Jewish Voices on India

Yamit Talker-Shefer in a green sari dances with family and friends during her Indian wedding ceremony in Rehovot, Israel, 2009.

Yamit Talker-Shefer in a green sari dances with family and friends during her Indian wedding ceremony in Rehovot, Israel, 2009.

 

The creation of Israel provided the Jews with both a homeland and sanctuary free from the ravages of anti-Semitism which culminated in the Holocaust. While the persecution of Jews in Europe is well known there are as yet only tentative steps to even mentioning the oppression which Jews faced in Islamic countries. Religious Zionism was not the only reason why Jews found refuge in Israel as Arab nationalism and later Islamic radicalism (not always separate even in ‘secular’ states) spread across the Middle East. As European colonialism and western influence waned Jewish minorities in the Maghreb and Middle east faced an ugly behemoth bent on their utter annihilation. This obviously flies in the face of political correctness which only recognises ‘Palestinian’ refugees and adheres to the myth of Islamic tolerance which Zionism broke. In reality, while Zionism was the creation of European Jews, it proved to be the saviour for Mizrahi Jews who by 1948 were facing a literal life and death situation in their countries of birth where Judaism has long predated Islam. The 1941 pogrom in Baghdad known as Farhud was a sickening portent of what awaited them.

Political correctness wants us to imagine that Jews lived in an interfaith utopia under Islam. The reality was the daily humiliation of dhimmitude with its jizya poll tax, ghettos and discriminatory clothing, as well as not infrequent sickening violence. The progroms in the Rhineland that occurred in the wake of the First Crusade are well known to historians. But how many know of the 1066 pogrom of Cordoba in Spain under the Umayyad Caliphate? This was a human disaster of equal magnitude. Yet poltical correctness tells us the Moorish Spain was  land of tolerance. It was anything but that and only got worse. Under the Almohades and Almoravids the Jews and Christians were all expelled or forcibly converted to Islam. Yet Moorish Spain is the best politically correct and apologist writers can hope for in their desperate search for an Islamic tolerance that never existed. Much like with modern ‘secular’ Turkey.

India was one of the few places that Islam was forced to compromise. Mughal emperor Akbar however was motivated by political as much as religious considerations. While he instituted his universalist Din-i-Ilahi, and outraged the ulama by doing so, he needed the alliance with Hindu Rajput princes in order to bolster his state. He nevertheless retained his title of ghazi, which is only attained by killing infidels. His grandson Alamgir (Aurangzeb) undid even that alliance by bringing back puritanical Islam. In doing so Mughal rule collapsed.

As Israel once again fights for its life it would be important to ask at this juncture have Jews ever been able to flourish free from anti-Semitism. As the state which was established so that Jews would never have to suffer irrational intolerance in its most deadly form is threatened again with annihilation, and Israel is criticised for having the audacity to defend itself we need to ask this important question. While the answer is in the affirmative it flies once again in the face of political correctness because that country was India. So let us hear what Jewish commentators have had to say themselves about this.

 

Joan G Roland of Brandeis University (1989)

 

The lack of anti-Semitism and a flourishing Jewish community in India for 2000 years has been recognised by some scholars, despite the present trend to paint anything remotely Vedic as an Indian nativist version of Fascism and National Socialism, as well as the more common allegation of being Hindu fundamentalist. More recently Jewish intellectuals are asking deeper questions as to why the Hindu ethos of India was free of anti-Semitism, while on the political front, certain courageous individuals are urging co-operation with India, and the Hindu community in America.

(Joan G Roland, Jews in British India, University Press of New England, Brandeis University,1989, pp263-64)

 

Reuben Raymond, Bene Israel Indian-born Jew who later became a community leader in the Negev settlement of Beersheva:

 

Other Israeli Jews don’t like their motherland because they were driven out but we weren’t. We can never forget what India has done for us. India is still our motherland and Israel is our fatherland.

(Sejal Mandalia, ‘Outside the Kibbutz’, Outlook India magazine, December 1999, http://www.outlookindia.com/printarticle.aspx?218481 )

 

 

Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, Chief Rabbi at New Delhi synagogue. He is a recipient of the Mahavir Mahatma Award for preserving Jewish heritage and culture in India, and the Ambassador of Peace Award instituted by the Federation for Religious harmony and Brotherhood

 

I am an Indian first and a Jew second. India is one of the places where Jews have never suffered from anti-Semitism or persecution, therefore I consider India my motherland.

