Not welcome in the Holy Land

Indian Jews believed Israel was home, but when they got there, they were seen as pariahs

I first became aware of India's Jews in 1996, when I was sent by my newspaper in Mumbai to cover a reception held by the city's Jewish population for the visiting Israeli president Ezer Weizman. I had never noticed Mumbai's Jews before and, looking around that crowded room, I realised why. They were physically no different from any other Indian. The women wore saris; the men had moustaches. So when the president of India's synagogues got up on stage to thank India for its hospitality, I thought it odd that someone so obviously Indian was speaking as if he were a guest in a foreign country.

President Weizman urged the Indian Jews to come and live in Israel. It was an offer that received an enthusiastic response from those in the audience. The old people were considering retiring and the young were planning to emigrate straight after college. They firmly believed that life in the Holy Land would be full of promise and prosperity.

Then, a few years later, I met Yuval Abraham at a party, again in Mumbai. Yuval was a 37-year-old engineer whose family had returned to the subcontinent from Israel. As a Jew, he had always dreamed of living in the Jewish state, and in 1999 he and his family emigrated to the Negev Desert town of Beersheba. However, within two years they were back in India. Life in Israel was not as rosy as they had imagined. Yuval explained: "In India, we have never experienced any discrimination from Hindus or even Muslims. As Israel was a Jewish state, we thought our lives there would be even better. In fact, it was worse. Forget army service and suicide bombings - what really upset me was the racist attitude of other Jews. In Israel, if you are not a white Ashkenazi [European Jew], you're treated like a second-class citizen."

As an Indian (although Hindu) who had visited Israel, I could understand his sentiments. On my latest trip, in 2003, I shared a taxi from the airport to Jerusalem with British Jews. I was to be dropped off last because I was the only one staying in Palestinian East Jerusalem.

"Don't you feel scared living there?" asked one female fellow passenger. "No, not really," I replied. I listed the reasons why I didn't stay in the Jewish half of the city: I was stared at; constantly stopped by soldiers for no reason; ignored in bagel shops; shouted at by bus drivers; blanked whenever I asked for directions.

Yuval belonged to the Bene Israel (Jews from the state of Maharashtra), who form the majority of the 50,000 Indian Jews who, it is estimated, live in Israel. There were two main migrations of India's Jews to Israel. The first came with the almost simultaneous partition of India and Palestine in 1947 and 1948, which led to the creation of the religiously exclusive states of Pakistan and Israel. In Palestine, the estimated 750,000 Palestinians who were forced out of their homes or who fled were replaced by Jews from across the world. From India came the Bene Israel, who were joined in smaller numbers by the Cochin Jews of Kerala and a few Baghdadi Jews from Mumbai.

From the moment of Israel's foundation, the lines of exclusion were drawn. According to Dr Shalva Weil, an anthropologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who specialises in Indian Jews and who edited India's Jewish Heritage, while European Jews were settled in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Bene Israel were placed in peripheral towns such as Dimona and Beersheba, while the Cochinis were sent to agricultural settlements in the Negev which had failed, or to the northern border, which was exposed to frequent shelling. However, while the Cochinis made a go of it and became wealthy, the Bene Israel remain on the margins of Israeli society. Yet this was not the case in India, where they had played a prominent part at all levels of society. In Israel, you do not find Indian Jews occupying equivalent central positions.

I travelled to Beersheba to meet some of the 10,000 Bene Israel living there. This was indeed a town on the periphery. Dry and dusty, it resembled some huge, sprawling council estate, bland and depressing.

Reuben Raymond is a community leader who in 1970, at the age of 11, emigrated to Israel with his family. He recalled how the reality of life in Israel had shocked many Indian Jews. "The Bene Israel had a very good life in India. Nobody troubled us. In India we never had to fight for our rights, but in Israel we did . . . In the early 1950s people had a problem because of their colour. They were given different treatment in everything. They got bad jobs and were given less money."

However, the biggest insult to the community came when the Israeli government refused to recognise the Bene Israel as real Jews. So, between 1962 and 1964, they held a sit-down strike in Jerusalem until their status as Children of Israel was grudgingly acknowledged. The ruling triggered the second-largest migration of Indian Jews to Israel, during which Reuben Raymond's family arrived.

With second and third generations now born in Israel, the Indian Jews have gradually come to feel accepted in their new homeland. Yet, occasionally, an incident occurs and shakes their confidence. For example, in 1997, the row over their legitimacy once again erupted when the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the town of Petah Tiqwa refused to validate the marriages of Indian immigrants and their children, because he doubted their Jewishness. His move prompted young Indian Jews to start a movement, Hodaya, to fight for their rights.

Jews in Europe are growing concerned about rising anti-Semitism. Yet the history of the Indian Jews in Israel illustrates the need for Jews everywhere also to address the racism that lurks at home.