In April 1952, a Calcutta resident by the name of EJ Assin sent a letter to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs appealing for help in getting his daughter back home from Be’er Sheva, Israel. “I beg to inform you that my widow daughter was converted and married at the Jewish Synagogue, Calcutta, to Mr Hyam Solomon, and is now known as Mrs Rahal Solomon,” Assin wrote. “She has two issues, both boys, aged 6 and 1 year old, one born in Calcutta and the second at Israel.”
Assin’s daughter had left for Israel with her husband and first child in April 1950. “Unfortunately the climate and other things do not agree with them there, they requested the authorities to repatriate them back to India,” he wrote. The Indian government agreed to take back the family but the Jewish Agency for Palestine (now Jewish Agency for Israel) was not willing to pay for their repatriation. “On hearing this my old wife is crying her eyes out and living… in misery,” the 62-year-old wrote.
The case of Solomon was not unique by any means. Many of the 2,000-plus members of the Bene Israel community, who hailed mainly from Bombay and other parts of Western India, were disgruntled with life in Israel and wanted to return to their land of birth. Over 300 of them were allowed to return to Bombay through a complicated process that involved the Indian, Israeli and British governments.
Encouragement of migration
India was one of 13 countries that opposed the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine that was passed in the General Assembly and led to the creation of Israel. Three years would go by before India recognised Israel and another four decades before the two countries established full diplomatic relations.
In the early 1950s, the Jewish Agency opened an office in Bombay’s Fort area and began to actively encourage Jews to migrate to Israel. It would regularly address the local Jewish community at seminars at the Elly Kadoorie School in Mazgaon and some of the city’s synagogues. Among those who conducted the lectures were Immanuel Olswanger, an eminent linguist and emissary who took particular interest in the Bene Israel community, and Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, an Orthodox Rabbi, historian and philologist.
“It was told us in these lectures and in synagogues: ‘Come to Israel, Israel is your country. We will give you jobs according to your professions. We will give education to your children, nice houses to stay,’” Joseph David Baunolker wrote in a petition to the Indian government in 1955. In India, he used to work as a compositor for India Press, but in Israel, he was made to chop trees, he said.
“Enquiries show that the emigration from India to Israel started in the year 1950 and between 1950 and 1952, about 1000 persons, including men, women and children immigrated to Israel,” a report from the Office of the Bombay Police Commissioner said in 1956. “Among these persons, some were refugees (Bene-Israels) from Karachi who came down to Bombay and other places in India soon after the disturbances which broke out after the ‘Partition’ in 1947.”
By 1956, around 2,000 Jews from Western India had migrated to Israel. More than half of them found employment, the Bombay Police report said.
Many were “spiritually attracted towards Israel and sentimentally roused to do their bit for the building of [the] Israel nation and country,” according to the report. “People who came from Karachi to Bombay as refugees had no permanent homes here and they naturally seized the opportunity to go to Israel.” No numbers were provided of those who came from the city that became Pakistan’s first capital.
Disillusionment in Israel
It was not easy for many Indian immigrants to move from a relatively comfortable existence in cities like Bombay and Ahmedabad to an unfamiliar land with aggrieved neighbours and a population traumatised by the horrors of the Holocaust. These immigrants expected Israel to be the proverbial “land of milk and honey”, but were shocked at the work offered to them.
A petition to the Indian government in July 1955 documented the problems that Bombay Jews faced. “Mr. Eliass Hiraman Garsulker was taken with his family to the Kibbutz ‘Maos-Haim’ by the Maskir from ‘Shaar ‘Aliaa’,” the petition said, highlighting one of the better known cases. “He and his wife worked for about six months in heavy rain. After that they were asked to go, because ‘Our Kibbutz don’t want the family with four children.’”
The family of Solomon-Moses Umedekar, comprising 15 people, also faced challenges in a kibbutz. “Their children got small pimples on their body,” the petition said. “Instead of giving medical aid to the children, the Kibbutz asked the family to leave... They were brought by a lorry to a maabara ‘Machane Israel’ and left there without any help or money.”
