Why Indo-Judaic studies are indispensable
by B S Harishankar on 14 Jul 2018 13 Comments

The veteran scholar of Indo-Jewish studies, Professor Nathan Katz, records that during his visit in 1984 to the Kochi synagogue in Kerala, a Jewish lady, Sarah Cohen, made some touchy remarks to his wife about the chanting of prayers at a Hindu temple nearby. Professor Katz observed that the commingling of Hebrew and Sanskrit prayers is more a harmony than a cacophony. The distinguished scholar cites this event in his work, Who are the Jews in India?


In another work, Studies of Indian Jewish Identity, Professor Katz records memorable experiences by Jews in Kochi who used to go to Hindu temples during the Vishu festival, mingle with friends and take lunch with them. There are similar incidents of a surviving reciprocity between eastern and western traditions. The international bestseller, The Jew in the Lotus, by Rodger Kamenetz, narrates a unique interaction between Rabbis and the Dalai Lama.


The coming together of Hebrew and Sanskrit, two great civilizations and people, is not a casual event in Indian history. It is not a bilateral accord sponsored by a government agency or any secular or ideological platform, political bandwagons or religious organisations. It has a golden history enshrined in the mind of Hindus and Jews, harking back to 1200 years. It is a history studded with colorful gems of mutual trust, harmony, cordiality, fraternity, credence and optimism. The most distinctive aspect of this Indo-Judaic experience is the total absence of discrimination towards the Jews by Hindu society. The only country in the world where the Jews could live without fear of persecution is India, because of the great Indian tradition of inclusion and oneness which has a long history of several millennia.


Israel President Reuven Rivlin penned the foreword for India, Israel and Jewish People -Looking Forward, Looking Back: 25 Years after Normalization, published in 2017 by The Jewish People Policy Institute. He emphasized that Israel found inspiration in the Indian nation, and that inspiration is both ancient and new. President Rivlin highlighted this in the context of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 2015.


According to Professor Daniel J. Elazar, founder president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the character of Indian culture - its relative placidity and its acceptance of diversity - provided the Jews a sanctuary unknown in the western world. Elazar highlights that Indian Jews acquired the characteristics of the Indian population, their social patterns and psychological characteristics. According to him, they all exhibit marks of the Indian civilisation with which they have remained integrated for more than a millennium without any anti-Semitism.


The beginning of a long cherished history between these two ancient nations began 1200 years back at Kodungallur or Shingly in Kerala, also known as Muziris. The archetypal Jewish mercantile prince, Joseph Rabban, landed here in 900 AD. According to inscriptions engraved on two copper plates, the leader of the Jewish settlement in Kodungallur, Joseph Rabban and his crew were accorded a charter and proprietary rights for trade including the collection of tolls by the Chera monarch, Bhaskara Ravi Varman. On July 4, 2017 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gifted his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu replicas of two sets of these copper plates regarded as key artifacts of the long Jewish history in India.

Documents from Cairo Geniza in Old Cairo, Egypt, provide valuable evidence on Jewish trade in Kodungallur and the Indian Ocean. Similarly, early Jewish accounts in Malabar have been recorded by medieval Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela. The Jews fled their homes in Kodungallur in Kerala after disastrous attacks and destruction of settlements in 1524 by   Moors, Muslim inhabitants of Maghreb and Iberian Peninsula. They migrated to interior regions of the erstwhile princely state of Kochi, where they faced persecution by the Portuguese Catholics.


When the Nazis under Hitler began a Jewish genocide in Europe, Gujarat became home to many Jewish orphans. In 1942, the Maharaja of Nawanagar in Gujarat accommodated nearly one thousand Jewish orphans from Poland. He established a camp in Balachadi, about 25 km from the capital city Jamnagar, for the Polish arrivals. The Maharaja warmly welcomed the Polish women and children, saying “Do not consider yourself orphans. You are now Nawnagaris and I am Bapu, father of all the people of Nawanagar, so also yours.”


The camp functioned from 1942 to 1946. This gesture by Maharajah Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji Jadeja of the erstwhile  princely state of Nawanagar is unparalleled and displays the intrinsic nature of the relationship between the two communities. About ten years ago, Jewish scholar Ezekiel Malekar wanted to publish an account of this unparalleled chapter in Holocaust history and contacted the Maharaja’s family for comments. The Maharajas’ son responded that his deceased father never expected any publicity since he considered the Polish Jewish refugees as his own fraternity and kinship. 


The Indian consulate general in New York and the American Jewish Committee jointly sponsored on June 29, 2017 a documentary film, “Little Poland in India”, bringing the two communities, Indians and Jews, together. This film is the product of a joint Indo-Polish collaboration, and is the first documentary film based on the lives of World War II survivors who were given protection in India by the Jam Sahib. It was produced by Delhi-based Indian filmmaker Anu Radha, who was conferred Poland’s Bene Merito award. One of the best books of Israel’s prominent writer, A.B. Yehoshua, set in India, has the Hebrew title Ha-Shiva MeHodu (Return from India, 1994) and was later  adapted into a successful 2002 film titled Open Heart.


