Broadening the picture - beyond America:India

by Steve Israel


The story of the Jews of India is the saga of three different groups of Jews who had very little contact between them until fairly recently. The numerically dominant group was the Bene Israel, a group claiming an ancestry dating back thousands of years in India, although nothing was known about them until the last few centuries. Next, were the Jews of Cochin with an attested history from about 1000 C.E. Finally there were the "Baghdadi" Jews who arrived from Iraq, Iran and Syria about two hundred years ago and had settled in India, due to persecution in their native lands.

The Jews were always an insignificant minority in the vastness of the Indian continent, reaching a peak of a few tens of thousands earlier this century. There was no anti-Jewish feeling and the Jews prospered as a community largely composed of merchants and traders.

At the time of Israeli independence, which was also the time of Indian independence, a number of factors occurred to change the situation. Firstly, an immediate reaction set in towards groups like the Jews who had not played a part in India's struggle for independence, which generated a sense of unease among the different Jewish communities. Moreover, the new Indian government adopted economic policies that damaged the areas of commerce in which many Jews were traditionally involved, and the prosperity of the community consequently declined. At the same time, enormous enthusiasm broke out among the Jews following Israel's independence.

All these factors led to a spontaneous, large-scale Aliyah movement in the years following the establishment of the State of Israel. Thousands of Indian Jews, most especially, but not exclusively, from the Cochini and Baghdadi communities came on Aliyah; the overall Jewish population, which had stood at just over 25,000 in 1948, started to decline considerably. It should be added that there were also some Jews who decided to leave and go elsewhere, especially to England and other English-speaking countries. Over the years, this pattern of Aliyah and emigration has been maintained and currently, there are estimated to be between five and six thousand Jews still there, (out of a total general population of around 950,000,000). Most of these are Bene Israel Jews, in and around the area of Bombay, Puna, etc.

Unlike the community of Yemen, however, this remainder of Indian Jewry is composed largely of Jews who wish to stay in India. It is difficult to believe that in the long term they will be successful: there are too many forces pulling the surviving members of the community towards Israel. One is the pull of family ties - many Indian Jews have brothers and sisters or cousins in Israel - and, in addition, many young people in the community often tend to look towards Israel as a place to find a husband or wife. Nevertheless, as stated, the desire exists to maintain the community. Training programmes have been introduced for young leadership; interestingly enough, however, although there is an Israeli component in these programmes, which are being organised by Diaspora organisations, principally the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's Israel office. Once again, it can be suggested, that the Zionist organisations are at best, ambivalent about the encouragement of schemes to "save" the community.

In the Zionist model, the entire community should emigrate to Israel - and the sooner, the better.





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30 May 2005 / 21 Iyar 5765 0