Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 43

Shipping trade between west Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the Indian subcontinent is as old as boats.

A stormy sea sent a small vessel shipwrecked on the shores of India. That’s how the Bene Israel origin story begins. This group should not be confused with the Ethiopian Beta Israel we already discussed. The Bene Israel origin story tells of seven Jewish men and seven Jewish women who crash landed on the Indian coasts of Konkon villages in 175 BCE, before the events of Hanukkah. They were taken in by the Hindu villagers, who taught them the profession of oil pressing.  The seven Jewish men took seven local women as concubines and from their wives and concubines two distinct, separate castes derived. 

The Bene Israel Jews lost their holy books in the shipwreck, and they were kept isolated from other Jewish communities for 18 or 19 centuries before being rediscovered. To their Hindu neighbors they were known as the “Saturday oil-pressers” for their trade and their tradition of resting on the Sabbath. They also circumcised their children, celebrated major festivals, and observed prescribed offerings from the Torah. They only knew one prayer, Shema Ysrael, and used it for every purpose. 

Bene Israel Jews developed their own rites and rituals around Jewish holidays and traditions. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most important holidays to them, and it is traditional to visit friends and family on those days. For Yom Kippur the community dresses exclusively in white clothing. During wedding ceremonies the bridge and groom are adorned with henna. The bride wears a white Sari like other Indian brides, and she enters the synagogue as her groom sings her into the building with a special groom-song. Some modern Israeli-born descendants of Indian Bene Israel Jews are opting for western style bridal dresses in Israel now, as a result of cultural exchange.

Sometime in the 16-19th century (there are numerous proposed dates) a David Rahabi, who may have been a Cochin Jew from south India, encountered these Saturday oil pressers and recognized them as potentially Jewish. He tested them in a several small ways. His final test was giving the women of the tribe a large, mixed basket of fish and asking them to prepare a meal. As the Bene Israel women automatically began to separate the fish into clean and unclean categories by Kosher rules, Rahabi was convinced. The Cochin Jews began teaching the Bene Israel, providing them with a rabbi and a cantor. 

Like the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel did not face antisemitism from their Hindu neighbors. When India was under British rule, certain Bene Israel families prospered from employment with the East India Company. Bene Israel were in fact loyal to England during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. They had done so well under British rule that, although they had not been very zealous about Zionism before, once India gained independence in 1947 and Israel became a state in 1948, many emigrated. 

About 2,300 Bene Israel emigrated to the new country of Israel between 1948-1952. More than 300 came back to India’s by 1954, complaining of racism. Some Orthodox rabbis did not consider Bene Israel “fully Jewish” because of their history of intermarriage, and might “investigate” their lineage for Indian heritage to disprove their Jewishness. Many Jews of all ethnicities felt this was an excuse for discrimination against non-Ashkenazi and non-Sephardi (Mizrahi, Black, and Asian) Jews. After many protests, in 1964 the Israeli Rabbinate declared Bene Israel are “full Jews in every respect.” 

Further reading

Dharamraj, Paul and Reuben, Afira. (8 May 2013). “Our big fat Indian-Jewish weddings“. Times of Israel. 

Weil, Shalva. “The Bene Israel of India”. The Database of Jewish Communities. Archived from the original on 11 August 2017. 

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