Why did India’s Jews leave? Since 1881, Jews began to arrive in what was then called Palestine mainly from Europe but also parts of the Middle East. Most of them were escaping persecution in their homelands, from a deeply unequal status such as in Yemen to outright violence such as in Eastern Europe. Yet a study of their migration patterns and the conditions reveal that many were still reluctant to make that journey to Zion and clung to a sense of belonging to their countries of domicile. In contrast, the Jews of India have never faced persecution of any kind and were in a relatively good position economically and socially in their country. However, most of them left the subcontinent soon after the creation of the State of Israel. What explains this unusual phenomenon?
It is beyond the scope of this essay to answer this question. However, I wish to highlight the incompatibility of the general Jewish experience or even the Israeli nationalist narrative when we discuss Indian Jews. Four primary motives are ascribed to migrations: 1.) persecution, be it on the basis of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or something else; 2.) economics, in search of greater opportunities to create wealth, better governance, and an overall higher quality of life; 3.) nationalism, for a feeling of belonging to a community, especially if one is alienated in the culture of one’s residence; and 4.) religion, as a belief in transcendental promises, obligations, and belonging to a particular geography or community. It is also understood that there are factors that push for migration from the resident country and there are corresponding pull factors in the migratory destination. Although each of these four reasons are problematic in describing the considerations of Indian Jews for leaving India, the scant evidence suggests that a mix of nationalism and religion explains their actions the best. I shall consider each of these briefly to capture a sense of the Jewish experience in India and bring out the unsatisfactory answers they provide.
My focus on the Bene Israel rather than on, say, the Baghdadi Jews, is for one simple reason – the Bene Israel had been in India so long and were disconnected from the Jewish world for most of that time. Many of the Cochin Jews, though not all, came fleeing Iberia after the Alhambra Decree of Queen Isabella of and King Ferdinand II in 1492 and the Baghdadi Jews came to India in the early eighteenth century escaping the pogroms of Dawud Pasha. Their far more recent connection to the world Jewish community makes their exodus from India far more understandable than that of the Bene Israel or the kala (Black) Cochin Jews.
In his 2003 visit to India, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon commented that India was the only country in the world that had not known anti-Semitism. While Sharon was no scholar of history, his words can easily be fact-checked: although it is not certain when the first Jews arrived in India, the myths of the Bene Israel, the largest Jewish community in India, claim that they arrived in India around approximately 200 BCE, shipwrecked off the coast of Goa and given shelter and refuge by local villagers in the region. This is supported by the similarity of some Bene Israel rituals – malida, for example, to those practiced in the Northern Kingdom’s Asher and Zebulon tribes after the separation from the Kingdom of Judah. Some stories about the origins of the Cochin Jews push that date further back to the eighth century BCE, using the presence of South Indian loan words in the Bible as evidence.
Documentary evidence is scarce from this period but the earliest definitive proof of harmonious Jewish existence in India comes from a copper plate from around 1000 CE issued by the Chola emperor, of what is now the modern Indian province of Tamil Nadu, that listed the rights granted to the Jewish community of Cranganore, including the right to adjudicate all disputes in their town. Several other stories abound about how the Jewish community was always protected by the Hindu rulers of India. For example, when the Portuguese conquered Goa in 1510, neighbouring Hindu kings gave refuge to Jews fleeing from the Goan Inquisition.
Similar behaviour was witnessed when Jews were persecuted, to a much lesser extent, by the Dutch in Cochin or occasionally by India’s Muslim rulers from time to time. In general, Jews were treated on par with any of India’s myriad communities, and the Indian polity was used to dealing with hundreds of different customs, rituals, and languages between them. Nathan Katz writes of the kingdom of Cochin even as late as 1550, “Probably India is the only country on earth so civilized that in war, out of deference to its esteemed Jewish soldiers, no battles were fought on the Sabbath.” As one Cochin Jew expressed the place of Jews in India, the Jewish and Hindu communities lived “side-by-side but not submerged, acculturated but not assimilated.”
