Sri Lanka Virtual Jewish Tour
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 Sri Lankan city of Galle is said to be the city of Tarshish, to which King Solomon sent merchant ships.
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.
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.
Relations with Israel
Sri Lanka did not recognize Israel after its establishment, which occurred the same year (1948) Sri Lanka gained its independence. Nevertheless, the nation’s first prime minister, Don Stephen Senanayake, engaged with Israeli officials and purchased the Sri Lankan Navy’s first gunship from Israel while Israeli technical advisors assisted in the digging of tube wells in the dry zone of northern Sri Lanka.
When Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike came to power in 1956, however, he allied the country with the Arabs against Israel. Nevertheless, diplomatic relations between Israel and Sri Lanka were established in 1957. After Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959, his widow, Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, became prime minister. She, too, took a hostile posture toward Israel, joining with the non-aligned movement.
The Muslim 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. In addition, the Arab states buy a significant amount of Sri Lankaese tea, which is the major export item, making warnings they would cut off their purchases if Sri Lanka improved its relations with Israel a serious threat. The policy of the government of India, which was also hostile toward Israel until recent years, also influences its Sri Lankaese neighbor.
Throughout the years of the relations between Israel and Sri Lanka, from 1957 until 1970, each Sri Lankaese government continued 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.
A common interest in fighting terrorism brought the countries together again under Junius Richard Jayewardene. Seeking help in fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka turned to Israel for weapons when other Western nations refused to provide them. This paved the way for the restoration of relations in 1984. The Mossad subsequently helped the government develop a strategy for addressing its energy crisis and the Israeli construction company Solel Boneh helped develop the Mahaweli settlements.
President Jayewardene’s successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa, broke off ties again in 1992 and they were not restored until 2000.
In May 2017, floods and mudslides in underdeveloped regions of the country killed 200 people and displaced more than 80,000. Israeli Ambassador to India and Sri Lanka, Daniel Carmon, delivered trucks full of medical supplies, power generators, food, blankets, and other necessities to Sri Lankan authorities dealing with a humanitarian crisis.
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.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Israel Rushes Aid to Sri Lanka as Floods Displace Tens of Thousands, Algemeiner, (May 30, 2017).
Punsara Amarasinghe, “The Israeli-Sri Lankan Relationship,” BESA, (March 12, 2021).