India has played a significant role in Jewish culture and consciousness for 2000 years. Over the millennia, there have been commercial and cultural interactions and, in recent times, diplomatic, technological, and strategic links as well.
Interactions between India and ancient Israel were overlaid upon older cultural patterns between India's Indus Valley Civilization (IVC, third to second millennium B.C.E.) and Sumer. Legendary accounts of the great wealth of India entered West Asian consciousness during antiquity and found their way into the Jewish imagination. Ancient tablets discovered at Ur, the city of Abraham, describe this flourishing trade.
Philologists have identified several Sanskrit and Tamil loan words in the Hebrew Bible, dating from as early at the Book of Exodus through the Books of Kings and Chronicles, indicating direct or indirect trade between India and ancient Israel. The Book of Esther contains the Hebrew Bible's sole direct reference to India, where King Ahashverush's domain is described as stretching from Ethiopia to India. Many scholars argue that the biblical port of Ophir was located in India.
From Indian literature, we find a description of ocean trade between India and West Asia that recalls the Noah narrative. In the Buddhist Kevaddhu Sutta (according to traditional dating, from the sixth century B.C.E.) one reads of merchants who sailed along the coast, carrying with them inshore-sighting birds that were released from time to time in order to guide
the early navigators to land. Another parallel in Buddhist literature is in the Mahoshadha Jataka, where the Buddha's wisdom is indicated in his sagacious judgment about two mothers who claim the same baby. Like King Solomon, the Buddha suggests that the baby be cut in half and shared, and the woman who objects is declared to be the real mother.
India was held in the highest regard in Greek culture, and it is not surprising that this view is reflected in the writings of Hellenized Jews. It was during Greek rule that the monsoon winds were discovered, speeding the maritime journey between West and South Asia to one month, greatly enhancing the spice trade and the cultural interactions it fostered.
The great historian *Josephus Flavius wrote about India. Of particular interest is Josephus' description of the martyrdom at *Masada, especially his accounts of the speeches of *Eleazar ben Jair, the leader of the rebels. Dramatically, as the Romans were about to overrun the defiant Jews, he argued that mass martyrdom was preferable to capture. Ben Jair presented a variety of arguments, but the one that convinced his audience to take the fateful step is a comparison of Jewish and Hindu attitudes about death, Josephus holds the Hindus as an example of fearlessness based on a firm belief in the eternity of the soul, and concludes by asking rhetorically how the Jews, who know God from Sinai, could be less firm in their faith than the Hindus, who have at best an indirect knowledge of God.
Philo of Alexandria also idealized Indian philosophers or gymnosophists. According to Greek sources, emissaries of Alexander of Macedon met with two Brahmin ascetics in northwestern India. Alexander at first invited and later demanded that the two come to Greece to display their wisdom. One of the two refused and was considered intransigent, while the other accepted and was considered courteous. Philo adapts the Greek story for his own anti-assimilationist purposes. In his version, the intransigent Calamus is lauded as a paradigm of Indian rejection of Hellenism, which Philo holds should be emulated by Jews.
Similarities between Jews and Brahmins abound in Hellenistic literature. Aristotle believed that Jews were descended from the Brahmins, for example, and Megasthenes held that the philosophers are to Greece as the Brahmins are to India and the Jews to the Middle East.
Contemporary Indian literature mirrors Jewish descriptions of the sea trade. The second century C.E. Tamil narrative poem, the "Shilappadikaram," described in great detail the pepper trade, the ports and cities of South India of the day, and the prosperity, peace, and cultural achievements that resulted from this commerce. Unfortunately, Indian literature generally does not distinguish among foreigners, who are lumped together under the Sanskrit word Yavana ("Greek").
India in Early and Medieval Rabbinic Literature
The Talmud contains several references to India. One refers to the pepper trade (Mid. Kohelet 1:7), and another to an India proselyte (Kid. 22b; BB 74b). The high priest wore "Indian linen" (Yoma 34b), and there are numerous references to Indian products, including pepper (Ḥag. 10a, Er. 28b), iron (AZ 16a), and ginger (Ber. 36b).