This fraternity between Hindus and Jews did not change under British rule. For example, a Bene Israel professor, Ezekiel Talkar, was able to persuade the Bombay municipality in 1870 to allow Hebrew as a second official language for the civil service exams – this was almost 80 years before the State of Israel would be formed and before the efforts of Eliezer Ben Yehuda to revive Hebrew as the unifying Jewish language. India was thus the only place in the world where Hebrew was an official language for national examinations. Interestingly, the only problems the Bene Israel faced over their Jewish identity from Indians was from another Jewish community, the Baghdadi Jews!
An interesting counterpoint is raised by some scholars that the readiness of the Bene Israel to emigrate to Israel began after the partition of India and the departure of the British from the subcontinent because of their concern that the Indian population would not forgive the collaborative role of the Jewish community with the British imperial masters. However, none seem clear on what these fears are based – after all, millions of Indians – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, as well as others – also collaborated with the British as civil servants, soldiers, and servants. Even in that part of the Indian subcontinent that became Pakistan, animosity against the Jewish community was based on their religion rather than any grudge for siding with the British Raj.
Furthermore, although Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru did not support the Zionist aspiration of creating a national homeland in Palestine, this was more out of ignorance of Jewish history and circumstances rather than any animosity. At most, one might argue that Indian reluctance to support the Jewish cause was based on the pragmatic evaluation, with which even the British agreed, that it might cause unrest among India’s vast population of Muslims.
In fact, it was the British who tried to stop Jews fleeing fascist Europe from entering India – Hindu Indian leaders welcomed them and allowed philanthropic organisations to be established by the Jewish community to help the refugees (Hodes, 69). Many of these European Jews even made long-lasting connections with the Indian people despite their brief stay in the country and contributed much to the cultural milieu of the subcontinent.
Thus, persecution does not seem a probably cause for the departure of the Bene Israel from India. There is simply not an iota of evidence that they had ever been the target of discrimination nor was there any realistic fear that they might become targets in the near future.
Most migration theories today focus on economic factors that pull migrants to their destinations. Although there was, as with any community, a wide variance in personal wealth among the Bene Israel, their economic conditions nor those of the newly established State of Israel warrant any migration from India to Israel during at least the first two waves of Jewish emigration from India between 1948 and 1951 and 1953 and 1954 when the overwhelming number of Indian Jews – some 80 percent – left the country.
The Bene Israel may not have been as affluent as their Baghdadi cousins, but there is ample evidence that they were a generally prosperous community. After their initial arrival in India, they took up the profession of oil merchants and were called shaniwar taelis for the refused to work on Shabbat. However, they were restricted to that profession and the Bene Israel were also found in carpentry, masonry, trade, money lending, and several other professions. With the advent of the European modernity in the seventeenth century, the Bene Israel also became journalists, architects, writers, physicians, lawyers, engineers, teachers, professors, civil servants, social workers, and even politicians. Among the financially lower classes who could not afford much education, they became millworkers, tailors, soldiers, and hospital assistants in addition to their traditional trades.
In 1796, Samuel Ezekiel Dibker opened in Bombay the first Bene Israel synagogue (the first synagogue in India was built in the fourth century in Kodungallur). Until then, they had congregated in the homes of leading Jewish families of the neighbourhood or village for prayer for they were kept out of Baghdadi Jewish synagogues as they were not seen as pure Jews by the newer entrants to India and although the Cochin Jews allowed them to pray together, they were made to sit on the floor or outside the synagogue. In 1841, another synagogue was built and a third in 1886. Away from home, the Bene Israel contributed funds through Rabbi Yaakov Sapir in 1864 for the renovation of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. This indicates the relative prosperity of the Bene Israel community.
The advent of the British in India increased the fortunes on the Bene Israel. With access to modern education, they were able to create contacts with the international Jewish community and move into international trade as well like their Baghdadi brethren. Furthermore, the British policy of favouring minorities in staffing their local administrations helped the Bene Israel tremendously. Several Bene Israel such as David Erulkar were even able to go to England to receive advanced degrees and others such as Dua Aftekar and Eliyahu Moses were elected mayors of Bombay. Jacob Israel, another prominent Bene Israel member, became the ruler of Janjira.
The Bene Israel benefited from the Christian Missions that followed European imperialism not just in terms of education that made them professionals and an introduction to the international Jewish trading community but also in terms access to services such as sanitation, hospitals, child day-care, orphanages, and other such amenities that truly modernised them in outlook. It was a case of colonised people demanding – and receiving – what they wanted from their imperial masters; what they did not want – Christianity – the Bene Israel did not hesitate to reject.
