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[By: Encyclopedia Judaica]

Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is an island nation south of India.

Legend and tradition, Islamic and Samaritan in origin, connect Sri Lanka with biblical personalities and events. Adam is said to have descended on the island after his expulsion from Paradise, and Noah's Ark allegedly rested on the mountains of Serandib, which tradition equates with Mount Ararat. The presence of Jews in Sri Lanka is alluded to by the 9th-century Muslim traveler Abu Za'id al-Ḥasan Sirāfī and the 12th-century Muslim geographer al-Idrīsī. According to the latter, four of the Council of 16 appointed by the king of Sri Lanka were Jews. The number of Jews living there cannot be ascertained, though an obscure and doubtful passage in Benjamin of Tudela (mid-12th century) reads either 3,000 or 23,000. When the Dutch East India Company established its foothold in Sri Lanka, Jews from the Malabar coast may have gone there for the purpose of trade. From 1758 to 1760, Leopold I.J. van Dort, a former Jew born in Holland, was professor of Hebrew at the Christian Theological Seminary in Colombo. In 1809, while Sri Lanka was under British rule, the chief justice Sir Alexander Johnston was seriously interested in a large-scale immigration of Jews to Sri Lanka and submitted his project to the government; however no further action was taken. According to the traveler J. Saphir a small group of European Jews led by the brothers Wormser established a coffee estate in the hills above Kandy in 1841. No Jewish communal organization appears to have existed in any part of Sri Lanka.

Diplomatic relations between Israel and Sri Lanka were established only in 1957. In Sri Lanka, which gained its independence in 1948 and always maintained a pro-Arab policy, opinions were divided with regard to Israel. The Moslem minority there, numbering around 1,000,000 people, has religious, cultural, and historic ties with the Arab world and exerts consistent pressure on its government to support the Arabs against Israel. An additional factor is that the Arab states buy a significant amount of Sri Lankaese tea, which is the major export item, and threaten to cut off these purchases if Sri Lanka were to improve its relations with Israel. The policy of the government of India also influences its Sri Lankaese neighbor. Several Jewish women of European origin, who are married to Sri Lankaese, are now living on this island, and they constitute its total Jewish population. Despite Israel's efforts, two major political parties in Sri Lanka continue to support the Arabs. Throughout the years of the relations between Israel and Sri Lanka, from 1957 until 1970, each Sri Lankaese government continued, more or less, the policy of its predecessor in supporting the Arab states. The government of Mrs. Bandaranaike, which was elected in 1970, resolved (under Arab and Communist influence) to take a more extreme approach than any previous government and suspended relations with Israel. In announcing this policy, the Sri Lankaese government declared that it was suspending relations until Israel's retreat from the territories occupied in the Six-Day War (1967) or until an agreement had been reached to the satisfaction of the Arabs. This policy resulted in the closing of Israel's legation in Colombo in August 1970. Low-level relations were resumed in the early 1980s but broken off again in 1990.

In 2000, diplomatic relations were fully restored. Israel has supplied Sri Lanka with arms for fighting terrorism.


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

J.E. Tennent, Ceylon, 2 (Eng., 1860), 250ff.; J. Saphir, Even Sappir, 2 (1874), 95; D.W. Marks and A. Loewy, Memoir of Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid, bart. (18822); Reissner, in: Ceylon Historical Journal, 3 (1953), 136–44, 228–33.

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