The saga of Indian Jews in Israel

Cochin Jews, Source:
Cochin Jews, Source:

Last week as I was reading about the Indian Jewry, my research led me to some interesting works by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians on the movement of Jews from India to Israel since 1948 and their socio-cultural assimilation in Israeli society.

As a student of Defense studies, I am aware that India and Israel have very strong military ties and security cooperation. But a lesser-known aspect of this strong relationship is the Jewish connection. These people of India started moving to Israel after the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, but could not part away from their Indian roots. Such identity mix can be fascinating as well as chaotic.

Israel, a young nation founded in 1948, comprises over 9 million people with approximately 6.8 million Jews. The Jewish community which is divided into Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, and Mizrahi Jews posits Indian Jewry under the latter. As per official reports, there are more than 80,000 Indian Jews in Israel as of 2020. As per research by Shalva Weil, a famous scholar and researcher on this subject, Indian Jewry is divided into three main groups: Cochin Jews, Baghdadi Jews, and Bene Israeli. The journey of the Indian Israeli community has been fascinating, defined by complex ways that Jews of Indian origin have forged their identities as Indian, Jewish, and Israeli.

Yet, little scholarly attention has been paid to the subject. The Israeli state was a dream project of the Zionists. Indian Jews could not place themselves within Israeli nationalist narratives of Jewish persecution, which they had never personally witnessed. Thus, perhaps they did not experience the same level of nationalism as other Jews but found a place in the new homeland for Jews around the world. From their homeland in India to a new nation-state, the journey from one home to another was a long and emotional one.

The Jews who moved from newly independent India to Israel had to adjust to a new state and survive the cultural and economic challenges of resettlement often in remote towns. As per some scholars, they existed on the periphery. Most Indian Jews while in India had identified their religious practices as “Jewish,” and this “Jewishness” was the main reason for migrating to Israel, combined with varying economic and personal aims. However, the identity was still divided and had elements of Indian-ness.

Revisiting the history, Cochin Jews, believed to be traders or refugees were the first to arrive in India. They held high political office under the local maharajas and were a prosperous community. The Bene Israeli community, supposed to be shipwrecked on the Konkan Coast, were the second Jewish community to arrive in India who assimilated well with the Hindu and Jewish culture. The Baghdadi Jews were the last to arrive in India who identified more as Europeans. Thus, all the three communities, though Jewish, were heterogeneous in their ways.

From 1948 till 1992, the Indian state did not have any official diplomatic ties with Israel. The two countries did not share warm relations for nearly four decades as they headed in different directions: India served as a leader in the non-Alignment movement and maintained an affinity with the Arab world and the Soviet Union, while Israel was building close ties with the United States and Western Europe. During this period, Indian Jewry could maintain their ties with their relatives and friends back in India through the Israeli consulate in Mumbai, but the absence of diplomatic ties was a constraining factor. Maina Singh Chawla in her famous book titled “Being Indian Being Israeli” stated that there is significant heterogeneity in the Indian Jewish population while examining the significance of class, ethnicity, language, region, gender, and generation in the Indian immigrant experience. She also states that their South Asian origin makes the Indian Jews a “civilizational distinct” within the Mizrahi community. However, Shalva Weil contends that “even before the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, most of the Indian Jews were pro-Israel and pro-Jewish so it impacted in no way on Indian Jewish identity in Israel. Indian Jews never felt a clash of identity in Israel, since they felt they were at home.”

Nonetheless, with the opening of the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv, the four distinct Indian Jewish communities were united under the umbrella of Indian Jews. Their Indian roots were formally recognised. “Indian” aspect of their identity became prominent, which was missing earlier.

So, after the establishment of full diplomatic ties between the two states, it is evident the contribution of Indian Jews in Israel was acknowledged much better and their value within Israeli society also witnessed an improvement. It became easier for them to embrace their Indian identity while being Jewish by religion.

On his three days visit to Israel in 2017, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a gathering of the Indian Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv. He recalled the contributions of several Jewish Indians including General JFR Jacob and hundreds of Indians who worked to “make the desert bloom” in Israel. “The Jews community from India has made valuable contributions to Israel’s progress, I am proud of them. Israel has shown that more than size, it is the spirit that matters. The Indian government will soon set up an Indian cultural center in Israel”, said PM Modi in his address.

Thus, it is this collective memory and cultural connection that binds the two countries in a strong bond.

About the Author
I am a first year graduate student of Defence and Strategic Studies at School of Military Affairs, Strategy and logistics (SMASL) at Rashtriya Raksha University, Gujarat, India. I am a bibliophile and a strategic affairs enthusiast.
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