However, with the departure of the British the new Indian government implemented socialistic economic policies and Jewish trading, particularly Baghdadi, was hurt. This policy was not directed at the Jews specifically but nonetheless it created an impetus for many among the Jewish community to leave the country in search of greener pastures. It is noteworthy that the preferred destinations of these Jews were the United States and Canada where they had cultivated networks over the past century rather than the newly formed Jewish state. Another change the new Indian administration brought in was the end to a preference for minorities in the civil services and other posts. Although Jews were not specifically discriminated against, the new policy meant that they had no special privilege and would have to compete for jobs as ordinary Indians. This reduced any additional benefit the Bene Israel might have felt that their country of domicile offered them and increased the attractiveness of Israel and the wider world.
Still, given the economic uncertainties and difficulties in Israel, it is difficult to understand how economics might have played a role in making the Bene Israel emigrate from India. Jean Roland notes that this can be partially explained by the international political climate and the public perception it created of the Jews. Being a minuscule community, the Bene Israel lacked networks in the Indian economy and administration. When applying for corporate jobs, they were sometimes told, “We’re reluctant to hire you because we’ll invest in your training and then you’ll leave for Israel.” Without significant ties to India, such as land holdings or domestic trade networks, the more mobile urban professionals found it easier to migrate to Israel and the West.
If this is indeed a motivation, it seems trivial in comparison to the travails of European and Middle Eastern Jewry, who withstood the greatest of pressures for centuries before they were finally forced to leave their homes for Israel. Nonetheless, it is still surprising that such a sentiment was felt across the community rather than among a few educated, cosmopolitan, and mobile professionals.
The Bene Israel, having arrived in India before the destruction of the Second Temple and having been disconnected from the world Jewish community for so long, was not even aware of rabbinic Judaism until the eighteenth century. It was the Cochin Jews at first and later the Baghdadi Jews who introduced them to Judaism and the Hebrew script again. Although Shirley Isenberg argues that the first sign of contact between the Bene Israel and the Cochin Jews is recorded a chronicle called the Maggid Hadshoth circa 340 CE, it is believed that the Bene Israel, in their travels for trade, came across Jewish merchants in Surat in the mid-1700s. Regardless, clear evidence exists that David Ezekiel Rahaby was instrumental in sending the Bene Israel books from Cochin to reintroduce the community to Judaism and the Cochin community henceforth was influential in bringing the Bene Israel back into the Jewish world after having been isolated for centuries. This meant that the Judaism of the Bene Israel came to resemble that of Sephardic Jewry.
Even before their rediscovery of Judaism, the Bene Israel maintained Jewish customs and rituals to the best of their ability. They observed the Shabbat, maintained kosher, and commemorated Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah, Pesach, and other important Jewish events. However, due to the understandable development of certain customs peculiar to them – pronunciations or rituals – the Bene Israel were castigated by the Baghdadi and Cochin Jewish communities for not being “proper” Jews and did not allow intermarriage as the resulting offspring would be mamzerim. This was despite proclamations of Jewish authorities in Safed and Tiberias, such as Rabbi Samuel Abe, claiming that it was a great mitzvah to be close to the Bene Israel, who were good Jews in every sense. The Bene Israel were thus accepted into the Jewish community but not fully; this problem would continue to plague them even after their arrival in Israel well into the 1960s.
For their part, the Bene Israel followed halacha to the best of their ability. Marriage with non-Jews was rare and when it did occur, the children were not allowed to marry other Bene Israel. Circumcision was practiced, and ritual slaughter, marriage, funerals, and adjudication of disputes was done by the Jewish code as much as they were aware. Yet with modernity, and unaware that their religious identity needed to be protected since they had never been persecuted on its account, the Bene Israel secularised like most other communities around the world. By the twentieth century, the Bene Israel ceased to ascribe the same prestige to religious positions within their community as they previously had soon after the encounter with the Cochin Jews. Secular success marked importance now, and combined with their relative inexperience with halacha and religious regulations, the Bene Israel remained dependent on the Cochin Jews for religious leadership.
