By the time he disembarked from a ship in Bombay in 1929, Vienna-born writer and journalist Wolfgang von Weisl was a strong proponent of Zionism. Living as a young Jew in Austria at a time when Nazi ideas were germinating had convinced him that there was no future for Jews in Europe.

Travelling to India on documents issued by Britain, which had established Mandatory Palestine in 1920, von Weisl was keen on contacting the Jewish communities in the western parts of the country. One of his aims was to draw Baghdadi Jews and Bene Israel into the movement for the establishment of a homeland for Jews in Palestine.

But his interactions with these communities, and overall experience of India, left him in shock. He wrote down his thoughts in a January 1930 article for the Buffalo Jewish Review.

No proselytising policy

Von Weisl claimed he crossed the Himalayas into Tibet dressed as a Hindu monk. When people asked him his religion, his answer befuddled them. “A Jew – by most this was taken to be a sub-caste of Brahminism or something of the sort – with the tacit assumption that by the colour of my skin, I must be a Brahmin for….they had never heard of Jews,” he wrote. “The average Indian knows that there are Christians and Mohammedans, Hindoos and Buddhists – but his conceptions even about Christians are extremely vague.” Even educated journalists in India did not know the difference between Catholics and Protestants, he said.

During his travels, Von Weisl was told the word Yahudi was used as an insult by some Indian Muslims who were swept up in the anti-Jewish fervour stirred around the time of the Khilafat Movement.

“There are districts, provinces, states as large as the Balkan Peninsula, which haven’t and never have had a single Jew, and whose population does not know whether a Jew is or isn’t the same thing as a Christian or Moslem – but the word Jew as a term of abuse has come to them with the Koran. As a term of contempt…,” von Weisl wrote.

It’s abundantly clear from the article that von Weisl believed that the Jewish policy of not converting people was a mistake, especially in India.

“I shall not speak of the old grave theme, how it is that just we Jews have not the courage to send missionaries out into the world; missionaries not to defend that which is Jewish, but to teach that our faith can bring more happiness and freedom to the world than other religions,” he wrote. “Never had I felt more keenly the need of passing from passive apologetics to active propaganda, to mission work than in India, in face of the incredible ignorance of the natives. But nowhere have I more than in India felt at the same time more keenly, more painfully and sadly how completely incapable present-day Jewry is for its mighty task of professing and preaching its faith.”

He wrote of how the wealthy Sassoons and Ezras of Calcutta had influence way beyond India but did little to spread their faith. “Jewry just vegetates,” von Weisl said. “Even in India, the most tolerant country in the world, the Jews are satisfied enough and glad if they can keep themselves alive.”

Lack of unity

Von Weisl said the 20,000-strong Jewish community in India was “driven, torn and disunited”. He divided them into three castes, the first being a small number of Europeans from England, Germany, Italy and Russia, who worked as officials, officers, teachers and merchants.

“All of them keep aloof from Jewish communal life,” he wrote of the first group. “So aloof that one does not know whether they are Jews or not. They look upon the native-born Jews, who constitute the other two castes as beings who are socially inferior, and with whom they wish to have no contact, not even in the synagogue.”

He was also critical of the other two castes. “Here again two castes, deplorably severed from each other, the Indian Jews in the strict sense of the word, the Bene Israel, and the so-called Arab Jews who have come to India from Baghdad and Basra, and to some extent also from the Yemen.”

He was particularly harsh about the Baghdadi Jews, although he took note of some of their success stories.

“The traveller’s first acquaintance with Indian Jews is made right outside his hotel,” he wrote. “The taxi-drivers at his service there are sure to include some Jew or other from Baghdad or Basra who has started his road to wealth by driving a taxi. It is no joke; a lot of Jews began as chauffeurs, bought a motor car for themselves out of their savings, then two and three, and some of them have risen to be prosperous car contractors.”

