The Jews of India have a long history dating back to the time before Christ. Their initial evidence comes from the Book of Esther in the Bible and during King Xerxes reign over his domain.1 Their dispersion was noted in Xerxes decrees and was seen by Christ’s disciple St. Thomas upon his arrived in Kerala, India.2 The Jews of Cochin arrived by boat to the shores of Kerala, as they were escaping persecution at home. Some also arrived in Konkan and eventually settled in Mumbai. These two communities connected through the help of Jews in Yemen; via trade and business. There is also a third group that came to India due to persecution in Iraq, known as the Baghdadi Jews – who focused on trade and spread throughout India and into other parts of Asia. The Indian Jews found themselves a new land that would be a safe house from persecution - India was the only country where the Jews were not persecuted.3 This was truly a home away from home and thus their communities contributed greatly to Indian culture and life.
Emigration to India and the Return Home
The majority of Indian Jews have moved back to the Holy Land. Once Israel became a nation, they returned in order to help build and contribute to their homeland. Therefore, there are very few Jews in India today, though their contribution and influence is well documented. India and Israel have a very good relationship in terms of culture, economics and politics. This is evident in the visits by Israeli diplomats to the Jewish community in India, as well as through various other avenues such as business and military initiatives.
The Bene Israel community in Mumbai was birth by Jewish settlers who left the Middle East due to persecution and violence. It is said that they were shipwrecked off the coast of India and swam to shore – seven men and seven women in total.4 Once on shore, they slowly became assimilated into the local way of life. They changed their surnames and ate the same foods, while still observing Jewish dietary laws and religious traditions. Over the course of time, the Bene Israel people settled in present day Mumbai and involved themselves in the various employment available to them such as government and business. There was construction of several Synagogues in Mumbai for the community, and their roots were planted here for a long time until they desired to return to their homeland of Israel; once it became a nation in 1948.
In Mumbai, there is still a community that survives and has a respectable reputation amongst the people. The former Assistant Police Commissioner is from the Bene Israel community and contributed greatly to the life of Mumbai. There are several Synagogues present in this city and many individuals hold important posts in government, the military and other aspects of Indian life and economy.
The Kerala Jews (also known as the Cochin Jews) sprouted due to two main reasons, both being persecution. History states that,
Jews of Malabar [emigrated because] of the persecutions which took place in the Persian Empire under Firuz in the fifth century. The tradition of the Cochin Jews on the other hand, maintains that soon after the destruction of the Second Temple, in the first century, ten thousand Jews were graciously received by the then Hindu ruler and were allowed to settle in different parts of the country; the majority of which made their home in Craganore.5
In both cases, there was political conflict that occurred to instigate an emigration from their home in the Middle East to India. There was one conflict between Muslims and Jews in Craganore which then forced the Jews to finally seek safety in Cochin; under the protection of a Hindu Raja. This is where the Cochin Jews created Jew Town, an area that was dedicated for this community and is still there today.6
The community is divided into three, one being the White Jews who were a mix of European and Arab race, the second the Black Jews who were similar in appearance to those of the Indian (Dravidian) race, and third was the Freedmen (former slaves) who were connected to one of the two Synagogues but had no rights.7 Over time, the Jews slowly assimilated into various aspects of life in India and still kept their traditions and religious devotion. The Jews that lived here prospered well under various rulers and built a good reputation. The reduction in population surrounds conversion to Christianity through the disciple St. Thomas (most of the St. Thomas Christian churches retain some Jewish practices in their traditions) and through their immigration back to the State of Israel. A famous Synagogue known as the Paradesi Synagogue, is one of the oldest in the Commonwealth8 and still stands today in Cochin. It is recognized as a historical site by the Indian government.