Despite this lukewarm attitude towards Judaism, it is interesting to note that many of the Bene Israel who came to Israel stated that it was their faith that brought them to the Holy Land. Immigrants interviewed held that the creation of the State of Israel excited them and suddenly, there arose thoughts of Zion and the Holy City in their minds which would not let them rest. Of course, to interview subjects so long after the event and acculturation into their new home might taint their recollection of the past but it is surprising to see that a community not known for its religiosity either in India or in Israel insist that Judaism was one of the key motivators for them to leave India. More importantly, this goes against the narrative of the overwhelming number of Jews from Europe and the Middle East – who were fully immersed in Judaism and the Jewish world – who came to Israel fleeing persecution, often as a last resort; it goes against the grain also of the experience of the many Jews who came to Palestine and then left for ideological reasons – communism – or economic and environmental hardship. While the Baghdadi and Cochin communities might have found it appealing to return to their networks, the Bene Israel had no such excuse and stand out as an interesting case of migration.
Zionism was always a lukewarm enterprise in the subcontinent. Paradoxically, it was Christian attempts at proselytism that strengthened the Jewish identity of the Bene Israel. In 1815, the American Mission opened schools 35 schools in Bombay that taught in Marathi, the language of the Bene Israel; in 1826, the Bible was translated into Marathi and in 1832, a Hebrew grammar was published in Marathi. Although the Bene Israel learned had conventional Jewish liturgy and forms of worship from the Cochin Jews, their knowledge of Hebrew and Biblical knowledge came from American, Anglican, and Scottish missionaries. This interaction did not convert the Bene Israel to Christianity but the community later used the tools and knowledge gained to criticise Christianity and embrace rabbinic Judaism.
Pace these stronger ties to Judaism and international Jewry, the Bene Israel remained disconnected from the political developments in Europe and the Middle East and did not understand the significance of some of the events news of which trickled through to India. When invited to attend the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, they hesitated to send an envoy. Nonetheless, as the Yishuv sent emissaries to India – the first in 1917 – to try and win the support of Gandhi, Nehru, and other Indian leaders, the Bene Israel learned more about the plight of their brothers in Europe. Consequently, the All India Israelite League was created the same year with a publication called Friend of Israel. Although this group supported Zionism, they did not see it as necessary for themselves.
In 1920, the Bene Israel Zionist Organisation was created and after the visit of Israel Cohen from the World Zionist Organisation in 1921, the Calcutta Zionist Organisation was also established. Cohen remarked in his report a strong Jewish consciousness among the Bene Israel, a love of Jewish learning, and a willingness to do their share in restoring the land of Israel. All this paved the way for the visit of Immanuel Olsvanger in 1936, who, according to one Bene Israel member, first awoke in them the idea of emigrating to Israel. An Indian Zionist journal, The Jewish Advocate, wrote at the time of Olsvanger’s visit, “[he] had forged a link between Indian Jewry and Palestine as no other delegate before him had done.”
Even if this claim is a bit of an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the Polish Zionist activist made a tremendous impact among Indian Jews. By the time of his visit, the Jewish community had begun to become worried about Muslim political mobilisation in favour of their religious brethren in Palestine and fervour for Zionism has dissipated somewhat since Cohen’s visit twelve years earlier. During Olsvanger’s visit to Bombay in 1941, he proclaimed to the Bene Israel emotionally, “Your ancestors came here at the time of the destruction of Second Temple; we want you in Palestine to assist us in building the Third Temple.” He went back with the largest collection of funds for the Zionist cause until then from the city.
However, the Bene Israel were not completely convinced by the Zionist public relations efforts. Some members recounted their own experience and were not sure that the Bene Israel community would be treated as equals in Israel by the same European Jews who were racist towards the Bene Israel when they visited Europe for further studies. Furthermore, the Baghdadi Jews, with whom the Bene Israel had much friction despite welcoming them when they first arrived, saw themselves as European and superior to the native Jews of India. These experiences gave pause to some of the Bene Israel who cautioned against the possibility of racial discrimination in Palestine and warned that this heedless mixing of Jews of such diverse cultures from all around the world might end up hurting world Jewry more than was anticipated.