Baghdadi Jews loved gambling, he said, and many of them were drunks. “But the Arab Jews in Bombay even have a worse complaint – to a certain extent they won’t work. They rely on the dynasty of the Sassoons – Jewish millionaires who came from Baghdad to India, grew to be exceedingly wealthy, have been created baronets, and with a truly Jewish sense of duty, are bearing practically unaided the entire cost of the communal administration.”

He wrote of how the Sassoons built and maintained the synagogue in Bombay’s Fort area, paid for the upkeep of the community school and clothed the children. The Sassoons went as far as paying for funerals and even the dowry for families looking to marry off their daughters.

“It was in vain that the present baronet tried to put a stop to this encouragement of mendicancy by providing employment instead,” von Weisl wrote. “He offered to take his co-religionists into his big spinning-mills. But his offer was turned down. The wages were not big enough. Rather go about idle and take alms than work for a maximum of two shillings a day.”

Summing up his views on the Baghdadi Jews, von Weisl wrote, “And so on the outskirts of Bombay, where the Sassoon School building faces the synagogue, one finds miserable-looking Arab Jews who have retained of their former garb at least the horrible Turkish Fez, lounging all day long in front of their doors, huddled up in the little coffee rooms, just killing time.”

Bene Israel

Von Weisl viewed the Bene Israel community positively, but only somewhat.

“They were received in a friendly way by the Indians, who are tolerantly disposed towards all religions,” he wrote. “They adopted Indian customs, they renounced the eating of cow’s flesh – as did subsequently the refugees of the Parsee faith – since this animal is sacred to the Hindoo; it is likely enough that they took Indian wives – although they vigorously deny it to this day – and they forgot everything that is the spiritual heritage of the Jewish faith.”

A Bene Israel family in Bombay. Credit: Jewish Encyclopedia/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

He said the community kept the Sabbath, observed a few dietary precepts and gave their children Jewish names. “All else gradually disappeared, and of their Hebrew language they remember only one sentence, or rather one word: ‘Hear, O Israel,’” von Weisl wrote. Traditions forgotten over centuries were revived, he added, thanks to a “White Jew” from Cochin named David Rahabi, who met the Bene Israel by accident when he came to Bombay as a trader.

He praised the community for resisting concerted efforts by European missionaries to convert them to Christianity.

The writer couldn’t help but compare the Bene Israel with the Baghdadi Jews. “There is none of the sharp division among the Bene Israel into proletarian beggars on the one hand, and millionaires on the other, which has been so harmful among the Arab Jews of Bombay,” he wrote. “In the one case, the Jewish school owes its existence to the munificence of one donor, in the other, it is the achievement of the community.”

Von Weisl was impressed with the director of the Bene Israel school, one Ms Ruben, who had received university training in England. “She gives one the impression of a cool, resolute and demure person,” he wrote. “The ideal teacher!” Ruben’s Hebrew was good and modern, he added, and she taught it as a living language, unlike the teacher in the Baghdadi school.

Racism and untouchability

The Zionist traveller said the Bene Israel looked Indian and probably had 80% Indian blood. “Their skin is distinctly brown; their build slim and delicate, the shape of their heads Indian rather than Semitic, the garb wholly Indian,” he wrote, adding that other Indians could easily tell members of the community apart.

What disappointed the writer was the attitude the Bene Israel had towards the so-called Black Jews. “These Jews, they assert are the descendants of mixed marriages between Jews and Hindoos, and they despise them just as much as the Hindus, for instance, despise their own ‘Untouchables,’ the Parias,” he wrote. “The division into Bene Israel and Black Jews may perhaps arise from the fact that since Brahminism grew strong and the caste system became rigid in India, as it manifested itself increasingly since the overcoming of Buddhism, only the most wretched of Indian castes gave their daughters in marriages to non-caste members (and the lower the caste, the blacker the skin of its members).”

For someone keen on building a universal Jewish identity that transcended race, this discrimination within the Jewish communities was disturbing. Wolfgang von Weisl couldn’t come to terms with the fact that there were even separate cemeteries. He wrote: “Parias in life and in death! Parias, Untouchables, among the Jews! Jews who refuse to sit at the table with other Jews…even that!”

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.