Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022

For the first Indian Jews, assimilation in Israel was not easy

Post 1948, India-Israel relations have been affected not just by the Jews who made India their home, but also those who went to Israel with India in their hearts.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Narendra Modi, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu in India, Israeli prime minister in India, India Israel relations, India and Israel, India news, Indian Express Jewish immigration to Israel (Wikimedia Commons)

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed on Indian shores on Sunday, bringing with him the expectation of relations between the two countries reaching ‘new heights’. By the second day of his visit, Netanyahu and PM Narendra Modi had already inked nine pacts in areas of oil and gas as well as amended protocol for airports and cybersecurity among others. Netanyahu’s visit to India is particularly momentous as it hopes to shake away the hesitations that had arisen between the two countries after India’s vote in favour of the UN resolution that opposed president Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. India-Israel relations have been critical since the birth of independent India, particularly on account of the significant population of Jews that have resided within Indian borders for almost 2000 years.

The Jewish community in India is one among several other groups who had come from outside the country’s modern territorial borders and made it their home. In India they found a home and identity that they continued to relish for centuries to come. The Indian Jews were marked out by their ability to blend with the local culture and with those of the other groups who kept entering India in the years to come. Branched out across four sections — the Bene Israelis, the Baghdadi Jews, the Cochin Jews and the Bnei Menashe — the Jews in India are believed to have led lives free of anti-semitism, unlike in most other parts of the world.

With the independence of India in 1947 and the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, however, India-Israel relations entered a whole new era. For the large Jewish population in India, Israel’s nationhood came as a call from the holy land. Taking the cue, they decided to migrate to their land of religious origin in Israel. Some went for better economic prospects, some in the despair of the British leaving India while there were others for whom the religious calling from Israel was strong enough to head there. Post 1948, India-Israel relations have been affected not just by the Jews who made India their home, but also those who went to Israel with India in their hearts.

A complicated reception in Israel

The Jewish immigration from India to Israel and their settlement there needs to be analysed in the background of the fact that Indian Jews were not a homogenous group. Among the four sects of Jews in India, there were significant differences in origins, socio-economic backgrounds and cultural traditions. Expectedly, there were also essential ways in which the four branches disagreed with and looked down upon each other. The internal disagreements among the Indian Jews, coupled with the colour bias that came from Jews of European origin in Israel resulted in a rather complicated reception being meted out to the Indian Jews, particularly during the initial decades of migration.

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The Bene Israelis, who mostly originated from Maharashtra, were reportedly the ones to have faced maximum discrimination upon landing in Israel. Between 1948 and 1952 approximately 2300 Bene Israelis are reported to have migrated to Israel. By the end of 1950s, a number of media reports pointed out to the racism being experienced by the community in Israel. Schifra Strizower, an expert on Jewish studies, notes in his work that, “Indeed, in the early 1950s a number of Bene Israel, were unable to come to terms with life in Israel because they explained, ‘there is much discrimination against our community, particularly in jobs and housing; and in any case, we were not properly informed what life in Israel was going to be like.’”

The discrimination meted out to the Bene Israelis was aggravated by the way they were perceived in contrast to other Indian Jews. Unlike the Cochin Jews who were believed to have migrated to Israel for religious reasons, the Bene Israelis were thought to have migrated for bettering their material conditions. Considered to be neither Zionists nor religious, the Bene Israelis were perceived to have travelled to Israel for the wrong motives unlike the Cochin Jews.

Distinction in financial conditions among the four branches of Jews in India was one of the main reasons for the internal animosity among them. Strizower notes in his work that when the Bene Israel were asked about why the Cochin Jews did not complain of the kind of racial discrimination as them, they responded saying “The Black Jews were tortured by poverty; they were riddled with disease; they were resentful of their inferior position within the Cochin-Jewish hierarchy. It is surprising then that they were full of messianic longings and glad to be away from it all? But our Bene Israel are a sophisticated caste!” The Baghdadi Jews on the other hand, considered the Bene Israel to be inferior and lacking in the proper religious traditions necessary to be called a pure Jew. The internal hostilities among the Indian Jews were quick to manifest itself in a rather complicated reception in Israel.


The biggest insult to the Bene Israel had come when in 1960 the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Itzhak Niss im refused to accept Bene Israel as Jews and forbade them from marrying other jews. Later, on account of a civil rights movement challenging his stance, and due to pressure from the Israeli government and the Jewish community, he had to give up on his decision.

In the ensuing years, while a sizeable population of Bene Israel exist in Israel, they are noted to be neither politically active nor economically well off. Dr. Shalva Weil, an anthropologist at the Hebrew University specialising in Indian Jews, had explained that “unlike the Cochin Jews, who were put into agricultural settlements and became wealthy, the Bene-Israel were placed in peripheral towns such as Dimona, Ashdod or Beersheva, not in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. They are now on the margins of society; this was not the case in India, where the Bene-Israel played a prominent part, such as Nissim Ezekiel, who was awarded the Padma Shri. In Israel, Indian Jews don’t occupy equivalent positions.”

The efforts at absorbing Indian culture

Despite the hardships faced by the Indian Jewish immigrants in Israel, a sizeable population has stayed on there and have continued to keep alive aspects of the Indian culture that they carried along with them there. At present there are about 85,000 Jews of Indian origin who dwell in Israel. An understanding of Indian linguistic, food and cultural traditions are visible among large sections of them.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Narendra Modi, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu in India, Israeli prime minister in India, India Israel relations, India and Israel, India news, Indian Express Bene Israeli community in Mumbai performing Indian dance and art forms. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

Particularly visible across the Indian Jewish community in Israel is the strong affinity towards the Indian cinematic traditions, specifically the love for Bollywood films and songs. The attachment to Bollywood among the Indian Jews is evident in their wedding ceremonies and in the youth pop culture. The Hoduyada, often considered to be the largest Indian-Israeli festival-style community event is one of the most important events when the consumption of Indian popular cinema is most visible. As noted by anthropologist Gabriele Shenar, “among the Indian-Israeli audiences, the term ‘Bollywood’ is increasingly and affectionately mobilised for community-centred activities and features, in particular, during Indian-Israeli wedding celebrations.”

When PM Modi visited Israel in July last year, the event was considered to be historic among the Indian-Jewish population settled there. Whether the visit of the Israeli prime minister to India this time is successful in meeting with the aspirations of the small and yet significant community, we are yet to tell.

First published on: 16-01-2018 at 02:06:37 pm
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