Why India Has Always Been A Home For The Jewish People

Old sketch of the Cochin Jews
India is one of the few countries where the Jewish people have never been persecuted.

In 2008, when Pakistani terrorists attacked the Jewish community centre known as Nariman House, it was seen as the first attack on the Jews in India in over a millennium. There were only about 4,000 Jews in Mumbai – a city then comprising 18.5 million people – and they were the target of Pakistani armed and trained terrorists.

For a brief period, Indian Jews were concerned for their safety in the subcontinent. But six years later, the centre re-opened and life returned to normal. If the terrorist’s intention was to dampen India-Israeli military ties, the outcome was only to strengthen them.

Altar at the Paravur synagogue in Kerala (Image: 7MB)

The Jewish community in India numbered over 30,000 in the 1940s. Today, between 3,500 and 6,000 remain. The vast majority emigrated to Israel, the only country in the world with a majority-Jewish population. But the Indian Jews – both in India and in Israel – bear a special connection with the subcontinent. It is the only home they have known in the world that has historically been absent of anti-semitism.

Elsewhere, in Europe and the Middle East, the Jews have faced persecution for almost as long as there have been Jews. The Romans were early oppressors, as were the Persians. But it was in the aftermath of the rise of Christianity that Jews acquired the dangerous tag of ‘deicide’ – murder of a God. It was a charge the Jewish community was only absolved of by the Catholic Church in 1964 – but for centuries before this, they paid its price. Any Jew, irrespective of their nationality or the period they lived in, was seen as culpable for the death of Jesus Christ.

Anti-Semitism in Europe was driven by demonising myths. One popular belief surrounding the Matzo, the unleavened bread common in Jewish ceremonies such as Passover, was that it was made from the blood of Christian children. It was an accusation with a name – blood libel – and from Medieval Europe to modern-day Iran, it used to justify attacks on the Jewish community.

Through most of their history, the Jews have faced expulsion and migration from wherever they made a home, perhaps worst-so in Europe. But even in China, Jews have been forced out on account of their religion and the belief by Chairman Mao that they could be ‘subversive‘. More recently, the Kaifeng Jews have been repressed on account of a growing suspicion over foreign religions.

A 2014 poll found that up to one-quarter of the world’s population believed that the negative sentiments about the Jews were true. But if there is one country that has historically been safest for the children of Isreal, it is India.

The Indian promised land

A photo of the Bene Israel community in India, 1902-1906 (Image: Jewish Encyclopedia/ Public Domain)

Jews have been persecuted in India, but not by Indians. The last time this occurred was during the Portuguese Inquisition, where several Jews fled to India from Europe. When the Inquisition expanded into Portuguese territories in Goa, Jews, Muslims and Hindus were amongst those targeted by the colonizers.

Those who fled the Goa inquisition found a home in Kerala – where Jews are known to have resided continuously since the fourth century A.D. But in fact, local Jewish legends connect the Jewish presence to 70 A.D. – when the second temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Romans.

The chronology of this legend is fragmented; the Jews fled Jerusalem in the first century A.D., but the chronological record of their presence in Kerala is uncertain. A popular legend states that the Jews who fled the Levant arrived on the Malabar shores to be greeted by a Keralan king of the Cheraman dynasty.

Cheraman Perumal bestowed the Jews with a copper plaque, enshrining their right to remain in India (according to historian A. Sreedhara Menon, this took place in the year 1000 A.D.). It stated:

Hail Prosperity, this is the gift that His Majesty, King of Kings, Sri Bhaskara Ravi Varman… was pleased to make… We have granted to Joseph Rabban, the Ancuvannam [an ancient name for the jews of Kerala], tolls by the boat and by their vehicles, Ancuvannam dues the right to employ day lamp, decorative cloth, palanquin, umbrella, kettle drum trumpet, gateway, arch, arched roof, weapons and the rest of the seventy two pilgrims. We have remitted customs, dues and weighing fee. Moreover, according to this copper-plate grant, he shall be exempted from payments due to the king from settlers in the town, but he shall enjoy what they enjoy.
To Joseph Rabban, proprietor of the Ancuvannam, his male and female issues, nephews, and son-in-law, Ancuvanam shall belong by hereditary succession as long as the sun and moon ensue – Prosperity!

The copper plate commissioned by the Chera king

There are three generally-recognized distinct communities of Jews in India – the Bene Israel of Mumbai, the Cochin Jews of Kerala and the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata. Their histories stem from early migrations throughout the last two millennia. But there are also communities like the Bene Menashe in the North-East and Bene Ephraim in Andhra Pradesh, who claim descent from the twelve lost tribes.

An image of the Menorah at the Kadavumbagam Synagogue in Kerala (Image: 7MB)

Throughout history, Jews have played prominent roles in adding to the fabric of Indian society. They helped build early trade links with India and were among the architects of Indian cinema. Among the community, many individual names stand out. Figures like David Sassoon were prominent industrialists, who helped build Bombay into a commercial powerhouse. Ezra Mir was a prominent documentary filmmaker who crafted war propaganda for British-India against the Nazis in Europe. In the Indo-Pak war of 1971, a Baghdadi Jew named Jack Jacob was Chief of Staff of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command. Jacob, who had experience fighting with British, Indian and American soldiers, said that he had only ever witnessed anti-Semitism among the Europeans. After all, amongst the Indians, he was a war hero.

The historic ties between India and the people of Israel stem from the subcontinent’s natural affinity for migrants and refugees. No Jew fleeing persecution was ever turned away from India’s shores. This was not the isolated policy of certain rulers along the coast, it was evident across the subcontinent. During World War II, a Maharaja from Gujarat’s Halar region, Jamsaheb Digvijay Singh Jadeja, housed and sheltered 500 polish orphans. As he told them:

Don’t consider yourselves orphans. You are now Nawanagaris and I am Bapu, the father of all Nawanagaris, including yourselves.

Today, India’s Jewish community is dwindling. Many have left for Israel, in hopes that the Jewish promised land was finally a reality. For those in the community who even today feel unsafe in Europe, Israel is a military and economic haven in the desert. But it is also a country surrounded by threats, and faced with terrorism. Many Israelis visit India following their military service – to the effect that places like Kasol, Goa and Kodaikanal have become synonymous with their culture.

For the Jews of the world, Raja Perumal’s copper verdict holds strong even today – as long as the sun and the moon ensue, India will remain a safe place and haven for the Jewish people.

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