(Henry Foy, Delhi’s last ten Jewish families guard an ancient heritage, Reuters, 23 May 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/23/us-india-jews-idUSTRE74M0P820110523 )

 

No, even if everyone leaves, I will be the last Jew here….I told him [Ariel Sharon] that I am an Indian first and then a Jew. The Holy Land is in my heart, but India is in my blood. Judaism has existed here for 2,000 years without ever experiencing anti-Semitism—not even during World War II when Polish Jews were provided shelter by rulers of western India.

(Alopkarna Das, Promising Change, Express India, 10 August 2008, http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/promising-change/346861/ )

 

Israel is in my heart but India is in my blood.

(Raphael Meyer, The Jews of India, http://www.the-south-asian.com/March2001/Jews_of_India-Intro.htm )

 

Jews have lived peacefully in India for 2,000 years. There has never been the slightest persecution.

(Shaun Tandon, In India, Israeli PM to find small but resilient Jewish community, 8 September 2003, http://quickstart.clari.net/qs_se/webnews/wed/cf/Qindia-israel-jews.RC6x_DS8.html )

Delhi's last 10 Jewish families guard heritage

Ezekiel Isaac Malekar

 

Bentzion Ben Yose Yakov, Mumbia-born Indian Jew living in Houston, Texas, speaking in 1994:

 

We were respected. There was freedom. There was no conversion impulse in Jewish or Hindu life.

(http://www.hindunet.org/alt_hindu/1994/msg00023.html )

 

 

Dr. Nathan Katz (Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida) and Ellen S Goldberg (writer, photographer and editor) in ‘The Last Jews of India and Burma’, 15 April 1988, Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs,  http://www.jcpa.org/jl/jl101.htm :

 

In this exotic corner of the diaspora, a realm in which Jews lived for millennia in freedom and dignity, bathed in the affection of their Hindu brethren, India was the most hospitable of homes, a nation which has been host for six distinct Jewish communities: the ancient and celebrated Cochinim, the once-forgotten Bene Israel, the courtiers of the Mughal emperors, Portuguese Marranos, the commercially and industrially prominent Baghdadis, the scattered Ashkenazim, and today’s tribal Jews of the far northeast.

 

In 2003 Katz published the ground breaking book Who are the Jews of India, (University of California Press). Page 4:

 

Jews navigated the eddies and shoals of Indian culture very well. They never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination at Indian hands……Indian Jews lived as all Jews should have been able to live: free, proud, observant, creative, prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host community…… The Indian chapter is one the happiest in the Jewish Diaspora.

 

Page 161:

 

Their amicable relations with their neighbours, particularly the local nobility, obviated the defensive identity barriers often found among Jews who live under Christian or Muslim rule. The unique Hindu polity that insists each group in society should maintain its own cultural and religious distinctiveness enabled Jewish acculturation without assimilation.

 

That the Cochin Jews abandoned India for Israel in no way diminishes the quality of their life on the Malabar Coast. They lived as all Jews should have been permitted to: free, pious, creative, and prosperous, contributors to both their host culture and their own Jewish world. When conditions permitted, they returned to the ancestral home of their dreams and prayers. The story of their community reads like an idealized script about Jewish dignity and survival.

 

Pages 163 to 164:

 

The three very different communities of Jews in India had one determining factor in common: the absence of indigenous anti-Semitism. All three testify that maintaining Jewish identity is not merely a defence mechanism against a hostile world. On the contrary, Jews of India demonstrate how the Jewish communities flourish in an atmosphere of amity. Save for isolated incidents – Portuguese rule in Cochin for example, or the pro-German faction of the Swaraj movement – Jews in India have always enjoyed the respect and affection of their neighbours. Indeed, today Jews play a significant role in Indian political discourse, in which Hindu tolerance is a major theme. The so-called Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi recently appointed a Jew, General Frederick Jacob, as governor of Goa and recently promoted him to the demanding position of governor of Punjab.

