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Bene Israel

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Bene Israel

The Bene Israel ("Sons of Israel"), formerly known in India as the "Native Jew Caste", are a historic community of Jews in India. It has been suggested that it is made up of descendants of one of the disputed Lost Tribes and ancestors who had settled there centuries ago. In the 19th century, after the people were taught about normative (Ashkenazi/Sephardi) Judaism, they tended to migrate from villages in the Konkan area to the nearby cities, primarily Mumbai, but also to Pune, Ahmedabad, and Kolkata, India; and Karachi, in today's Pakistan. Many gained positions with the British colonial authority of the period.


In the early part of the twentieth century, many Bene Israel became active in the new film industry, as actresses and actors, producers and directors. After India gained its independence in 1947, and Israel was established in 1948, most Bene Israel emigrated to Israel.


According to Bene Israel tradition, their ancestors had migrated to India after centuries of travel through western Asia from Israel and gradually assimilated to the people around them, while keeping some Jewish customs. Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, mentioned in a letter that there was a Jewish community living in India: he may have been referring to the Bene Israel.

In the 18th or 19th century, an Indian Jew from Cochin named David Rahabi discovered the Bene Israel in their villages and recognized their vestigial Jewish customs. Some historians have thought their ancestors may have belonged to one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, but the Bene Israel have never been officially recognized by Jewish authorities as such.

Rahabi taught the people about normative Judaism. He trained some young men among them to be the religious preceptors of the community. Known as Kajis, these men held a position that became hereditary, similar to the Cohanim. They became recognized as judges and settlers of disputes within the community.

One Bene Israel tradition places Rahabi's arrival at around 1000CE or 1400, although some historians believe he was not active until the 18th century. They suggest that the "David Rahabi" of Bene Israel folklore is a man named David Ezekiel Rahabi, who lived from 1694 to 1772, and resided in Cochin, then the center of the wealthy Malabar Jewish community. Others suggest that the reference is to David Baruch Rahabi, who arrived in Bombay from Cochin in 1825.

It is estimated that there were 6,000 Bene Israel in the 1830s; 10,000 at the turn of the 20th century; and in 1948—their peak in India—they numbered 20,000. Since that time, most of the population have emigrated.

Under British colonial rule, many Bene Israel rose to prominence in India. They were less affected than other Indians by the racially discriminatory policies of the British colonists, considered somewhat outside the masses. They gained higher, better paying posts in the British Army when compared with their non-Jewish neighbours. Some of these enlistees with their families later joined the British in the British Protectorate of Aden.

In the early twentieth century, numerous Bene Israel became leaders in the new film industry in India. In addition, men worked as producers and actors: Ezra Mir (alias Edwin Myers) (1903-1993) became the first chief of India's Film Division, and Solomon Moses was head of the Bombay Film Lab Pvt Ltd from the 1940s to 1990s. Ennoch Isaac Satamkar was a film actor and assistant director to Mehboob Khan, a prominent director of Hindi films.

Given their success under the British colonial government, many Bene Israel prepared to leave India at independence in 1947. They believed that nationalism and the emphasis on indigenous religions would mean fewer opportunities for them. Most emigrated to Israel, which was newly established in 1948 as a Jewish homeland.

Life in Israel

Between 1948 and 1952, some 2,300 Bene Israel immigrated to Israel. Several rabbis refused to marry Bene Israel to other Jews, on grounds that they were not legitimate Jews under Orthodox law. As a result of sit-down protests and hunger strikes by Orthodox Jews, the Jewish Agency returned 337 individuals of Bene Israel in several groups to India between 1952 and 1954. Most returned to Israel after several years.

In 1962, the Indian press reported that European-Jewish authorities in Israel had treated the Bene Israel with racism. They objected to the Chief Rabbi of Israel ruling that, before registering a marriage between Indian Jews and Jews not belonging to that community, the registering rabbi should investigate the lineage of the Indian applicant for possible non-Jewish descent. In case of doubt, they should require the applicant to perform formal conversion or immersion.

The alleged discrimination may have been based on the belief by some religious authorities that the Bene Israel were not fully Jewish because of having had intermarriage in the maternal line with Indian natives during their long separation from major communities of Jews. Others thought that was a convenient cover for racially based bias against Jews who were not Ashkenazi or Sephardim. Between 1962 and 1964, the Bene Israel community staged protests against the religious policy. In 1964 the Israeli Rabbinate ruled that the Bene Israel are "full Jews in every respect".

The Report of the High Level Commission on the Indian Diaspora (2012) reviewed life in Israel for the Bene Israel community. It noted that the city of Beersheba in Southern Israel has the largest community of Bene Israel, with a sizable one in Ramla. They have a new kind of transnational family. Generally the Bene Israel have not been politically active and have had modest means. They have not formed continuing economic connections to India and have limited political status in Israel. Jews of Indian origin are generally regarded as Sephardic; they have become well integrated religiously with the Sephardhim community in Israel. Since the late 20th century, members of Bene Israel have also settled in the United States and Canada.

Notable people

  • Nissim Ezekiel, poet
  • David Abraham Cheulkar (1908–1982), actor in India better known as David, he starred in Boot Polish (1954) and sang "Nanhe Munne Bachche."
  • Ezra Mir alias Edwin Myers (1903–1993), producer, the first chief of India's Film Division, called the Information Films of India under British rule; noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as "the producer of the largest number of documentaries and short films."
  • Susan Solomon (known as Firoza Begum), actress in India in the 1920s and 1930s
  • Esther David, writer and critic
  • References

    Bene Israel Wikipedia

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