India is home to three historically distinct Jewish communities: the Bene Israel, the Cochin Jews, and the Baghdadi Jews. It is thought that the first Jews in India were members of the biblical “Lost Tribes of Israel,” having settled on the Malabar coast after the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel some 2,800 years ago in the ninth century B.C.E. This includes the Bene Israel (“Sons of Israel”), the Cochin Jews, and the Bene Menashe.
Cochin Jews settled in Southern India around modern-day Kochi and quickly earned the favor of local rulers, receiving copper plates that indicated the assumption important positions under the local leaders. They were allowed to practice Jewish life freely and openly and were quite successful in maintain Jewish religious practices while also assimilating into the local culture. In 1524, a number of Jews from Kondungallur fled to Cochin after the Moors, who were backed by the local Indian ruler, attacked the Jews in Kondungallur in order to “free” the pepper trade from their interference. They were granted protection by the Hindu Raja in Cochin and were free to establish what would become “Jew Town” (which is still its name today).
The Bene Israel settled mainly in modern-day Mumbai, Ahmedabad, and Karachi (now Pakistan) shortly after the arrival of Cochin Jews in the south (around 2,500 years ago). They too kept their faith while also assimilating to the local culture, eventually speaking the native Marathi language and adopting local customs. They faced no anti-Semitism and often intermarried with the local non-Jewish Martha people. Over time, they began to resemble the Martha people and also practiced their customs, still maintaining their Jewish heritage, albeit in a much more assimilated manner than their southern counterparts.
Around this time, the Pardesi Jews arrived in India from Western Europe, having been expelled from Iberia. They spoke the Sephardic Ladino language and were somewhat successful in commerce and industry due to their connections to European markets. However, the Portuguese occupied the region shortly after their arrival and these new Jewish immigrants, along with the already established Jewish communities, found themselves under hostile rule. The Portuguese began persecuting the local Jewish population and did so until the Dutch replaced them as the imperial power in the region in 1660. The Dutch were tolerant and the Jews prospered under them. In the latter half of the century and into the eighteenth century, an influx of Jewish immigration from the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain saw the Jewish community in Cochin continue to grow and thrive. Jewish immigrants from the middle-east were particularly successful in India, with many prominent families using their connections to establish a vast array of trading networks.
In then-Bombay, the Bene Israel experienced a revival in Jewish life. Urbanization and opportunities for jobs in the city, saw many Bene Israelis move from the countryside to the city. Largely assimilated to the local culture, they practiced a rather localized form of Judaism that really only had a few recognizable traces of traditional Jewish practice. Teachers from Baghdad and Cochin arrived in Bombay and taught the Bene Israel mainstream Judaism, which allowed them to be able to read the Torah and reestablish their Jewish identity. As a result, the first synagogue in then-Bombay, “Shaar Rahamim” was established in 1796. Moreover, the imperial leadership of the city (now in the hands of the British Raj) allowed Jews to practice their religion freely.
The 19th century saw Baghdadi Jews arrive in India, fleeing religious persecution in Iraq and other Muslim lands northwest of India – including Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. Jewish tradesmen from Baghdad had a long history of traveling to India and found success in their home. This included the influential Sassoon family, who arrived in then-Bombay in 1832. David Sassoon, the patron of the family, was particularly well-connected in India and became a leader of the Baghdadi Jewish community in the city.
Under British imperial rule, Indian Jews prospered enormously, achieving heights in population and wealth. In Calcutta, many Baghdadi Jewish traders found themselves extremely prosperous, as they were well connected to cities and countries throughout the world due to Britain’s presence in the territory. In fact, many of the wealthier Baghdadi Jews assimilated into British culture and began speaking mainly English. The Bene Israelis and Cochin Jews were also quite successful, as they were prominent in the new bureaucracy developed under the imperialist English and held high-ranking positions in the Armed Forces and in government. Moreover, the general non-Jewish Indian population continued to be tolerant of their Jewish counterparts, and there was very little to no manifestations of anti-Semitism.
In the 20thh century a number of Indian Jews served in prominent roles in the government as well as private Indian social and economic enterprises. Dr. E. Moses, a Bene Israeli, served as the mayor of Bombay in 1937, and David Jacob Cohen served on the Bengal Legislative Council in Calcutta (the highest political office obtained by a Calcutta Jew) in 1923 and 1926. Abraham Barak Salem was a notable Indian nationalist who served in the Legislative Council in Cochin from 1925 to 1931 and 1939 to 1945 and was a part of the Lahore Session of the Indian National Congress that passed the “Purna Swaraj” that called for complete independence.
India achieved its independence in 1947 in the aftermath of World War II. The rise of Indian nationalism that accompanied sovereignty made some Indian Jews uncomfortable as they identified more as British rather than Indian. This, coupled with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, saw many Jews leave India. In this regard, the majority of Jews who emigrated from India in the 1940s made this decision based on the influence of Zionism and a love for Israel, rather than a disdain for India. Despite such heavy Jewish emigration, Jews continued to play an active role in Indian life throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.
In the 1970s, the Bene Menashe and Bene Ephraim tribes, small tribes that had practiced Judaism until forcibly converted by Christian missionaries in the 19th century, began to respectively practice Judaism again. Lt. Gen. J.F.R Jacob served as the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command (the highest ranking military role for Indian Jews) and was famous for his role in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and negotiating the surrender of more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers in Dhaka. His actions were instrumental in the creation of an independent Bangladeshi state and he later served as the Governor of Punjab and Goa from 1999 to 2003.
In more recent times, the Bene Israeli community’s claim of being descendants of the Kohanim, the ancient Israeli priests who claim descent from Aaron, was confirmed by a DNA test in 2002. In 2008, the Chabad House in Mumbai was a target during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife Rivka, and a number of Israeli and American nationals were murdered by Pakistani terrorists at the Chabad. Despite this tragic occurrence, Indian Jewry continues to exist peacefully within the diversity of India. In 2016, the Maharashtra state, in a largely ceremonial gesture, granted Jews minority status, making it easier to register marriages and acquire funding for the community’s institutions and activities.