 

 

Norman Calhoum, leader of the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkotta, in conversation with Dr. Katz in 1987, on pages 158 and 159:

 

We are taught to abhor idolatry to prevent its assimilation into Abraham’s family of religions… We don’t want to profess too much all these similarities because Judaism will not accept, but if you look at it closely you will see that Judaism and Hinduism have so much in common….[In India] We are accepted totally, at the same time we are treated with kid gloves, like special guests….These people [Hindus] are civilized; the others are barbarians bent on proselytisation. If you ask any Jew who has lived in India, from Cochin to Calcutta, you will find that although the Hindus are called idolaters, they are more accepting of Jews than those so-called new religions that grew out of Judaism.

 

Joshua Brandt, American journalist writing Ex-JCC director helps Jews in India

in the Jewish Weekly of Northern California, 28 April 2000, http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/13113/ex-jcc-director-helps-jews-in-india/ :

 

Hymowitz, the former interim executive director of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, is a national JCC consultant. He begins a new stint on Monday as interim executive vice president of the Greater Los Angeles Area JCCs. He went to Bombay in February to work with the Bene Israel community to help upgrade India’s lone JCC…….”Because they have such a tiny community there,” he said, “they really are concerned about preserving their heritage. And they don’t really look upon intermarriage all that kindly…….If assimilation is a big concern, however, anti-Semitism is not.” The Israeli ambassador to India said that there is no discrimination against Jews in India,”Hymowitz said. “He also commented that India’s really the only country in the world you can say that about.”

 

Elijah E Jhirad, president of the Bina Congregation, speaking in 1982:

 

The fact that Jews went to India is no surprise. The question should be why more Jews did not go there and instead went to what were then barbaric countries.

(Jew Terms Anti-Semitism Notably Scarce in India, India Abroad, 9 April 1982, http://www.gaycourter.com/IndiaAbroad.htm )

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b9/Sulochana.jpg

Sulochana, real name Ruby Myers, Jewish Indian silent film actress

 

 

Professor Daniel J. Elazar (1934-1999)of Temple University in Philadelphia, was a leading political scientist and specialist in the study of federalism, political culture, the Jewish political tradition, Israel and the world Jewish community. As founder and President of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, he headed the major independent Jewish “think tank “concerned with analysing and solving the key problems facing Israel and world Jewry:

 

Who is not curious as to how the Jews of India survived for so long in an atmosphere of tolerance when other Jewish communities such as that in China, benefiting from similar toleration, assimilated so thoroughly. Their argument is that India as a host society combined tolerance with culturally enforced diversity which made the difference. Indian society, with its several major religions and further division within Hinduism into four major castes, a fifth of outcasts, and over 3,000 subcastes, tolerates wide diversity but does not permit people born into one group to cross over into another or even to associate with the others beyond the public square, since the food taboos of every religious community, caste and subcaste mean that they cannot eat with one another. Nothing separates more than that. The Jewish community could fit into India as another caste and even developed its own subcastes, as the authors explain, properly denoting this as the Cochin Jews’ one great (and sad) departure from halakhic Judaism.

(Daniel J Elazar, The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India, Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, http://www.jcpa.org/dje/articles/cochin-pref.htm )

 

Dr. Shalva Weil, is an anthropologist and a researcher with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheba, Israel, specializing inIndian Jewry. Dr. Weil is the Founding Chairperson of the Israel-India Cultural Association, who in 1997 wrote The Bene Israel of India (http://www.bh.org.il/database-article.aspx?48701 ):

 

The Bene Israel are probably the only Jewish community in the world today which did not experience anti-Semitism. Living in harmony with their Indian neighbours for two thousand years, they were free to practice Judaism and develop as a community.

http://therevealer.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/poona-haggadah-loc.jpg

The Poona Haggadah (Poona, 1874). A haggadah published for the Bene Israel community in India features seder illustrations that show Indian dress and customs. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.

 

Stacey Menchel, scholar at Emory University:

 

One of the most interesting things about Indian Jewish communities is the general lack of anti-Semitism. In ancient times, the Cochin Jews were accepted by the Hindu rulers, and for the most part lived in a peaceful environment. The major reason for this phenomenon is the predominance of the Hindu caste system. Considered their own separate caste, the Jews did not disrupt Indian society. As long as they married and socialized in their own group, which they did enthusiastically, the other castes had nothing to complain about.

(http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Jews.html )

 

The First All India Israelite League meeting held in Karachi in 1918. The league provided support to 650 B’nei Israel Jews living in the Pakistani province of Sind.

The First All India Israelite League meeting held in Karachi in 1918

 

 

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