The Jewish Migrants in India

Benjamin J. Israel

Image: Sebastian Leonh

The story of the Jews of India has on the whole been a happy one, unlike that of their co-religionists in many other lands. It is true that now and then in the Diaspora Jews have, in one land or other, enjoyed periods of peace and prosperity and even outbursts of creativity which have brought advancement to the whole of mankind, but these periods have been succeeded by persecution, contumely and even expulsion. The most horrendous example is that of the Jews of Germany who for more than a century made a brilliant contribution to industry, science, literature, music and art only to be repaid with expropriation, expulsion, confinement and torture in concentration camps and, to crown all, extermination. India is perhaps the only country in the world in which, through long centuries Jews have dwelt in complete security and have been accorded an honourable place in the social structure of land.

The Jews of India cannot claim to have any extraordinary achievements to their credit but they did maintain their identity over centuries in the midst of an alien civilization and, in their small way, prosper. And, unlike some other small Jewish communities, they have not allowed themselves to be killed by kindness and get assimilated in the host society. Part of the explanation may lie in the Hindu concept of dharma, which has permeated the Indian outlook beyond the bounds of religion proper, and which requires one to remain in, and fulfill the duties of, the station in which Providence has been pleased to place one. But this by itself would not have sufficed to prevent the Jews from becoming by gradual degrees but another Hindu caste. The saving factor was a stubborn pride in the Jewish heritage, which enabled the Bene Israel, for instance, to resist the blandishments of the Christian missionaries, much as they admired them and appreciated what they were able to learn from them. After all, stiff-neckedness, of which the Israelites were once accused, can also be a virtue. And survival as such is very highly rated in the Jewish scale of values.

India has proved to be a generous mother, not only to the Jews who came to live here permanently. She opened her doors freely to those who sought refuge with her temporarily when they were driven out of, or could no longer endure the disabilities imposed on them in the countries in which they had dwelt. For instance, in the thirties of this century, hundreds of highly qualified German and East European Jews were given refuge in India and provided facilities for the exercise of their professions here. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru played a notable part in getting the Government of India to do this, even though ha was at the time engaged in a vigorous struggle against the British. More particularly, he persuaded a reluctant Indian Medical Council to recognize continental medical qualifications to enable refugee doctors, many most highly skilled, to practice in India. Most of these refugees had very successful careers and some introduced new industries into the country. India also provided a temporary home during World War II to Polish and other East European Jews who managed to elude Hitler’s net and escape through Soviet Russia, Iran and Afghanistan. After the end of the War most moved away to Europe, America or Australia.

It will be asked why, if Indian Jews were so happy in India, they left in such large numbers after 1947. So far as the Baghdadis are concerned, the explanation is not hard to find. They were comparatively newcomers to India, and had had no experience of living under Indian rule. They were highly westernized, with strong business ties with Britain and the Far East. Their leaders had developed international business interests which would suffer, if they retained their headquarters in India. Lastly, they were more closely involved in Political Zionism than the Bene Israel, or even the Cochinis, were. The establishment of the State Of Israel proved an Attraction too strong to resist for those who were unable or unwilling to move to one of the Commonwealth countries or the United States of America.

The Black Jews of Cochin were very strongly influenced by Religious Zionism, if not to the same extent by Political Zionism, and the establishment of the State of Israel impelled them to move en masse to Israel. With their small number, it was possible for them to settle in two or three moshavs (cooperative rural settlements) so that they have had fewer problems of integration into Israeli life than Bene Israel immigrants who have mainly moved to new development towns in the south of Israel.

As to the Bene Israel, Political Zionism had Little appeal to the majority, though they shared the belief of most oriental Jews that, in God’s good time, the Jews would return to Jerusalem under the guidance of the Messiah. A few sophisticated Bene Israel did understand and share the aspirations of Political Zionism and they watched with admiration the achievements of the Zionists under the Mandate. They did not, however, contemplate themselves moving to Palestine. They regarded the movement as largely dominated by Western Jewry and they wondered what place there was in Palestine for coloured people like the Bene Israel. Zionist emissaries came from time to time and were warmly received, but they were also questioned whether the doubts which the Baghdadis had once raised about their religious status would be received in Palestine if the Bene Israel went there (as indeed they were raised later in Israel).

After the outbreak of World War II the attitude of the Bene Israel underwent a radical change. … When the opportunity came to join the ‘Ingathering of the Exiles’ as it was termed, many Bene Israel began moving to Israel with aid from the Jewish Agency or at their own cost. What was first a trickle quickly became a flood. … A strong attraction was the prospect of generous aid for rehabilitation in their new home, and in fact most of the poorer emigrés greatly improved their economic position and standard of living. They also forgot the inhibitions, which the caste system had grafted in India and took up work, which in India they would have considered degrading. …

As already mentioned, it looks as if the wave of emigration has largely spent its force, and the fear that was once felt by some that the Indian Jewish community would soon virtually disappear may not be realized. But it is still not outside the range of possibility that the Jews may cease to exist as a coherent community in India. In that case, as the writer wrote some ten years ago with reference to the Bene Israel: “This will be a loss to India, if not to world Jewry. However insignificant a part the Bene Israel played in the general life of India, by their very existence in sizable numbers on the West Coast, they have constituted a Jewish presence in India, which in its small way has enriched its multi-faceted culture. More important, they have provided living evidence that, in at least one country in the world, Jews can exit with pride and honour and without any need for self-consciousness or protective withdrawal into a self-created ghetto. (Excerpt from his book The Jews of India, 1982)

(Benjamin J. Israel (1906–1987) studied in Bombay in Elphinstone College. He joined the Bombay Civil Service in 1929 and served as Secretary of the Bombay Public Service Commission for ten years before he retired in 1959. His scholarly research in the history of the Jews of India has been published in the Encyclopedia Judaica besides several pamphlets and books he has authored.)



Bulletin of the Chennai Jesuit Province

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