The Jewish community in Gujarat comprising just around 150-odd members watched Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel, their “Fatherland”, with cautious expectation. Several of them followed every detail of the visit — from his tour to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, to the walk on the Olga beach with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While the Jews have easily adopted the culture and ways of life of India, which they call their motherland, the Gujarat government in all these years is yet to warm up to the community.
Well aware that the priority of Modi’s visit was purely business, the Jews in Gujarat said their long-pending demands — like protection of their monuments and declaring them as a minority community — continue to remain unaddressed. Jews enjoy minority status in West Bengal and Maharashtra and the Centre according to them the same would mean a lot to the community.
Interestingly, BJP MLA from Surat, Purnesh Modi, organised a live viewing of the PM’s address to the Indian diaspora in Tel Aviv at Dr Ambedkar Vanvasi Kendra, an RSS centre in Surat, over a Gujarati meal. Some, however, questioned as to why the event was held in Surat that doesn’t have even a single Jew living there, and not in Ahmedabad, where 140 of the total 150 Jews, all of them Bene Israel Jews, are based.
The organisers reasoned that since Jews from Maharashtra were also invited, Surat was closer for them. A majority of the Jews that made up the crowd at the RSS centre was from Maharashtra, and only a handful drove down from Ahmedabad.
The fact is that many prominent Jews in Gujarat, who live in minority neighbourhoods, have been a witness to the post-Godhra 2002 riots and feel uneasy about it. Ahmedabad had reported the highest number of killings of Muslims during those riots and intolerance towards minorities has only grown since.
Moreover, activists fighting for justice for the 2002 riot victims have drawn parallels between the riots and the genocide of Jews during the World War II under Adolf Hitler.
Neither Modi’s bonhomie with Netanyahu nor the live community viewing in Surat is likely to impact the Jews’ perception about the BJP or of Modi anytime soon.
In his years as chief minister, the Gujarati Jews were hardly in Modi’s or the BJP’s reckoning, notwithstanding the fact that the community runs 10 schools in Ahmedabad affiliated to the Gujarat board, a majority of which are located in the Maninagar assembly constituency, represented by Modi through his 12 years as legislator and chief minister.
Modi’s mention of Dr Lael Anson Best, an alumnus of the Best High School in Maninagar who is now a professor in Rambam Healthcare Campus in Haifa, in his Tel Aviv address was looked at as mere tokenism by the Gujarati Jews.
The Jews are also sceptic about the BJP’s real intention behind the ‘bonding’. At the community viewing of the PM’s address in Surat, the BJP members sat on one side of the hall and the Jewish community on another, separated by an aisle. There was hardly any conversation between the two sides.
In fact, in Gujarat, the only instances of Jews being in the news when Modi was at the helm was because of panegyric references to Hitler. In 2004, a sociology textbook for Grade X by Gujarat School Textbook Board glorified Hitler as “Supremo” and wrote of the “Achievements of Nazism”, which pained the community in Gujarat. There had been no regret or correction made by the then Modi-led government.
In 2005, the new lot of sociology books referred to Nazism as having brought coordination between “nationalism and socialism” and another reference said, “Hitler adopted an aggressive policy and led the Germans towards ardent nationalism”, which continued to annoy the community, and once again there was no apology from the government.
Even as Modi, who had visited Israel in 2006 as CM, was pursuing an aggressive business partnership between Gujarat and Israel, importing dairy, farm technology and policing techniques, a top Israeli diplomat visiting Gujarat in 2010 had commented on the textbook rectifications as “not being enough”.
Ignorance about the sensitivity of the community and its history surfaced again as recently as 2012 when two Gujaratis opened a men’s apparel store in Vastrapur area of Ahmedabad and called it “Hitler”. They also put a prominent Nazi swastika on its signboard. No authority objected to the name of the store even when it applied for registration till the community protested. The shop, however, did not move to change its name till the intervention of the then Israeli Consul General in Mumbai, who met Modi and told him about it.
In the background of these events, the Jews have kept their peace with the majority Hindu community, “fending mostly for themselves”, as Aviv Divekar, secretary of Magen Abraham synagogue, says.
Their assimilation into Gujarat is complete, as it is in Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh. Of the ten Jewish schools in Gujarat, one is in Gujarati medium. The community has also informally incorporated Gujarati words into its rituals, comparing the ‘unleavened bread’ of the Passover ritual, to the Gujarati bhakri.
Ahmedabad’s only zoo in Kankaria, which is also in Maninagar area, was founded by a Jew, Reuben David, father of celebrated writer Esther David, who lives in Ahmedabad. The rest of the community is scattered in Vadodara, Rajkot and earlier Surat.
The 82-year old synagogue, located in the dense Khamasa area of the 600-year-old walled city of Ahmedabad, is in a nondescript narrow lane, standing amid a mosque, a Parsi agiari, a church and several temples and very close to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation headquarters.
Last year, the synagogue trust moved the Gujarat High Court to protest the building of a multistoried residential apartment that shared its wall with the synagogue. The construction was stalled after legal intervention.
Significantly, the municipal authorities have taken no initiative to preserve this piece of Jewish heritage even as Ahmedabad has been recently declared the country’s first World Heritage City by UNESCO.
A few members of the Sangh Parivar, through a body called Indo-Israel friendship society, has been “building contacts” with the Jews in Gujarat for the last year and a half for political gains. They have been visiting Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad, the only synagogue in the state, to connect with the community. Many Indian Jews are visiting Israel due to easier visa norms and, Sangh Parivar feels, they could influence the migrant Indian Jews.
There is also a plan to fly some Jews with BJP members to Israel to celebrate Haifa Day next year. Haifa, the third largest city of Israel, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, was fought for by a cavalry whose soldiers were mostly Indians.
All said and done, the Gujarat Jews couldn’t care less about this junket, or about the naming of the fastest growing chrysanthemum flower in Israel after Modi. The community is too small in India to matter in the political arithmetic, except symbolically, which is important for the BJP.
Tiny as it is, the community is very close-knit and keeps to itself, not letting many non-Jews into its religious ceremonies. This may be also because they are a meat-eating community, like Christians and Muslims, and would rather remain anonymous.