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The Jewish Passage to India

Dusty Sklar
June 30, 2017

by Dusty Sklar

OF ALL the Jewish communities in the world, the Jews of India are the least known. They constitute one of the country's tiniest minorities.

The first mention of Jews in India in Jewish texts is in the Book of Esther, which describes the decrees of the Persian monarch relating to the dispersal of Jews throughout the 127 provinces of his empire, "from India even unto Ethiopia" (Esther 1:1).

Probably founded by traders from across the Arabian Sea, Jewish communities are known to have existed on India's western coast from at least 1000 C.E., and may even date from the period of the Second Temple; a few scholars believe that the Jews may have arrived in India on King Solomon's merchant fleet. Others think that they may have descended from traders who came from Yemen in the 700s and were welcomed by the local prince. Marco Polo met Jews when he came in 1293. He recorded in his diary meeting Jews on the southwestern coast who had developed a thriving community. Indian Jews have lived for centuries in peace with non-Jewish neighbors, without losing their distinct identity. Their population is microscopic, never exceeding 30,000, a height reached in the early 1950s, and now no more than 5,000 -- 0.0004 percent of India's total population.

They've apparently experienced little discrimination or persecution, apart from a period in the 17th century when the Portuguese were in control. "Anti-Semitism does not exist in India," says Ezra Kolet, president of the Jewish Welfare Association in New Delhi. "Hindus have always treated Jews very, very well." Nathan Katz, author of Who Are the Jews of India?, affirms that "India's Jews have lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live: free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country."


AT ONE TIME
, there were five distinct Jewish groupings in India. The Cochin Jewish community, in the Kerala state, is the oldest east of Iran. They've been in southern India for at least a thousand years, if not twice that. As spice traders, agriculturists, and merchants, they served their maharajahs, prime ministers, and military commanders. Most Cochin Jews now live in Israel, with only a few families remaining in their port city of origin.

The Sephardic Jews of Chennai, formerly Madras, came from Spain and Portugal following expulsion during the Inquisition of 1492. They were a strong force in the Indo-European diamond trade. Portuguese Jewish diamond merchants helped to finance the Dutch East India Company's voyages to India, and the British who followed as the colonial power were happy to make use of Jewish capital and knowledge.

At present, the largest Jewish community is in Mumbai, formerly called Bombay. This Bene Israel (Sons of Israel) community is slowly growing, and has always been the largest of the Jewish communities in India. Their oral tradition claims descent from "seven couples from a country to the north" who survived a shipwreck and landed near the coast of Konkani. A new genetic study suggests that they originated in the Middle East and came to India 600 to 1,000 years ago.

Baghdadi Jews, as they are known, came from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Turkey in the late 18th century, mainly for two reasons: religious persecution and commerce. They completely assimilated into Indian society.

The Bene Menashe community, living in the northern states of Manipur and Mizoram, are members of the Chin-Kuko-Mize tribe, linguistically Tibet-Burman. They claim to be descended from the Tribe of Manasseh, one of the ten lost tribes of Israel that were exiled by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE.

INDIA OPENED its doors freely in the 1930s to hundreds of German and Eastern European Jews. The Germans were mainly doctors who came at the invitation of their colleagues and settled in Bombay and Calcutta. Technicians, business people, nurses, and teachers came from Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. By 1943, some 1,200 refugees had arrived, most with no means of livelihood. The British government posed difficulties for Jewish refugees who wanted to come to India, and Jawaharlal Nehru, later to become India's first prime minister, tried to persuade them with the argument that Jewish specialists from Europe could help Indian industry. He wrote to a correspondent: "I need hardly assure you that the sufferings of the Jews in Germany have greatly shocked all people here. I wish we could help all these unfortunate sufferers. . .I am terribly sorry that we cannot do more than we are actually doing for the Jews. We know something about being oppressed and persecuted and we are full of deep sympathy for the Jews in their distress. I am sure that in spite of everything the Jews will overcome the obstacles and the difficulties which encompass them today."

Official policy was not free of problems and obstacles, however. The British government in India was generally suspicious, and the Indian Congress leadership generally indifferent to the tragedy.

Most of the earliest female stars of Indian cinema were Jewish, like Sulochana, Pramila, Rose, and Romila. A Bene Israel Jew, Nassim Ezekiel, is widely acknowledged as the father of India's modern poetry. Lieutenant J. F. R. Jacob played a crucial role in India's war with Pakistan in 1971.

The most famous Jews in India were the Sassoon family, known as the "Rothschilds of the East." They came from Baghdad to Bombay. From the 18th century, their merchant empire spanned Asia. It was David Sassoon who advised Queen Victoria to export opium from India to China, helping the Sassoons to become the richest Jews in the world.

The Jewish community in Cochin still keeps a set of thousand-year-old engraved copper plates that record the welcome given them by a local prince. It is inscribed with a message stating that the village of Anjuvannan belonged to the Jews and that they were the rightful lords of Anjuvannan and it should remain theirs and be passed on to their Jewish descendants "as long as the sun and moon endure -- Prosperity!"

In the last century, however, the tiny remnant of Jews left in India has been hard-pressed to maintain their identity in the face of both Indian nationalism and the beckoning of Zionism.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. She last wrote for us about Holocaust refugees in America.