene Israel community.

In the literary and fine arts, was the post-colonial Indian English poet, Nissim Ezekiel (whose poem “The Night of the Scorpion” details the simplicity of life in the Konkan), the Kalakshetra-trained Bharata Natyam exponent, Leela Samson, and author and artist, Esther David.

Indian Jews in Israel

Much before India won its independence or Israel was formed, Paul Tolkovsky, the first Zionist leader to visit Bombay in 1919, came to gauge the Indian Jews’ attitude to Zionism [9], many other missionaries following in his wake. This was a time when many Jews were being drawn into the Indian nationalist movement. They were dismayed by news of anti-Semitism in Europe, a reality that hit home with the influx of some 2,000 European Jewish refugees (largely to Bombay), from the late 1930s to early 1940s. These events made for a heady mixture, when combined with the Zionist appeal for a Jewish homeland.

Immigration to Israel peaked in the 1950s to 60s, emptying the villages of Malabar and Konkan of its Jewish residents. Currently, Dimona, Beersheba in the Negev, Lod, Ashdod and Ramle in central Israel, all have large Indian Jewish populations, while the famous Moshav Nevatim [10][11] on the outskirts of Beersheba is the headquarters of the Malabar Jews. It is here in the synagogue at Nevatim that a piece of India from a Malabar village–the Holy Ark or hekhal, an ornately carved wooden enclosure for Torah scrolls—finds pride of place, transplanted on Israeli soil.

Sifra Lentin is the Bombay History Fellow at Gateway House.

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[1] Embassy of India Tel Aviv, Bilateral Relations Accessed on 24.6.2017

[2] This First Period (1948-92) witnessed the de jure recognition of the State of Israel in September 1950 by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, while refusing to establish full diplomatic relations and a reciprocal Indian mission. Israel first appointed an honorary consul in Bombay, followed by a career consul in September 1953. In January 1992, Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s Congress-led government opened full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.

Abhyankar, Rajendra, The Evolution and Future of India-Israel Relations, Research Paper No.6, March 2012, The Daniel Abraham Center for International and Regional Studies, Aspen institute India, and The Harold Hartog School of Government and Policy , p 8 & p 13. Accessed on 22.6.2017.

[3] Weil, Shalva (Edited), India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art, & Life-Cycle (Mumbai, Marg Publications, 2002), p. 12.

[4] Bene Israel are known as Shanwar Tellis (lit. Saturday oil-pressers) because the predominant occupation of the community in the Konkan villages was oil-pressing. Moreover, they refrained from work on Saturday, it being the Jewish Sabbath.

[5] The arrival of the Bene Israel on the Indian Subcontinent is placed sometime after 175 BCE, when the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians, and before 70 CE, as the community was ignorant of the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. This, among other observations, has led to the conclusion that the community belongs to the Ten Lost Tribes of the Kingdom of Israel, and not to the two tribes of the southern Kingdom of Judah.

[6] Isenberg, Shirley Berry, India’s Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook (Bombay, Popular Prakashan, 1988), p. 291.

[7] Dr. Abraham Erulkar was Mahatma Gandhi’s personal physician during many of his fasts. He was a founder of the Jewish Nationalist Party, which was affiliated to the Indian National Congress. His brother David defended Bal Gangadhar Tilak during the 1916 sedition trial, as a junior counsel, and along with Joseph Baptista, assisted Sr. Counsel Mohammed Ali Jinnah, during the trial in the Bombay High Court. Both brothers were ardent Indian nationalists.

[8] Pramilla (Esther Abraham) was crowned the first Miss India in 1947.

[9] Zionism is a Jewish nationalist movement that had as its goal the creation and support of a Jewish national state in Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jews. The First World Zionist Congress was convened in 1897.

[10] Zionism is a Jewish nationalist movement that had as its goal the creation and support of a Jewish national state in Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jews. The First World Zionist Congress was convened in 1897.

[11] The Moshav and the Kibbutz are two forms of Jewish agricultural settlements. The Kibbutz is a unique, worker-controlled, agricultural production cooperative, and the Moshav is a service cooperative in which the members are individual farmers, who reside within the settlement.

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