Analysis

The Indian Jews at the Heart of the Netanyahu-Modi Love Affair

As Netanyahu arrives to seal the cracks in the two countries' burgeoning relations, here's a closer look at the vibrant Jewish communities both in India and around the world

A Bene Israel caretaker at a synagogue entrance.
Shalva Weil

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to hold a special meeting this week with Jewish community leaders in Mumbai, the hub of Jewish life in India. Netanyahu arrived in New Delhi on Sunday to mark the 25th anniversary of the launching of Israeli-Indian diplomatic relations. In Mumbai he will be accompanied by Moshe, the child – then a 2-year-old – who was saved by his nanny in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack in which Pakistan-based militants attacked a Chabad House and other targets.

>> Netanyahu's six-day visit to India: Here's the full itinerary

Netanyahus visit, after Prime Minister Narendra Modis much-acclaimed tour of Israel last July, aims to seal the relationship between the two countries. But in recent months, cracks have appeared in the love affair between the small country and the worlds largest democracy, which turned its back on Israel at a time of need: Last months UN General Assembly vote that rejected the United States recognition of Jerusalem as Israels capital.

Paradoxically, it may be neither diplomacy nor the hundreds of millions of dollars in recent arms deals between the two countries that will provide the glue to mend the liaison. Rather, it could be the Indian Jews, who for years stood in the wings waiting for relations to progress.

In the past year, the importance of the Jews of India and Indian Jews living in Israel has surged. Modi has made the Indian diaspora a priority, organizing rallies throughout the world to support his ideology. Indias diaspora community numbers 28 million people, including 16 million so-called NRIs – non-resident Indians – and 12 million permanent residents abroad. Modis idea is to coalesce a global community that will invest in India and support its foreign policy. Although Israels Indian diaspora community is minute, its significance is growing.

As part of his visit to Israel last July, Modi spoke at a rally of Indian Israelis in Tel Aviv. He talked for over an hour in Hindi without uttering a word in English. Part of the speech was aimed at lauding the contribution of the Jews to India, none of whom speak Hindi as their mother tongue. It is doubtful that more than 100 people in the crowd understood his speech, but nearly all were exhilarated by Modis energy and charisma.

Netanyahu, who had never taken much notice of the Indian community in Israel, suddenly declared Israelis of Indian origin a human bridge between the two countries. It is here that the future of the relationship between Israel and India lies.

All the way back to Antiochus

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Olga Beach, October 9, 2017.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

So who are the Indian Jews whom the two prime ministers lauded? Three established communities traditionally practiced Judaism in India: the Bene Israel; the Cochin Jews; and the Baghdadis. It is the leaders of these communities that Netanyahu will meet in Mumbai. At their peak in 1947, these Jewish communities numbered a mere 28,000 souls. Today, some 80,000 Indian Jews live in Israel, a few thousand reside in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, and no more than 3,500 Jews live in India.

The largest Indian-Jewish community is the Bene Israel. According to tradition, their ancestors set sail around 175 B.C.E. to escape Antiochus devastation in the Kingdom of Israel. Their ship capsized off the coast of Konkan, south of present-day Mumbai. The survivors lost all their possessions, including holy books. They remembered the Shema Yisrael prayer, observed some of the Jewish holidays and fasts, and circumcised their sons. But they knew neither the Oral Law nor the practices and customs of mainstream Jewry.

A circumcision ceremony at the Bene Israel synagogue in Mumbai.
Shalva Weil

From the 18th century, the Bene Israel began a lengthy process of bringing their practices in line with other Jewish communities around the world. They were aided by their contact with the British in India, the resultant move to Mumbai (then Bombay) and other cities, and access to the English language and higher education.

Joseph Ezekiel Rajpurkar (1834-1905) taught Hebrew at the Wilson College in Bombay; Dr. E. Moses became mayor of Bombay in 1937, and Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004) became poet laureate of India. The ultimate outcome of Jewish identification was the emigration of the majority of the community to Israel. But in the 1960s, the Bene Israel were not accepted by Israels Chief Rabbinate as full Jews and staged a large sit-down strike until their status was ratified.

The settlement of the Cochin Jews in Kerala, in southwest India, is ancient. One theory holds that they arrived in the first century C.E. when Saint Thomas (d. 53 C.E.) brought Christianity to India. Copperplates note that the local ruler, Bhaskara Ravi Varman (962-1020), granted 72 privileges to the Jewish Cochin leader, Joseph Rabban.

Babu, guardian of the Cochin synagogue in Ernakulam, southern India.
Shalva Weil

During the Portuguese period after the arrival of Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524) in India, European and other Jews settled on the Malabar coast. In 1568, the Paradesi (Malayalam; foreigners) established a synagogue in Mattancherry, Cochin.

One member of that community was Ezekiel Rahabi (1694-1771), who acted as the principal merchant for the Dutch in Cochin and signed his memoranda in Hebrew. The Paradesi Synagogue will celebrate its 450th anniversary this year. Today, only five Paradesi Jews remain in Cochins Jew Town, while a few other Malabari Jews remain in Kerala. The majority of the Cochin Jews emigrated to Israel in 1954.

And all the way to Shanghai

Attendees at the first international symposium of India's Baghdadi Jews.
Shalva Weil

In the 18th century, many Iraqi Jews shifted their enterprises to Calcutta and established thriving businesses and magnificent Jewish-community structures in the East. The Baghdadis, as they became known, kept up family and trade ties with other members of their community throughout South Asia, as far afield as Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

David Sassoon (1792-1864) arrived in Bombay in 1832 and contributed to that citys grandeur. The Bollywood actor Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham) (1916-2006) won the first Miss India pageant in 1947. After the British withdrawal from India, many of the Baghdadis decided to emigrate to English-speaking countries; some settled in Israel. Gen. Jack Jacob (1923-2016) stayed on in India and in 1971 negotiated the surrender of Pakistani troops in todays Bangladesh.

A member of the Bnei Menashe community at a convention in Kiryat Gat, Israel.
Shalva Weil

In the past 20 years, different groups in India have claimed that they are lost tribes of Israel. A Judaizing group called Bnei Ephraim is emerging in Andhra Pradesh in the southeast. In the northeast, several thousand Bnei Menashe from the states of Mizoram and Manipur have converted to Judaism and emigrated to Israel. They, too, are accepted as part of Modis Indian diaspora in Israel.

So while some Jewish communities around the world are shrinking, the Indian Jews are expanding, and Modis Israeli-Indian diaspora – now with Netanyahus recognition – is growing. Ultimately, it may well be that the Indian Jews, those human bridges, will rescue the love affair between the two prime ministers, acting as brokers in repairing relations between the states.

Prof. Shalva Weil is a senior researcher at RIFIE (the Research Institute for Innovation in Education) at the Hebrew University, and a scholar of the Jews of India. She is the founding chairperson of the Israel-India Friendship Association, set up when diplomatic relations were established between India and Israel in 1992.

A detail from the Malabari synagogue ark in Ernakulam, Cochin, India.
shalva weil
Torah finials (rimonim) at the Museum of Babylonian Heritage in Or Yehuda, Israel.
shalva weil