This community has blessed India in many ways ranging from scientific achievements to economic growth. There are still Jews in Cochin today, though their numbers are less than one hundred, as the majority returned to the Holy Land with roughly four thousand descendants living in Israel.9
The Baghdadi Jews arrived most recently in India (approximately 200 years ago) due to persecution by Muslims in Iraq. As persecution increased, the need for a safe refuge was found in India. Once they arrived, most of the Baghdadi Jews entered into trading and business to earn a living. Aharon Daniel states that,
the Baghdadi Jews had small businesses like clothes shop. But there were also Baghdadi businessmen who were the main figures in the Indian economy. Many Baghdadis owned factories all over India mainly in the textile section. One of the famous rich families of the Baghdadis was the Sassoon family. Besides their business activities, the Sassoon family contributed many things to India. In many cities of India they built hospitals, schools, libraries, monuments and other things.10
It is well noted that the “Jews lived literally in a ‘welfare state’ established by the Sassoon’s and the many amenities enjoyed by them were provided “on a platter” by the good grace of the Sassoon’s.”11 Other Baghdadi Jews carried out trading in various parts of the East including Hong Kong, Rangoon, Shanghai and Singapore.12 Most of these Indian Jews were well off due to their hard work and faith.
The Baghdadi Jews of India have given much to Indian culture and society. They adapted well since their arrival; mainly due to their physical appearance being similar to Indians. Famous Baghdadi Jews include, but are not limited to Nadira, a Bollywood actress and JFR Jacob, a “military mastermind behind India's successful liberation of Bangladesh in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.”13 Most of the Baghdadi Jews have left India to return to Israel, though some stayed back in India for various reasons and number less than fifty in the entire country.
The Jews of India have brought with them a long lasting and rich heritage from their homeland. Their contribution to India’s economy, society and government have been recognized by various historians, writers and the government. The Indian Jews enjoyed life and found peace, prosperity and security from persecution in their homeland. Their influence is seen through involvement in the military, medicine, law, business and trade. The protection that India offered the Jews two thousand years ago, ensured a safe future for their offspring to be able to return to Israel. In turn the Jews blessed India via their influence in all levels of Indian society and even today, both nations enjoy an excellent relationship on all levels. The Jews of India form part of India’s rich and vibrant history as well as having built a strong friendship with its people.
1. Ralphy Jhirad , “The Heritage of Bene Israel of India”; <http://www.beneisraelheritage.com/article1.htm> (23 June 2007).
2. P.C. Simon, “Kerala”; <http://simonsecret.org/kerala.html> (22 June 2007).
3. Katherine Tanko, “Ghosts of the Spice Trade”; <http://www.iht.com/articles/1999/03/26/cochin.2.t.php> (June 20, 2007).
4. Sheldon Kirshner, “Bene Israel Decedend from Shipwrecked Jews”; The Canadian Jewish News, February 2, 2006.
5. Ralphy Jhirad , “The Heritage of Bene Israel of India”; <http://www.beneisraelheritage.com/article1.htm> (23 June 2007).
6. Wikipedia, “Cochin Jews”; <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochin_Jews> (24 June 2007).
7. Museum of the Jewish People, “The Jewish Community of Cochin”; <http://www.bh.org.il/Communities/Archive/Cochin.asp> (20 June 2007).
8. Wikipedia, “Paradesi Synagogue”; <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradesi_Synagogue> (22 June 2007).
9. St. Martins College, Division of Religion and Philosophy, “Cochin Jews”;
<http://philtar.ucsm.ac.uk/encyclopedia/judaism/cochin.html> (22, June 2007).
10. Aharon Daniel, “Jews in India; Baghdadi Jews”; <http://adaniel.tripod.com/baghdadi.htm> (21 June 2007).
11. Joseph Sargon, “Baghdadi Jews of India and the Sassoons”; Jewish Daily/Israel Today, 25 August 1987.
12. Wikipedia, “Baghdadi Jews”; <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baghdadi_Jews> (21 June 2007).
13. Wikipedia, “JFR Jacob”; <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J.F.R._Jacob> (20 June 2007).