Saadiah Gaon mentioned the great profit to be had in the India trade; Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote of India's advanced knowledge of astrology, mathematics, and the sciences, and some hold that he visited India and may have been imprisoned there; Judah Halevi expressed negative sentiments about Hinduism in the Kuzari; and there is a talmudic discussion as to whether Indians practice idolatry or merely follow ancestral traditions (Ḥul. 13b).
Early Christian Sources
Traditional accounts of the arrival of Christianity in India in the year 55 C.E. focus upon St. Thomas the Apostle's mission to bring the Gospel to the Jews already in India. The earliest historical document to make reference to Jews in India is Eusebius' third century Ecclesiastical History, where he mentions the mission of Pantaenus in 181 C.E. Eusebius reports that Pantaneus found a Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew, which had been left behind by the Apostle Bartholomew. During the fourth century St. Jerome wrote of Jewish communities in India, and Bishop Simeon Beth-Arshem of Yemen of a triangular Jewish trade among Yemen, Babylonia, and the Malabar Coast of India.
Arab travelers left us the most extensive accounts of Jews in India. A mid-ninth century writer, Abdul Kasim, described the commercial activities of the Radanites; the ninth century
It was al-Beruni, the greatest Muslim traveloguist, who during the 10th–11th centuries left the most extensive account. He held that the people of Kashmir were descendents of Jews, and that there was a large Jewish community there. Other great Muslim writers also discussed Indo-Jewish links, including al-Idrisi of the 12th century and especially ibn-Battuta of the 14th century.
During the 12th century a number of Jewish travelers visited India and wrote about Jewish life there. The most influential was *Benjamin of Tudela, who left extensive descriptions of the Jews of southwest India. It was during the same century that *Maimonides wrote that his Mishneh Torah was studied in India.
The discovery of documents in the Cairo *Genizah revealed numerous merchant documents and letters pertaining to the India trade, but no comprehensive study of these tantalizing documents has yet appeared.
A quatrain by the 14th-century Rabbi Nissim of Spain expresses his delight at finding a Jewish king at Shingly, or Cranganore.
In addition to the *Genizah documents and the travelogues, physical evidence about Indian Jewish communities appears from the medieval period.
The most interesting are copper plate charters granted to minority communities in Malabar, the earliest of which from 843 granted autonomy to a Syriac Christian community at Kollam, and was witnessed by four Jews. Of greater Jewish interest are the fabled copper plates given to the leader of the Jews, Joseph Rabban, by the Cheraman Perumal emperor in 1001. The plates charter an autonomous Jewish principality under the suzerainty of the Hindu maharajah, granting real and symbolic privileges to the Jews. In Kochi Jewish folklore, Joseph Rabban and Cheraman Perumal became paradigms of Jewish-Hindu relations over the centuries, one characterized by loyalty, benevolence, and affection.
Also from the medieval period is a 1269 tombstone of Sarah bat Israel, which is found outside the Chendamangalam Synagogue.
Jewish women of the Malabar developed a repertoire of Malayalam-language folk songs that were chanted on many auspicious occasions: holidays, circumcisions, weddings, etc. These songs reveal the deep acculturation of Jews within Hindu society, reflecting local motifs and traditional Jewish themes.
Indian Jewish Communities
India had through the 21st century the largest number of Jews of any country east of Iran. Their population peaked in 1950 at around 30,000–35,000, after which immigration to Israel and other places reduced their number to around 4,000–6,000 in the early 2000s, more if the so-called B'nai Menashe and B'nai Ephraim are counted.
