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Jews of India

Jews in India have lived among the predominant Hindu and Muslim population for millennia, making Judaism one of the oldest religions in India. Over the centuries, the Jews preserved their customs and traditions while assimilating with the local population. Unlike many parts of the world, Jews have lived in India without significant violence or anti-Semitism, and have been accorded an honorable place in the social structure. In Mumbai (formerly Bombay), two synagogues are located in predominantly Muslim areas, with no record of ill-will between the two communities. Even so, economic factors, among others, have prompted many Jews to emigrate to Britain, Australia, Canada, the United States, and Israel. Never a large community, the Jewish population remaining in India was estimated to number around 5,000 in the year 2000. There are four major groupings of Jews in India, each with its own unique history. They are the Cochin Jews, the Baghdadi Jews, the Bene Israel, and the B'nei Menashe.


Cochin Jews (Malabar Jews)
The oldest of the Jewish communities, the Cochin Jews arrived in India 2,500 years ago. Several rounds of immigration from the Jewish Diaspora to the southern state of Kerala led to a diversity amongst the Cochin Jews. The biggest group is called “Meyuhassim” (“privileged” in Hebrew) or Malabar Jews. The forebears of these Jews are considered to have arrived in India during the period of King Solomon. The second group is called “Pardesi” (“foreigner” in some Indian languages), who came to Kerala at different periods from different countries: Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Spain, and Germany. These two groups were successful merchants and had slaves who were converted to Judaism. They were released from their status as slaves and are called “Meshuhararim” (“released” in Hebrew).

In 1524, they moved from the port of Cranganore (now called Kudungallur) further south to Cochin to escape attacks from the Moors and the Portuguese. The Jews fled to Cochin under the protection of a Hindu Raja who granted them their own area of the city, later called “Jew Town.” The Cochini Jews at their height in the 1940s numbered 3,000. Although most Cochin Jews have emigrated primarily to Israel or elsewhere, a small population of mainly elderly men and women still inhabit “Jew Town.”


Baghdadi Jews
The most recent arrivals are the Baghdadi Jews (sometimes called “Iraqi Jews”) who came to India as traders and religiously persecuted refugees 250 years ago from West Asia-Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. Most of the “Baghdadis” were successful merchants and businessmen and quickly became successful leaders in Mumbai and Calcutta. As philanthropists, they built hospitals, schools, libraries, and monuments in many cities of India. For the most part, however, the Baghdadi Jews remained separate from Indian society, including other Indian Jews, preferring to identify with British culture.

The Baghdadis at their height numbered about 7,000 in the 1940s, although today there are less than 200 left in India, most of them having emigrated to Britain, Australia, and Canada.


Bene Israel
At the present, the Bene Israel predominate the Jewish presence in India. Their story is an old one, but like many ancient communities, it is the subject of scholarly dispute. According to oral tradition, the Bene Israel are descended from Jews who escaped persecution from the Syrian-Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphan in 175 B.C.E. A shipwreck stranded seven Jewish families at Navgaon near the port of Cheul on the Konkan Coast, thirty miles south of Mumbai. The families multiplied and integrated with the local Maharashtrian population, adopting their language, dress, and food, and became physically indistinguishable from the local population.

However, the Bene Israel were clearly differentiated from others because of their adherence to Judaism. The Bene Israel say their ancestors were oil pressers in the Galilee, hence their nickname shanwar teli ("Saturday oil-pressers"), given by the local population because they abstained from work on Shabbat. They remained isolated from mainstream Judaism until the 19th century when Cochin and Baghdadi Jews became involved in training the Bene Israel religious leadership. The Bene Israel were encouraged to move to Mumbai for better employment opportunities. Over time, the Bene Israel community became successful, producing distinguished military leaders, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.