To this end, the Bene Israel questioned visiting Zionist emissaries about potential racial tensions in the Yishuv. Cohen responded that the Bene Israel would be “just as welcome as the Yemenite Jews or any other Easterners who had recently arrived.” Their poor knowledge of the world and Zionism meant that the Bene Israel interpreted this positively but at the time of Cohen’s answer, division of labour based on race and ethnicity existed in Palestine. In 1943, “The Uniform Pioneer of Eastern Lands,” a plan drawn up by the Yishuv for integrating olim, demarcated a zone from Haifa to Gaza for internment camps for European Jews who would have to stay there for three months for acculturation while Eastern immigrants would be hosted in the Negev for a year. Though never implemented, this shows that the Bene Israel fears were not entirely unfounded.
The arrival of Jews fleeing Europe in the 1930s stirred up support for Zionism among Indian Jews. The communities set up the Jewish Relief Agency (JRA) in 1934 to assist the refugees and promised to compensate the British for every Jew they allowed into the country; much as in Mandatory Palestine, the British were reluctant to allow Jews to come to India for fear of upsetting the local Muslim population. In fact, Jews coming from countries friendly to the Axis Powers were held in internment camps by the British to ensure that they were not spies. However, the JRA was supported fully by the Indians and was able to rapidly expand with relief services in Madras and Calcutta.
None of this is to suggest that the feeling of belonging to India in the Bene Israel was weak. As elsewhere, the question of dual loyalty arose among the Jews of India (but not among the Indians themselves). The conclusion of their discussions was that they felt both, strongly Indian and fiercely Jewish. As Solomon Moses argued forcefully, “If any of you is asked whom you love more, your father or your mother, what would you say? Rightly, India has become our mother. It is our motherland and Israel is our fatherland.”
Although Jews worked in the British colonial administration – as did other Indians – they were also supportive of Indian nationalism. Gandhi had couched it in terms of a moral struggle against cruelty and they saw Zionism in the same light as they saw the Indian independence struggle. Many Jews were also involved in social work in India and helped rid society of discriminations of various kinds. They were also philanthropic beyond their own communities and also contributed greatly to Indian cultural production.
Thus, it might be accurate to think of Indian Jews as Zionists not necessarily for themselves but for those who had faced unremitting persecution for centuries. Naturally, they felt for their religious family; however, those ties were not, on their own, strong enough to loosen the bonds they felt to India.
I have outlined the four primary motivations the Indian Jewish community might have wanted to emigrate to Israel after the independence of India and the creation of the Jewish state. No reason appears convincing by itself to initiate the uprooting of one’s entire family to go into the unknown. However, a combination of factors might have played a role and swung the balance sufficiently to make the Bene Israel want to leave. Still, in comparison to the situation of the Jews from other parts of the world that were flooding into Israel, these reasons still seem wanting.
The most common reason the immigrants themselves have given in later interviews is Judaism with a twist of Zionism. Since it is methodologically problematic to base our conclusions on interviews alone, that too done so many decades after the events, we are left with no choice but to accept the immigrants’ answer with caution. The answer is unconvincing also because a large number of Indian Jews who left India went to the United States, Canada, and other destinations rather than Israel. This points to a multicausal phenomenon but we return to the same question of if any one reason was sufficient to trigger a mass exodus.
With scant documentary evidence from local sources, with so few members of that generation left, and those remaining probably fully integrated into the Israeli national narrative, along with their children and grandchildren, it is unlikely we will ever be able to fully understand this small sliver of Jewish migration unless creative scholars invent new methods of mining history.
It is true that the Bene Israel – and perhaps Indian Jewry in general – did not understand Zionism properly because of their distance from Europe and the Yishuv. Might their rosier-than-warranted picture of Israel have played the role of a fifth element in their decision? Plausible, but the best explanation I have come across for the migration of Indian Jews from India comes from an interview with a Bene Israel immigrant: asked why he chose to come to Israel, the respondent said, “I cannot remember exactly why I decided to come to Israel but I can remember the exact moment – I was reading The Jewish Advocate and was overwhelmed with emotion. I made up my mind to move there and then.” Perhaps, as Roger Peterson cautions us, we should not discount emotion, as empirically unsatisfactory as that is, in favour of rational decisions when considering historical events.