There have been three major distinct Jewish communities in India. The oldest group is found in and around Kochi in the southwestern state of Kerala, who today number fewer than 50. Perhaps 5,000 Cochinim, as they are called in Hebrew, live in Israel. The largest group is known as *Bene Israel and is found chiefly in and around Mumbai (previously Bombay), with active communities in Pune, also in Maharashtra state, in Ahmedabad in Gujerat state, and in New Delhi. All told, there are 4,000–5,000 Bene Israel in India and 40,000–50,000 in Israel, where they make up a significant ethnic group (edah in Hebrew) known as Hodi'im ("Indians"). The most recently arrived group are known in India as Baghdadis, Middle Eastern Jews, Arabic speakers mostly, who migrated to India during the late 18th century, about the same time as the British arrived, and who settled in India's port cities, especially Mumbai and Kolakata. Numbering about 5,000 at their peak, they declined to around 100, most of whom are elderly. The Baghdadis played a significant role in the development of British India's ports. Beginning as jewelers and in the opium trade, Baghdadi entrepreneurs soon moved into textiles and shipping in Mumbai, and real estate, jute, manufacturing, and tobacco in Kolakata. Replicating Jewish experience in America, humble boxwallahs (door-to-door salesmen) settled down and became department store magnates. Of the three groups, only the Bene Israel remains viable as a community.
While most Bene Israel live in Mumbai, the nearby Konkan coast is their spiritual home. Bene Israel trace themselves back to seven couples from Israel who survived a shipwreck off Navgaon, in the unknown, distant past. Somehow they clung to vestigial Judaic observances despite centuries of isolation. Their tenacity in maintaining the Sabbath, ritual circumcision, Jewish dietary codes, and the Hebrew Shema – the affirmation "Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One" – set the stage for their unlikely transformation from an anonymous oil-pressing caste in the remote Konkan into modern, urban members of the world Jewish community. This evolution occurred over 200 years ago, beginning in the middle of the 18th century.
A Kochi merchant heard rumors of a Konkani caste that rested on Saturday and circumcised their sons on the eighth day, so David Rahabi visited them. After spending some time with the community, examining their dietary habits as well as eccentric (by Hindu standards) religious observances, he concluded that they were lost Jews. He took three of them back to Kochi where he educated them in Hebrew and the rudiments of Judaism and sent them back with the title of kazi, religious leader. This began a longstanding relationship between Bene Israel and Kochi Jews; as Bene Israel prospered, they hired Kochi Jews to be their cantors, teachers, ritual slaughterers, and scribes. Bene Israel recall these events as their "first awakening."
Subsequent encounters with British and American missionaries and with the nascent Baghdadi community of Mumbai built upon their sense of Jewishness. This period is known as their "second awakening." They learned Bible stories from the missionaries, and they shared their synagogues (they built their first one in Mumbai in 1796) and cemeteries with the Baghdadis. Both the British and the Baghdadis offered opportunities in Mumbai, whether in the military, railway, or civil service, or in the mills and docks of the illustrious *Sassoons, and Bene Israel migrated to the new, glamorous city in search of their fortunes. It did not take long until there were more Bene Israel in Mumbai than in the Konkan.
Gradually the Baghdadis, in an effort to become accepted by the British as "European" rather than "Indian" – a label with tangible economic benefits as well as involving social snobbery – came to adopt British condescension toward all things Indian, including the Bene Israel Jews, who were unmistakably Indian in both appearance and culture. This condescension became all the more ugly when the Baghdadis came to cast aspersions upon the very Jewishness of the Bene Israel. The heart and soul of their newly found and hard-earned identity was under attack.
In Mumbai they encountered both the Zionist and Swaraj movements for independence from Britain in Palestine and India, respectively, and they were rent by the competing nationalisms. On the one hand, as Jews they had internalized the longing to return to Jerusalem and rebuild Zion. On the other hand, their unhappy experiences with the Baghdadis led them to mistrust foreign Jews, and as Indians they yearned for independence from the British. In yet a third direction, they were also fond of the British, their employers and often patrons, and wanted to support them as well. Mahatma *Gandhi appreciated their ambivalence. Leaders of the Ahmedabad Jewish community (where Gandhi had headquarters at his Sabarmati Ashram) asked the Mahatma what should be the stance of India's Jews vis-à-vis the independence movement. He is said to have replied that the Jews should "stand aside" because as a microscopically small community they would be crushed between the competing and overwhelming forces of the British Empire, Indian nationalism, and Muslim separatism. As a community, they did stand apart, although many Bene Israel became involved as individuals. The bottom line, however, is that the great majority of Bene Israel immigrated to Israel.