It is estimated that there were 6,000 Bene Israel in the 1830s, 10,000 at the turn of the century, and in 1948 they numbered 20,000. When the British withdrew from India in 1947, and the State of Israel was established in 1948, the Bene Israel began to emigrate to Israel. About 60,000 Bene Israel live in Israel today. In 1964, the Israeli Rabbinate declared that the Bene Israel are “full Jews in every respect.” There are approximately 2,000 living in United States and elsewhere.

According to Romiel Daniel, a Mumbai-born Jew who serves as president and occasional cantor for the Rego Park Jewish Center in Queens, New York:
There are 29 synagogues in Mumbai, in a country with about 5,000 Jews. [...] Most Indian Jews were traders and merchants, and throughout their long history in the country they enjoyed tranquil relations with their Hindu neighbors.

The Bene Israel adhere to their own traditions and rites. Like the Lemba of South Africa, a DNA test in 2002 confirmed that the Bene Israel share the same heredity as the Kohanim.


B'nei Menashe
In northeast India, in the land mass that lies between Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Bangladesh, a small group of people have been practicing Judaism since the early 1970s, having returned to the religion of their ancestors. The B'nei Menashe are Mizo and Kuki tribesmen in Manipur and Mizoram who believe that they are descended from the ancient tribe of Menashe. Evidence shows that after the exile of 722 B.C.E., many Israelites made their way across the Silk Road, ending up in China. The Shinlung tribe, as they were called in China, eventually migrated to Burma and northeast India, losing many of their Jewish customs along the way. Although their “leather scrolls” were destroyed, the B'nei Menashe still held on to their oral history and the poems describing their ancestors crossing the Red Sea. After thousands of years of exile, they have rediscovered their roots and are returning to Judaism.

While over 300 have formally converted to Judaism and many of these have moved to Israel, thousands of others live fully Jewish lives without having yet converted. In a historic decision, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has formally recognized the Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India as “descendants of Israel” and has agreed to send a Beit Din on its behalf to the region to formally convert them to Judaism.50 In a recent turn of events, Rabbi Ekstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has informed the government of Israel that his organization would provide the $8 million to settle the 6,000 Bnei Menashe in Israel, citing the recent certification of authenticity by the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.

In a July 2005 New York Times magazine article, Zev Chafets, founding editor of Jerusalem Report, touches upon the complexity of Israeli politics and the implications of settling the B'nei Menashe in Israel for other communities:
Transporting 6,000 lost Jews from India to Israel is [...] a political act. Israeli political parties will tussle over patronage of this new voting bloc. Right-wingers will fight to get it housed in the West Bank; left-wingers will try to prevent that. And the Palestinians will condemn the whole exercise as a Zionist trick to upset the demographic balance.
Chafets captures a fear shared ironically by both sides of the spectrum-those who are concerned with preserving the authenticity of the Jewish people as well as those who advocate for the dissolution of the Jewish people: “If a rabbi can turn 6,000 Indians into biblical Jews and take them to Israel, what's to stop him from finding 600,000 somewhere else?” Some communities of Jews, who are either persecuted or who are extremely isolated, may need to take refuge in Israel, such as the Beta Israel from Ethiopia. However, other communities, both historical, like the Lemba, or new, like the Abayudaya, want to remain where they are. They would like to be able to apply for a visa to visit or study in Israel without undue suspicion, or have the same rights as other individuals to make aliyah as they chose. They would like to be recognized as Jews, without becoming embroiled in Jewish communal politics or the brunt of the "explosive" politics of the Middle East. Their goal is to practice Judaism, not necessarily to make aliyah.

Jews of India
Cochin Jews (Malabar Jews)
Baghdadi Jews
Bene Israel
B’nei Menashe

Map of India
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“Jews in India have lived among the predominant Hindu and Muslim population for millennia, making Judaism one of the oldest religions in India.”

“In northeast India, in the land mass that lies between Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Bangladesh, a small group of people have been practicing Judaism since the early 1970s, having returned to the religion of their ancestors.”