For reasons not entirely clear to them, India’s miniscule Jewish community has never officially been recognised as a religious minority. Now, after years of lobbying for a minority status, the union ministry of minority affairs is finally considering a proposal to include Jews in the list of notified minorities along with Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Jains.
For India’s 5,000-odd followers of Judaism, this would mean an improved status for their educational institutions, better protection for their community spaces and a greater – and more official – recognition of the many contributions of Jews to cities like Mumbai and the country at large.
“We have always been a microscopic minority in this country, but I don’t really know why we were not formally recognised as such all these years,” said Solomon Sopher, chairman and managing director of the prominent Jacob Sassoon Trust that runs a number of synagogues in Mumbai and Pune. “Perhaps it was because of political pressure and the positive relationship between India and Palestine. But it is high time that we get a minority status now.”
A rich history
Jews came to India in different waves over several centuries, and there are at least three distinct Jewish sub-sects in India today. The Cochin Jews – only a handful in number today – are believed to have migrated to Kerala’s Malabar coast more than 2,000 years ago. The Bene Israelis came to the coast of Maharashtra at least 900 years ago and have now adopted the Maharashtrian language, and many of the state’s customs, as their own. The Arabic-speaking Baghdadi Jews fled from Iraq and arrived in India in 1730.
The community has been well assimilated into mainstream Indian culture over the years, with no records of anti-Semitic behaviour from non-Jews. In fact, the 2008 terror attack on the Israeli-Jewish Chabad House in Mumbai was perhaps the first time that many Indians grew aware of the presence of the Jewish community in India.
“Much has been said about the many institutions that the Parsis set up to build India, but people don’t know much about the contribution of Jewish philanthropists like the Sassoons,” said Sopher. The Sassoon family of Baghdadi Jews were prominent business tycoons in the 1800s and established institutions like the Sassoon hospital and leprosy home in Pune, the David Sasoon Library in Mumbai, multiple schools and even the Sasoon docks in Mumbai. “Bank of India was also founded by a Jew. And yet, our textbooks make no mention of any of these contributions,” Sopher said.
Stemming emigration to Israel
Sopher, a Baghdadi Jew from Mumbai, describes himself as the “chief architect” of the proposal for Jewish minority status that was presented to the union minority affairs ministry in October 2015. “It turns out that the government had been unable to find adequate information about Jews from census data,” said Sopher. “This is probably because census officials who visit our homes often have no idea what a Jew is, and end up grouping us as Christians.”
In October, the ministry asked Sopher and other Jewish organisations to compile their own survey of the community for their consideration. This “survey” found that there are more than 5,000 Jews in India today, worshipping at least 17 synagogues. Ten of those synagogues are located in Mumbai and Thane.
“There must have been more than 50,000 Jews in India in the 1950s, but since then, they have been migrating in large numbers to Israel,” said Sopher.
With improved business relations between India and Israel, many Jews believe a minority status could stem the emigration of Indian Jews. “Both my sons chose to migrate to Israel because Jews feel more protected there,” said Leena Solomon, a 60-year-old Jew from Mumbai. “A minority status might encourage Jews to stay in India.”
The advantages of the tag
For most of India’s Jews, however, the main advantage of a minority tag would be in the field of education. Jewish trusts run four schools in Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad, but unlike schools run by Muslim or Christian trusts, they are considered private institutions. “We are expected to maintain the standards of private schools and pay teachers’ salaries accordingly, but we don’t get the financial aid that minority schools do,” said Sopher.
For Ezra Moses, the secretary of the Indian Jewish Federation, a minority status could also mean greater respect for the community’s property. Moses is the managing trustee of the Gate of Heaven synagogue in Thane, a city to the north of Mumbai that is home to at least 1,800 Jews – or 40% of India’s Jewish population. “Despite this, we had to give up around 600 sq m of our cemetery land to the municipal corporation for a road-widening project,” said Moses. “We are an ultramicroscopic community and even our cemeteries are being encroached upon. I’m glad that even if it is after 67 years of independence, the government is finally taking positive steps to give us a minority status.”