The Bene Israel community has stabilized. Those who intended to emigrate have done so, and most of those who remain intend to stay. Most are in Mumbai, where they work in the professions, education, industry, the military, and commerce. Most are educated and in the middle class. Twenty-five years or so ago, the Organization for Rehabilitation and Training (ORT) established two schools in Mumbai, one for boys and one for girls, to provide vocational training. The ORT schools became very popular among Jews and Gentiles alike. Soon services expanded to include classes in religion, Hebrew, and Israel studies. Later, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) became active in Mumbai, sending rabbis from America to help meet the community's religious and educational needs. The Israeli Consulate, too, serves as a community focus. Several of the synagogues in Mumbai have a full range of programs, from prayer services to singles groups to computer classes. Summer camps at a rural retreat center have provided an intense infusion of Jewish spirit to many of Mumbai's younger Jews. Kosher meat and wine, ritual objects, books, Indian Jewish calendars, and the accouterments of Judaic religious life are available, and India's generally tolerant approach to religions and religious pluralism bode well for the future of the Jewish community in Mumbai.
Smaller organized communities in Ahmedabad and Pune face more difficult challenges, but their synagogues are lively, and social and educational programs are well subscribed. In New Delhi there are only a handful of Bene Israel families, but they are augmented by Israeli and American diplomats and businesspeople. Regular prayers are held at the synagogue, and the Israeli Embassy helps out with the community's Passover Seder.
In Israel, despite initial difficulties in adapting to a new culture, climate, and economy, the sizeable Bene Israel community has maintained its own identity, largely through a singular ritual activity. Long devoted to the Prophet Elijah as a sort of patron saint, his veneration has become central to their new Israeli identity as Hodi'im. The propitiatory rite known as malida, after the parched rice mixture served with fresh fruits and flowers, is often the culmination of a pilgrimage to an Elijah cave near Haifa.
About 50 years ago, several shamans and leaders of tribal people in extreme eastern India (the states of Mizoram, Manipur, and Tripura) and western Myanmar (formerly Burma) began having dreams and visions which told them of their lost, true identity: that they were Jews of the Tribe of Menashe (Manasseh) who had meandered from ancient Israel along the Silk Route to Kaifeng, China, then through Southeast Asia, finally settling in their current remote mountain homes. Their religious enthusiasm spread to such an extent that by the early 21st century there were thousands of Kuki tribals on both sides of the border living as Jews. Some went to Israel, where they learned Hebrew, studied, and converted to Judaism, and some returned home as religious leaders. A number of synagogues have sprouted up, and now there are regular visits from Israeli and American coreligionists. Several hundred now live in Israel, especially in West Bank settlements, but most wait for their redemption back home. About a decade ago, a similar group emerged in Andhra Pradesh, a state on the Bay of Bengal on India's southeast coast, who call themselves B'nai Ephraim.
Most demographies of Indian Jewry do not include these tribal people, and there are no reliable estimates of their number, but it is incontestable that some of them have undergone conversion and are therefore Jewish. It is also the case that the vast majority are sincere in their beliefs and aspirations. Israeli immigration officials generally take an unsympathetic, skeptical view, believing them to be opportunists who seek only a
India and Israel
Jews occupied an ambivalent position within Indian nationalist discourse of the 19th to 20th centuries. On the one hand, Jews are seen as an Asian people, non-missionizing and oppressed, and therefore like Hindus. Moreover, Jesus was a Jew as well as an avatara. On the other hand, Judaism is the source of western civilization and the mother of Christianity and Islam, and therefore opposed to Hinduism, which is construed as "spiritual" in contrast to the "materialistic" western world. Also, Hindu nationalism objects to Jewish monotheistic exclusivism.
During India's pre-state period, the Swaraj (independence) movement led by Mahatma Gandhi adopted as its central issue Hindu-Muslim unity in the face of British attempts to foster a Muslim counterweight (the Muslim League) to the Indian National Congress. Thus, Gandhi's extra sensitivity to Muslim issues. He was successful in coopting the Khilafat Movement, deflecting its aims from the reestablishment of the Ottoman Caliphate to a general opposition to colonialism. When during the 1930s the Muslim League began demanding a Muslim state in Pakistan, Gandhi saw analogies between the Muslim League and Zionism in that both, to his mind, sought to carve out a religiously oriented state in what had been a unified British colony.
