By Ben Barber

When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi stepped onto Israeli soil July 3, into the welcoming arms of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu July 3, it was the first such visit since both countries became independent of the collapsing British empire: India in 1947 and Israel in 1948.

Over the centuries, giant India had a tiny and ancient Jewish community peaking at perhaps 50,000. But India today has 200 million Muslims (compared to a billion Hindus) and governments in New Delhi feared to antagonize them by open and warm relations with Israel. Now, with a staunchly pro Hindu prime minister, India revealed an open tilt towards Israel.

Modi pointedly did not visit the Palestinian territories. But he saw a high tech Kibbutz industry; and he met with the Jewish child Moshe Holtzberg, who was orphaned by a 2008 terror attack on Mumbai, apparently sponsored by Pakistan.

The Indian leader’s visit to Israel came after the Jewish state signed what it called its largest foreign business deal, providing India with more than the $2 billion in weapons and high technology.

It also marked yet another sign of both countries’ joint hostility towards Muslim Pakistan, which does not recognize or have any diplomatic relations with Israel and is continuing to supply weapons, training and militants to kill Indian troops in disputed Kashmir.

A senior Indian intelligence agent in Washington told me some years ago: “every time we went to war with Pakistan, Israel was there with us.” But because India feared an economic and political backlash by more than 60 Islamic majority countries, it kept Israel ties secret.

Now that both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapon, the likelihood of another major Indo-Pak war is reduced. Chances are war might escalate into nuclear blasts. It is too suicidal to contemplate rationally. But border clashes, economic and cultural isolation, battles over water resources, and unleashing terrorists to attack Mumbai and New Delhi remain. Pakistan, in turn, accuses India of fomenting militants in Baluchistan Province and it dislikes India’s ties to Afghanistan.

India is reaching out to Israel and other weapons suppliers in part because its smoldering military rivalry with China has again erupted into border clashes near Sikkim.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s effusive “bromance” reception of Modi in Israel marked more than an escalation in military ties. It closed a loop in culture, history and religion going back not seventy years but 2000 years.

That is how long Jews have lived in India, enjoying freedom to worship and preserve their culture.

In the first century AD (now called CE), a boat with Jews fleeing the Roman crackdown on Jewish separatists in Israel reached Cochin in southern India. Some 2000 years later, about 100 descendants of those wandering Jews still live and worship freely in India. I visited them 50 years ago in Cochin. Most however migrated to Israel, the United States or Britain to find spouses and greater economic opportunity. In appearance they were Caucasian and many had red hair from possible inbreeding. A second, black Jewish community had its own synagogue nearby.

A second group of Jews settled near Mumbai and were known because they did not press oil on the Sabbath. They were discovered by a Jew sailing on a Portuguese boat around the 1500s. They had retained only a few vestiges of Jewish culture and religion so he remained with them and taught them Torah. Descendants of those, who I met in Bombay, are called Benai Israel and when I visited them 50 years ago they eagerly welcomed me to their Sabbath services.

Visually, they resembled South Asians and possibly for that reason Israel’s rabbinate initially refused to accept them as Jews. After some years, they were all accepted and many migrated to Israel.

A third Jewish community are the Baghdadi Jews. They had lived in Iraq for centuries, possibly from the time of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. But in the early 1800s, an anti-Jewish ruler arose and several thousand Jews moved to Bombay and Calcutta, seeking to escape persecution under protection of the British Raj.

I stayed for a month in Bombay in 1967 with a Baghdadi Jewish family who ran the Hill Grange School, one of many community institutions then serving more local Hindus and Muslims than Jews as the Baghdadis joined the exodus to Israel. In appearance, the Baghdadis resembled Israelis or Europeans. Some still spoke a hybrid language formed from Arabic and Hebrew over the centuries in Iraq.

A few Baghdadi Jews attained prominent positions such as Gen. Jack Jacob, who died recently at 92 and who led the Indian army that freed Bangladesh from East Pakistani control in 1971. The Sassoon and Ben Ezra families were Baghdadis known for charity as well as business acumen.

My personal friend was Ellis Abraham, news editor of the highly respected Calcutta Statesman daily newspaper. He told me that during Muslim-Hindu riots when India and Pakistan separated in 1947, Calcutta’s Jews could walk through the crowds and cross from one side the other to get to their jobs or their synagogue.

In 1982, Abraham gave me a long manuscript of a novel he had written about the Jews of Calcutta. The last time I saw him, he knew he was dying. I apologized for not finding a publisher for his book.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “You will do what you have to do.” I felt he was hinting at the spirituality the Jews of India had found by living amidst Indian culture. I hope someone will read this and consider publishing the novel.

Ben Barber traveled widely in India and reported from there for the London Observer, Washington Times and many other publications.

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