Some communities refused to accept families with children, according to the petition. Others declined to help Indian families in need of medical aid, even forcing a victim of a stabbing to pay for the ambulance.
Those with white collar jobs in India were forced to work as labourers to survive. Joseph David Baunolker, the compositor who was lured by the speeches made in Bombay, said in the petition: “The big big lectures given to us by the Jewish Agency were nothing but ‘propaganda.’ On these promises of the Jewish Agency, we left our permanent jobs, sold our things, left our houses.” He added, “We were not slaves, nor beggars in India, our children were schooling, we have not only ruined our life, but we have ruined the life of our children too.”
Members of the community even went on a 11-day strike against the government in November 1954, which led to the arrest of their leader Yoosef Abraham. The striking Indians claimed they were violently attacked by 60-odd policemen and that the authorities wanted to take their children away.
Within two years of Indian Jews moving to Israel, a mechanism for repatriation was worked out. Since India did not have diplomatic representation in Israel, the British Embassy was asked to verify claims of Indian nationality and issue emergency certificates to those who wanted to go back.
The first batch of 115 people arrived in Bombay on April 4, 1952, with the Jewish Agency paying for their passage. Over the next few years, a total of 337 people returned. However, not everyone who wanted to come back was allowed.
The Indian government told the British Legation in Tel Aviv that Jews who left India for Israel should be divided into three categories. The first: Indians who left for Israel because of their faith. The second: Jews of foreign origin who had settled down in India for a few years and would have automatically become Indian citizens under the constitution had they not migrated. And the third: Jews who were in transit in India from other countries.
For the second and third categories, a full examination was required, and the British were asked to forward the applications to New Delhi. For the first group, any proof of living in India for the last 20 years was enough.
In the case of EJ Assin’s daughter Rahal Solomon, the Indian government was willing to accept her back but was not willing to pay for her passage. On the directions of the Ministry of External Affairs, the West Bengal government instructed the police to file a report about the Assin family. They managed to find out that her two sons had an income of Rs 400 and that they all lived together with their ethnic Chinese son-in-law. No reason was given as to why the request for repatriation expenses was rejected.
Appeal for help
A group of Indian Jews asked for an appointment with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to plead their case for financial assistance in settling back in India. The Ministry of External Affairs was asked to look into the matter, which was taken up by Under Secretary Mehar Singh.
“It would appear that these people would have migrated to Israel hoping for much better treatment, but their hopes have not been fulfilled and therefore these persons are extremely dissatisfied with the conditions of living and working there,” Singh wrote in a letter to the Chief Secretary of the Government of Bombay. “It is quite likely that the Jewish Agency that arranges the migration of Indian Jews to Israel did not inform these persons about the conditions of living and work in Israel before they left this country.”
These claims were investigated by the Bombay Police Commissioner’s office, which said the agency could not be accused of making false propaganda. The office said the agency seemed “keen on improving their small country by taking willing Israelis from India, who are otherwise known for their good skill in carpentry and similar arts. They have also the intention of stimulating Indian culture into their country. Immigrants who have gone to Israel have gone in their own interest, specially spending their life in a country where they have the advantages of initiating their children to the principles of Jewish religion to which they are so attracted.”
The police report cited a variety of reasons as to why the Indian Jews were unhappy in Israel, such as the climate and having to eat boiled and tinned food when they were used to spicy cuisine in India. The report added that some of the immigrants found the work hard, while others faced discrimination and felt lonely since the community was scattered across Israel.
The main reason for their disgruntlement was homesickness, according to the police report. “The Bene-Israels in India whose mother tongue is Marathi are a community 100% Indianised through centuries of their living in India and the relatives and friends of the early emigrants were in India though some of them had ventured to emigrate.”
Many of those who returned to India found it difficult to readjust to life back home. It is unclear how many went to Israel once again, but the Jewish Agency, facing flak over the reports of unhappy Indian Jews in Israel, became more cautious. Stricter rules were imposed on the migration and stronger attempts were made to explain that life would be difficult for those who chose to leave India.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.