Guest Editorial – The Indian Jewry and the Need for Jewish Studies in India
By Navras Jaat Aafreedi
“Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him,” said M. K. Gandhi, who also proclaimed, “A civilization can be judged by the way it treats its minorities.” Yet the nation that considers Gandhi as its father shows little academic interest in numerically the weakest of its religious communities, the Jews, who are so few in numbers that they do not even figure as a separate religious minority in the census and are put in the category of others. In spite of their presence in India for at least a millennium and possibly two millennia or even more they have hardly received any academic and scholarly attention in India. From time to time articles on them appear in the Indian press, but they generally focus only on their dwindling numbers and the fear of the end of Jewish life in India. It is only seldom that the Jewish contributions to India, their marginalization in spite of the absence of anti-Semitism, except in certain sections of the Muslim community, and their relations with other communities, are discussed. They remain largely absent from the Indian public space and discourse. Because of their small numbers most of the Indians are ignorant of their existence, and the few who are aware know them only through secondary sources, often not reliable, and not as a result of any direct contact, except in cities like Mumbai, Thane, Kolkata, and Ahmedabad where they happen to be neighbours. The unreliability of a section of the Indian press as a source of information about Jews is illustrated by the fact that considering the widespread ignorance about the Jews in India the press usually manages to get away with anti-Semitic material for there are no laws in India specially directed against overt anti-Semitism, let alone covert and subtle. We must bear in mind what the former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had said: “The rise of anti-Semitism anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. Thus, in fighting anti-Semitism we fight for the future of all humanity.”
For democracy to thrive it needs to be nurtured; and one of the prerequisites for it is to raise awareness of the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of the country among its citizens, lest democracy turns into majoritarianism. This is something that can be done only by promoting minority studies. But even in minority studies, almost all attention is generally given to the community whose members form the majority among the religious minorities in India, the Muslims, with avenues for the study of other religious minorities hardly available, because of the numerical insignificance of those other groups which makes them politically less important. How a society treats its minorities is the benchmark which determines how civilized or uncivilized it is. Mostly the minorities, though desirous of integration, resist assimilation. It is for every society to make efforts to integrate all its minority groups into the mainstream, but at the same time ensure that they do not lose or get robbed or deprived of their separate identity, and celebrate plurality and give the minorities their due in terms of recognition.
There is little or no interest in Jewish Studies in the Indian academia. Jewish Studies are not a recognized academic discipline in India, unlike Islamic Studies, despite the fact that the Jews happen to be the smallest religious minority of India. Even though democracy should never translate into majoritarianism, yet it is the numerical strength of communities which determines not only their political significance but also the importance of their studies. Although Muslims are a minority in India with only thirteen per cent of India’s total population, yet they are the second largest Muslim population in the world, which accounts for Islamic Studies being available at almost all major Indian universities, while the studies of other religious communities are almost non-existent.
However, we are witnessing a change, slow but steady, when it comes to Jewish Studies in India, for its time has come. And as Victor Hugo said, “there is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come”. Jindal Global University in Sonipat has emerged as the first institution in India to establish a centre dedicated to Israel Studies in collaboration with Brandeis University, but it would have been better if Israel Studies could have been coupled with Jewish Studies. Israel is the only Jewish State in the world, which often leads to the interchangeable use of the words Israel and Jews in the colloquial language, though incorrectly so. An institution that has gone a step further towards introducing Indo-Judaic Studies is the Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce in Pune, an autonomous institution affiliated with the University of Pune, which plans to establish a Centre for Indo-Israel Studies. Hebrew is being taught at the Jawaharalal University in New Delhi for a few years now. Jawaharlal Nehru University also organized an international conference in 2013 on Hebrew language and literature, and this year, 2014, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, organized an international conference on the Jews of India and plans to hold an exhibition on them. Society for Social Regeneration & Equity (SSRE) organized a panel in 2014 on the portrayal of religious minorities, including Jews, in Hindi fiction, and felicitated the only Jewish novelist in Hindi today, Sheela Rohekar. Israel Science Foundation and the University Grants Commission (UGC) of India have jointly launched a research programme to promote cooperation between Israeli and Indian scholars with funding of up to one hundred and eighty thousand American dollars available for up to three years for a theoretical project.
The present issue of Café Dissensus makes a sincere attempt at generating interest in Indo-Judaic Studies by presenting a comprehensive picture of Jews in India through articles and essays from the best scholars in the field on the three Jewish communities in India, numerically the largest, the Bene Israel, the smallest one, the Cochini, and the last to settle in India, the Baghdadi. Along with the three Jewish communities of India, the issue also gives profiles of the two Judaizing movements in India, the Bene Ephraim and the Bene Menashe. Besides this, it draws our attention to the Jewish contributions to art and culture in India. With this issue, Café Dissensus emerges as the first online magazine ever to bring out a special issue on Jews in India, for which it ought to be commended.
Nathan Katz points to the significance of Indo-Judaic Studies in his essay. While Nissim Moses highlights the concerns of the Bene Israel Jews when it comes to their being studied by scholars, Shalva Weil gives us a comprehensive picture of the Jews of Maharashtra through her photo essay. Jael Silliman provides us with a profile of the Baghdadi Jews in India through her photo essay, drawing images from the digital archives she has produced. Joan Roland elaborates on the sojourn of the Baghdadi Jews in India. The issue also has two articles on the Jews of Cochin, one by Barbara Johnson on their Malayalam Zionist songs and the other by Bala Menon on their cuisine. While Anna Guttman gives us an overview of the Indian Jewish fiction, Heinz Werner Wessler introduces us to the contemporary Jewish literature in Hindi, the official link language of India. Saul Sapir and Jay Waronker draw our attention to the Jewish architecture in India. While Sapir highlights the Jewish architectural heritage of Bombay (now called Mumbai), Waronker gives us an overview of the synagogues in India. Kenneth X Robbins brings into sharp focus the impressive contributions of Jews to Indian cinema, the biggest film industry in the world. Siona Benjamin presents her efforts to weave Indian Jewish narratives through her unique art. Sara Manasseh familiarizes us with the Indian Jewish music through her essay which has a few audio files embedded in it. Indian Jewish authors, Esther David and Sophie Judah enrich the issue through their personal narratives. Yulia Egorova and Shahid Perwez present their analysis of the Bene Ephraim, just as Myer Samra presents his of the Bnei Menashe, the two Judaizing movements in India. I hope this special issue of Café Dissensus not only succeeds in generating popular interest in Indo-Judaic Studies but also attracts the attention of Indian scholars and academics.
Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi is an Indo-Judaic Studies Scholar and Muslim-Jewish Relations Activist, employed as an Assistant Professor in the School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Gautam Buddha University, Greater NOIDA, India. Can be reached at: email@example.com.
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Last February, I visited the Maghen David synagogue. While it is not operational (save for a small High Holiday service led by a rabbi from elsewhere), it is well-maintained and kept as a heritage site. A full-time caretaker allowed me to see the synagogue and marvel at the joy of reading the same prayers that I have read in many other places throughout the world and at home. As a foreign Jew who visits India regularly, I am always fascinated as well by the way Indians often conflate being Jewish with being Israeli. That has led to many intense and productive interactions. People seem to like a non-nuanced approach to the anti-Israel wave.
The earliest Vedic religion has much in common with the religion of Pre-Abrahamic Horim. I am thinking especially of falcon-shaped fire altars.