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.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Muslim is not a dirty word

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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