The erstwhile princely state of Cochin had large numbers of Jewish mercantile families such as Rahabis, Abrahams, Surguns and Halleguas. They also financed the Cochin princely state at times of financial emergencies. Bene Israel Jews were soldiers for the Pune-based armies of Chhatrapati Shivaji. They were also at the forefront in sponsoring development through numerous establishments such as hospitals, schools, libraries, warehouses and cotton mills built in and around Pune, Mumbai and coastal towns in Konkan.


As early as 1848, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, attracted Bene Israel civil servants, military personnel, railway workers and traders. Arabic-speaking Baghdadi Jews came to India as traders in the colonial era. The Sassoons of Bombay and the Ezras of Calcutta established huge manufacturing and commercial houses. There are 33 Jewish synagogues in India which need serious conservation by the Archaeological Survey of India. What is notable is the fact that none of these Jewish business houses supported western colonialism in India.


Ezekiel Issac Malekar, Rabbi of the Synagogue Judah Hyam Hall, Delhi, is a Jewish community leader, writer, and Hebrew scholar. He told The Indian Express on July 5, 2017 that, “As a Jew, I have Israel in my heart, but as an Indian – India is in my blood. This is my homeland.” Earlier, Malekar told Reuters on May 23, 2011 that “India is one of the places where Jews have never suffered from anti-Semitism or persecution, therefore I consider India my motherland”.


Late Lt. General JFR Jacob brought victory to India in the 1971 Indo-Pak War and liberated Bangladesh. Jacob, considered a national hero for his daring military campaigns, was also a former governor of Punjab and Goa and president of the Delhi Jewish synagogue. He rejected all offers to move to Israel. “I am proud to be a Jew, but am Indian through and through. I was born in India and served her my whole life. This is where I want to die,” (The Indian Express, January 14, 2016).


Professors Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldenberg highlighted in April 1988 in their Jerusalem Letter, published by Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, that the most significant issue confronting India’s Jews is the poor relationship between India and Israel. They pointed out that although a pro-Arab policy has become embedded in the Indian government, Indian Jews are well aware that this anti-Israel policy does not reflect popular sentiment, especially among the Hindu majority.


The situation changed when in 2003, the World Jewish Congress opened an office in New Delhi. The first Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summit was held in New Delhi in 2007, bringing together the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. A follow-up was held in 2008 at Jerusalem, and another meet was held at Washington in 2009.


But it took the daring of Narendra Modi to become the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in July 2017. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a reciprocal visit to India in January 2018. The Left and Islamic fundamentalist groups in India protested both visits, with Jawaharlal Nehru University expectedly in the forefront.


The field of Israel Studies is important for both nations in the context of history and geo-politics. It includes studies of nationhood, culture, religion, identity, history, ancient land and maritime trade, anti-Semitism, ethnic studies, strategy, regional conflict in the Middle East and spatial coexistence.


At Tel Aviv University, topics related to India’s classical civilisation and colonial and immediate post-colonial history are included. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, there is focus on the philological, literary, religious, and cultural aspects of Indian civilisation. Haifa University has opened a programme of Hindu-Jewish studies that aims at increasing mutual understanding between Hindus and Jews.


Research and teaching about Judaism and Israel is weaker in Indian academia than in any other large country not hostile to Israel, as rightly observed by The Jewish People Policy Institute in their work India, Israel and Jewish People, published in 2017. Unlike Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies are not a recognized academic discipline in India, despite the fact that the Jews happen to be the smallest religious minority of India. O. P. Jindal Global University pursues Israel Studies. JNU teaches the Hebrew language, but does not have a full-fledged faculty for Israel studies. The History Department in Presidency University, Kolkata, pursues Indo-Judaic studies.


The Jewish People Policy Institute has also highlighted in 2017 that “apart from militant Indian Muslims and the increasingly irrelevant communist/Marxist parties, the most persistent and outspoken hostility to Israel can be found among some of India’s intellectual elites, including artists and writers”. Professor Rohee Dasgupta, who teaches Israel studies at the Jindal School of International Affairs, told to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on July 6, 2017, that in India, teaching about Israel can be considered ‘blasphemous’. Professor Navras Aafreedi from Presidency University, Kolkata, points out the utter neglect and hostility in India towards Indo-Judaic studies.


With Jews dwindling in numbers, organised attempts are being made to submerge their 1200- year-old history. A classical example is Kodungallur or Muziris in Kerala, the site of Indo-Jewish arrival in India, which has been expunged in the Left Government-sponsored Rs 200-crore Muziris Heritage Project. Instead, a new site called Pattanam has been manufactured by the Left historians under the Kerala Council for Historical Research. JNU historians such as K.N. Panikkar and Romila Thapar gave wholehearted support for this venture.


Cultural material has been duplicated and reports sabotaged. The Vienna Papyrus which documents the maritime trade of Jews at Muziris and the Indian Ocean has been juxtaposed with this newly-constructed site, Pattanam. Biblical scholars such as Frederico de Romanis, Istvan Perczel, Irving L.Finkel and Roberta Tomber have been imported to validate Pattanam as the site of Apostle Thomas’s arrival in India. The ancient Jewish history of India is thus getting erased vide the Muziris Heritage Project by Left historians.


Unless Indo-Judaic studies are introduced at least in Central universities as part of the curriculum, without being nervous and apprehensive of Left and Islamic lobbies, the rich fraternity between two ancient civilisations and peoples, which has a long history, shall be expunged from the memory of the next generation. 

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