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Subject to bias, India's Jews make a go of living in Israel
Washington Jewish Week / November 12, 2009

By Larry Luxner

Every day, Jewish tourists arrive by the busload to visit the historic synagogue in Cochin, billed in guidebooks as one of the last vestiges of yiddishkeit in a vast country dominated by Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs.

Yet almost no one talks about the tens of thousands of Jews who left India in the 1950s and 60s, and whose children and grandchildren today balance their Indian and Israeli heritage with a mix of pride and nostalgia.

Leave it to Dr. Maina Chawla Singh — a non-Jewish scholar and diplomat's wife — to tell their story.

Last Wednesday, Singh presented her new book, "Being Indian, Being Israeli: Migration, Ethnicity and Gender in the Jewish Homeland," during a reception co-sponsored by the Embassy of India and the Asia Society. She'll do it again Nov. 17 at a public event at American University during which the soft-spoken academic share the podium with Sally Oren, wife of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

"My research draws on field work from 2005 to 2008 when I lived, taught and worked in Israel," said Singh, whose husband, Arun K. Singh, spent three years as India's ambassador in Tel Aviv. He's now deputy chief of mission at the Indian Embassy in Washington.

"My location as a non-Jewish, non-Israeli expatriate exposed me to two worlds: one, the world of Israeli elites, investors and politicians, and two, the world of Indian-origin Jews, who were unlike Indian communities in the United States or Canada," Singh explained. "They became Israeli immediately upon arrival in the Jewish homeland."

Singh, now a scholar-in-residence at American University, said that during her time in Israel, it was hard to spot Indians in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem — but that she saw Jews of Indian origin everywhere she went in places like Ashdod, Yeroham, Lod and Ramle.

"Today, Indian Jews are dispersed across Israel," she said, estimating the community's current population at around 70,000. "The head of chest surgery at Rambam Hospital is a B'nai Israel. The person who heads the research center on migratory birds in Eilat is also B'nai Israel," she said. "But the vast majority of them live on the periphery. Among the high-end business circles and the military elite, Indian Jews remain invisible."

The Jews of India came from three distinct groups. The largest were the B'nai Israel from Maharashtra, followed by the Cochinese Jews from the southern state of Kerala, and the relatively few but wealthy Baghdadi Jews who lived mainly in Calcutta.

Originally sent to development towns in the Negev, these Jews — particularly the B'nai Israel — were often discriminated against because of their dark skin and quiet manners, especially compared to the more aggressive demeanor for which native-born sabras are known.

"For them, it was a heart-rending experience to leave their homes, their friends and their social networks," Singh told her audience of about 100 people. "They had to surrender their passports as they left India. They also sold their houses and all their possessions. Going back wasn't an option. I understood how the Jewish Agency had to do very effective outreach to get them to make aliya and offer attractive economic incentives.

Singh, who doesn't speak Hebrew, explained that India's Jews for the most part were Zionists who came to Israel out of ideological conviction, not because they were running away from persecution or ethnic unrest.

"Some joined kibbutzim and others came with professional qualifications and did very well, but the bulk of them did not," she said. "For example, a bank clerk might have had a degree, but nobody in Israel understood those degrees and they ended up digging ditches, They worked physically to build the nation of Israel, building its roads and draining its swamps. Now, six decades after Israel's formation, many of them are in their late 70s, watching their grandchildren grow up as Israelis."

In the early 1960s, several hundred Jews returned to India, many of them after Israel's chief rabbi issued an edict questioning the community's Jewishness. That prompted then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to make a public statement deploring such discrimination.

"Eventually, they all returned to Israel," said Singh. "Not one single person I met felt really stuck there. None told me they wish they had never left India."

In writing the book, Singh traveled extensively throughout Israel — from Kiryat Shemona in the north to Eilat in the south — attending synagogue ceremonies and conducting over 150 interviews, each one of them lasting two or three hours.

"I went to Indian cluster neighborhood, but also to places like Ra'anana and Herzliyya where they spoke Hindi, English and a colloquial mix," said Singh, who dedicated the book to her husband. "Most respondents said their stories had never been collected or noticed. They widely remarked how they felt culturally different from the Moroccans or Algerians, even though they were commonly lumped in with those other Jews."

Singh's comments were followed by expressions of thanks from India's ambassador to the United States, Meera Shankar, and Pamela S. Nadell, director of American University's Jewish Studies Program.

"We are deeply indebted to Maina for drawing our attention to the Indian Jewish community, but especially the Indian Israeli community about which virtually nothing has been written," said Nadell. "This book makes a critical contribution to launching this subject onto our radar screens."

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