At the edge of the Negev Desert, the town of Beersheva is home to a community of Bene-Israel Jews, originally from India. Sitting on a bench under a sheltering palm, I talk with Sara, who came to Beersheva in 1964, at the age of 20. While we watch her grandchildren play nearby, Sara tells the story of her move from India to Israel over 47 years ago.
Sara was born in Maharashtra, where she was raised in a comfortable home in an observant family. She learned Hebrew in her youth as well as her native tongue of Marathi. Several of her older relatives migrated to Israel immediately after the creation of the Israel state. Sara left with her immediate family over 15 years later, as her father was fervent in his desire to live in a truly Jewish state.
Like many Indian immigrants, Sara’s time in Israel has been bittersweet. While her family occupied professional positions in their native Indian, they worked as laborers in Beersheva, where the family settled in less than ideal conditions. Sara remembers living in a tent, without food or water readily available at first. “People looked at us strangely, “she recalls, “because our skin was so dark.” Sara vowed to make a better life for herself, and conditions for her own family after her marriage were better than for her parents, but only in her children and grandchildren does she see the hope for a more ideal future. Her oldest daughter is a nurse, and she is much more assimilated into Israeli society than previous generations of Indian Jews.
The Jews of India
To understand the Jews of India, you must understand that Indian Jewry is by no means monolithic. The Cochin Jews are the country’s oldest Jewish community, and include three sub-groups: Black Jews (arriving after King Solomon’s reign), White Jews or Pardesi Jews (later arrivals from Span and Holland), and Brown Jews (Span and Portuguese Sephardim). Bene-Israel Jews date their presence in the country from the 2nd century BCE. They observed many traditional Jewish customs but weren’t taught mainstream Judaism until centuries later. The Jews of Calcutta comprise descendants of 18th century traders. The Bnei Menashe Jews are descendants of the Chin-Kuki-Mizo tribe and are reputed to be descendants from the Lost Tribes of Israel.
Indian Jewry has traditionally held an enviable position in its birthright, as there is no documented history of organized anti-Semitism in India. Indian Jews have occupied, and continue to occupy, positions of honor in their home country, and constitute one of India’s more affluent cultures.
Indian Jews in Israel
After the nearly simultaneous partition of India and Palestine in 1947-1948, the creation of the religious states of Israel and Pakistan created a wave of dislocation among residents. Thousands of Indian immigrants arrived in Israel in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Making aliyah was a difficult process, with some groups such as the Bene-Israel Jews not fully recognized as being Jewish. However, by the time immigrants like Sara arrived in later decades, the aliyah process for Indian immigrants had been greatly simplified.
Most Indian Jewish immigrants, particularly in the larger and earlier waves of immigration, were housed in peripheral settlement areas such as Dimona, Ashdod, and Beersheva, rather than Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Even today, these areas often have a worn-out air to them and remain on the margins of Israeli society. Overall, early Indian immigrants faced dismal conditions. As Sara notes, this was a time of discrimination based on the color of one’s skin. As Indian Jews were among the darkest-skinned immigrants to Israel at that time, they were at the bottom of the social ladder, receiving the least desirable settlement locations, jobs, and social status. For early settlers who came from positions of affluence in Indian society, this fact was jarring.
Approximately 60,000- 70,000 Indian-born Jews live in Israel today. They include Bene-Israel Jews like Sara, Cochin Jews, and Bnei Menashe Jews. Why, Sara is asked, did Indian Jews continue to come to Israel when conditions were so difficult, and in light of the fact that they didn’t face persecution in their home country? Sara explains that many Indian Jews were drawn to the idea of a Jewish state, and they were told in their synagogues of great opportunities in Israel. “Indians are natural Zionists,” Sara states simply. While Indians pride themselves that they come from a country in which anti-Semitism was essentially non-existence, the opportunity to experience a truly Jewish community has been greatly appealing.
Indians have done well in other emigrant countries, but their slow start in Israeli society continues to make success elusive. There are inroads, however, and certainly greater acceptance. The Israeli government has begun reaching out to new Indian immigrants, including those of the Bnei Menashe tribe, with hundreds more scheduled to arrive this year.
Many Indian Jews maintain vestiges of their Indian heritage in their daily lives. Sara continues to speak Marathi with older Indian Jews in her community, although succeeding generations have been taught to speak only Hebrew. Sara’s husband coaches a neighborhood cricket team, and Sara’s younger daughter teaches a class in Indian classical dance. Sara herself watches Bollywood movies broadcast on an Indian cable station and cooks spicy kosher Indian cuisine.
Sara points out that in India, she never had to fight for her rights, so she can’t forget her ties to her home country. But this fact doesn’t lessen her bond with Israel. She considers India to be her motherland, and Israel, her fatherland. This distinction allows her to straddle two cultures comfortably, and to accept the losses with the gains — which is to some extent the lot of all immigrants, regardless of where they live.