INDIA ABROAD April 9,1982
Jew Terms Anti-Semitism Notably Scarce in India
India, which has been the home of Jewish communities for about 2,000 years, has been remarkably free of anti-Semitism and few regions in the world can match its record, according to Elijah E. Jhirad, president of Congregation Bina, an organization of Indian Jews from around Bombay and the Konkan coast.
Jhirad made these observations in an address to a seminar on the Bene Israel of India held under the auspices of Sephardic Community Programs of the Yeshiva University in New York. Jhirad said Indian Jews did not leave India for any political reasons or because of persecution. “We have always said we want to go back to our land and it was because of our religious view and emotional attachment,” he explained in an interview with India Abroad. He estimates that in India there are about 6,000 Bene Israel Jews, one of the three communities of the faith found in the country. About 30,000 to 40,000 have gone to Israel and about 50 to 100 families are in the United States, he said.
Although the Indian government supports the Arabs on the Middle East issue, people to people relations between the Jews and the other communities are cordial, Jhirad said. “Politics is a very different thing, I tell those who ask me,” be said. Because of troubles over Kashmir and the need to mobilize support in some international forums “our (Indian) leaders have gone away from the great policies followed after Independence and resorted to the usual political maneuvering,” he explained.
There is also a philosophical reason for the Indian stand on Palestine, he said. Because Indian leaders opposed the division of country into Pakistan and India on religious lines and because of their desire for a secular state in which all communities live together, they did not favor the division of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state, Jhirad said. But, he pointed out, that did not stop India from recognizing Israel when it was form ed and having an Israeli consulate in Bombay. Jhirad recalled that when Indian Jews who had gone to Israel “had trouble” and resorted to agitations, the Israeli authorities reacted “high handedly.” He said that Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India, who was sympathetic to the Indian Jews and held them in esteem remarked, “Let my people came back.” This was an apparent take off on Moses’ “Let my people go,” when he tried to free Jews from slavery in Egypt and take them to Israel.
When the Jewish civilization was destroyed 2,000 years ago by the Romans, there were highly developed kingdoms in India which had trade and diplomatic relations with Greece and Rome. Jhirad said that people living here do not seem to realize this. “The fact that Jews went to India is no surprise,” he added. “The question should be why more Jews did not go there and instead went to what were then barbaric countries.”
Unlike Jews who went to Europe, Jhirad said, those who went to India were allowed to own and till land. Because of this, farming, along with soldiering and trade became one of the occupations of the Bene I Israel. Jhirad said that many Jews served as officers in the armies and courts of local kings and a Bene Israel was the admiral of Angre, a ruler from India’s West Coast who built up a strong naval force that fought the British in the 18th century. Although the Jews had different customs and a monotheistic faith, there was no discrimination against them and they could mix freely with the local people, Jhirad said. The Indian Muslims were also friendly towards them, he said. Even Tipu Sultan an 18th century southern king, who, he said, put to the sword people of other religions who ref used to become Muslims, treated with respect and consideration the Jews captured fighting alongside the Hindus.
The only significant case of anti-Semitism in India was the persecution of Jews in Cranganore, on what is now the Kerala coast, by the Portuguese, Jhirad said. However other Indians gave shelter to the Jews fleeing Portuguese persecution, he added.
Elijah Jhirad, a senior advocate of the Indian Supreme Court and a barrister, moved to the United States 10 years ago. He lives in New York City and writes books on law and provides legal consultations.