Inside Indian Jews’ Promised Land

Aparajita Ghosh

As Maharashtra’s close-knit community of Bene Israeli and Baghdadi Jews permanently plans to migrate to their holy land, the small but visible Jewish diaspora is diminishing gradually in India. An extensive population of 65,000 Jews, which migrated to India, has dwindled over the years.

The Bene Israelis, according to different accounts, have been residing in Maharashtra for the past 2,200 years. Their ancestors were shipwrecked at Navgaon in Maharashtra’s Raigad district. The community predominantly lived in the outskirts of Maharashtra and were initiated into the business of oil pressing.

Unlike the Bene Israelis, Baghdadi Jews migrated in the eighteenth century, according to historians. The community has Iraqi, Afghani, Arabic, and Persian-speaking Jews who migrated from Iraq, Basra, Mosul, and Syria.

‘My father migrated from Iraq in the early nineteenth century. He eluded oppression, married here and provided jobs to multiple migrating Jews at the chains of Sassoon mills’, said Ellis Jacob, a member of the Baghdadi Jewish community and an official at Magen David Synagogue.

The Sassoons, renowned for landmarks erected in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) fled from Baghdad escaping ‘persecution’, participated in the opium trades with China and served the East India Company.

They later constructed multiple Jewish schools like Sir Jacob Sassoon, E.E.E. Sassoon, and Sir Elly Kadoorie School in Mumbai where Hebrew is taught to the Jewish children. The community built infrastructures such as David Sassoon Library, the Sassoon Building of the Elphinstone Technical Institute, and Sassoon Docks, and made substantial donations for the construction of the historical Gateway of India in Mumbai.

Although the schools provide Hebrew courses, there are no Jewish children left to teach.

‘Scarcely any member knows Hebrew here, but we do not compromise on humanity’, said Samuel Bamnolkar, a Bene Israeli and President of Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue in Thane. Besides, as the community migrates, Israel provides six months and extendable obligatory Hebrew language courses to the Jews on arrival.

On 26 November 2008, during the Mumbai terrorist attack, Jewish prayer centre Chabad House was reportedly targeted. The members were held hostage and seven were killed, including the owners – Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg. The community reached out to the government and were provided with immediate security for their synagogues countrywide, which continues even today. ‘We avoid wearing skull caps and shawls in public. We are apprehensive of another attack’, Bamnolkar recalled.

As Shabbat is observed, he adds, ‘We have Bengalis, Christians, and Muslims in our neighbourhood, they bring us food as they know we do not light stoves in our homes on that day, nor do they disturb us in any way’.

Preserving culture in India

The Jews have managed to preserve their culture and traditional customs. But the decreasing number of members and the unforeseen COVID-19 crises have made the circumstances difficult for them, especially to congregate for a minyan – the quorum – that requires a minimum of ten members of the community to carry out prayers at the synagogues.

There are currently only ten living synagogues in Maharashtra and seventeen all over India, majorly in Gujarat, West Bengal, New Delhi and Kerala.

However, the Baghdadis are facing hardship to survive in India. ‘We eat vegetarian foods mostly, as we need Kosher meat on most days it’s difficult to find here’, said Ellis Jacob. Talking of their food culture, he said, ‘We still cook Iraqi food at our homes, the Indian food is very different from ours.’ Ellis stayed back in Mumbai after his sister’s early marriage. Now his only reason to stay back is his daughter who married a non-Jew in the city. Bene Israelis, on the contrary, share similar Maharashtrian habits: ‘We adapted several cultures from the non-Jewish societies and follow some Indian wedding rituals too’, said Bamnolkar.

Menash Chordekar, a member of the Bene Israeli community, has been living in India for the last 70 years of his life. ‘I’ve had Israel’s flag on my balcony for years and proudly claimed “This is a Jewish family”’, he says.

Crisis in diaspora

The Jewish diaspora of nearly 4,000 members in the country has been listed as a minority in the states of West Bengal, Gujarat and Maharashtra. The return to Israel, according to their members, will only make them safer living with their community.

Chordekar states the community will see an end in the next five years in India. ‘I cannot shift back after migrating. We have no members left here, tomorrow if something happens to me, who will look after me? The government there (in Israel) takes care of us.’

In 1950, the ‘Law of Return’ (Aliyah) was introduced after the State of Israel was formed in the name of religion for the Jews spread worldwide to settle in Israel. The law gave Jewish immigrants access to all the rights of Israeli citizens.

Rina Korolkar, a 42-year-old Bene Israeli, moved to Israel in 1998 under Aliyah immigration. However, the racial discrimination at her workplace has persisted: ‘I never miss out on a chance to cook Maharashtrian cuisines and speak Marathi here in Israel’, she said.

Motherland vs Holyland

As per Chordekar, ‘Jews living in India always had this belief that India is our motherland and Israel is our fatherland’. But as the migration takes place under the Law of Return and, as mentioned in Jewish history, they wish to return to Israel at some time in their life, the Jews living in Mumbai states that once they migrate to Israel, they wish to keep visiting their ‘motherland’ but never to settle back.

In his several writings of the 1920s, the political ideologist of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Vinayak Damodar Savarkar excluded Abrahamic religions when he talked about Hindutva. In the thought of Savarkar, Hindutva included every aspect and every breed of religiosity apart from Abrahamic religions – essentially Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Savarkar further argued that the acknowledgement of India as one’s ‘motherland’ was insufficient and Indians must also fulfil the requirement of a ‘holy land’. Although the current Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government walks on the road paved by RSS and advocates Hindutva, the Jews apparently have not faced much discrimination being a minority unlike Muslims, Dalits and other minority groups.

‘The majority of our community have an overall positive experience in terms of our stay in the country, we never faced any issue or discrimination from any religious group. We have lived a good time in India and share a relatively good bond’, said Chordekar.

Author:

Aparajita is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, India. She covers human rights, minorities and cultures. Twitter: @_aparajitaghosh.

Published by Discussing Displacement

Discussing Displacement is a blog dedicated to explaining some of the key ideas and arguments within Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

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