Moshe *Sharett of Keren Hayesod, later Israel's foreign minister, wanted Asian acceptance of Jews as an Asian people, and of Zionism as a national liberation movement. He sent Sanskritist Immanuel *Olsvanger as his emissary. Olsvanger convinced poet Rabindranath Tagore of the justice of Israel's cause, but not Gandhi. Olsvanger became embittered toward Gandhi, a sentiment which infected the Zionist movement's view of Gandhi generally. The Zionist movement was marginally more successful when it sent Hermann Kallenbach, whom Gandhi called my "closest friend, soul mate," leading to at least some ambivalence toward Israel on Gandhi's part.
During the Holocaust era, India's leadership showed little sympathy or understanding of the plight of the Jews in Europe. Jawaharlal Nehru proposed that India become an asylum for Jews in 1938 and again in 1939 on both humanitarian and pragmatic grounds, but his proposal was blocked by Nazi sympathizer Subhas Chandra Bose, Congress president from 1937 to 1939, and again by Maulana Abdul Kalam Azar, Congress leader from 1940 to 1946.
Despite sympathy for Jews in Europe, Indian leaders had little sympathy for Zionism. This was because of (1) their ideological view of Zionism as a form of European colonialism; (2) Indian domestic politics – at the time, India had the largest Muslim population in the world, and very few Jews; (3) the active courting by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, contrasted with the relative standoffishness on the part of Zionist leaders.
After independence for India in 1947 and for Israel in 1948, India extended official recognition to Israel in September 1950. A consulate was opened in Mumbai in 1953.
India saw its foreign policy interests in terms of the emerging Non-Aligned Movement, and as co-host of the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, Prime Minister Nehru suggested inviting Israel to participate, but was overruled by his friend, Egyptian Prime Minister Gamal Abdel *Nasser.
About the same time as the perceived Cold War shift in American support from India to Pakistan, the fledgling Indo-Israeli relations reached their nadir in the wake of the 1956 Suez Campaign, a trend that continued through the era of Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. Under her rule, the Palestine Liberation Organization opened an "embassy" in New Delhi, and in 1975 India co-sponsored the infamous United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism.
At the same time, undercurrents of disenchantment with the Arab world could be detected within Indian political discourse. India bemoaned the lack of support on the Kashmir issue. During the 1962 war with China, Israel provided India with military aid, while its Arab allies did not. Similarly, India received no Arab support during the 1971 war with Pakistan, a war whose leading Indian military hero was Lt. Gen. Frederick *Jacob, a Jew from Kolakata.
Later during the 1970s, Moshe *Dayan made a clandestine visit to India and met with Morarji Desai, leader of the Bharatiya Janatha Party and soon-to-be-elected prime minister. India supported the Camp David agreements between Israel and Egypt, and despite a temporary cooling of relations during Indira Gandhi's term as second prime minister in the early 1980s, her son Rajiv's prime ministership began opening the doors to greater commercial and technological cooperation. Rajiv met with American Jewish leaders who put forward Israel's case, with Shimon *Peres at the United Nations, with Congressman Stephen Solarz in 1988, and in 1989 a delegation from the Anti-Defamation League met with Foreign Minister Narasinghe Rao.
After Rajiv's assassination in 1991, Rao first led the way in repealing the "'Zionism-equals-racism" calumny, and then took steps leading to the normalization of full diplomatic relations in 1992. This rapprochement in Indo-Israeli relations was made possible by several factors, including: (1) the end of the Cold War; (2) the end of the East/West divide and subsequent erosion of and need for the Non-Aligned Movement; (3) India's economic liberalization begun by Rajiv Gandhi; (4) the Madrid peace process; and (5) India's disappointment with the lack of Arab support on the issue of Kashmir.
Since that time, bilateral relations have flourished, especially in such areas a tourism, culture, technology (agriculture,
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