teaches history at Presidency University, Kolkata, and has written Jews, Judaizing
Movements and the Traditions of Israelite Descent in South Asia. Speaking with Eram
Agha, Aafreedi discussed ‘minority’ status for Maharashtra’s Jews, Jewish
amity with Indian Muslims – and ‘intolerance’:
does ‘minority’ status now mean to Jews in Maharashtra?
official recognition of the separate identity of Indian Jews – the proportion
of Jews in India’s total population being a mere 0.0004%.
India are the only two countries in the world where Jews lived for centuries in
peace with non-Jewish neighbours because of the non-proselytising nature of
major religions in these countries. Also, these countries never felt threatened
by Jews because of Judaism’s non-proselytising nature.
Jews ceased to exist as a result of complete assimilation – Indian Jews, on the
other hand, never lost their distinctive identity, helped by India’s endogamous
nature and its tolerance.
that Indian Jews maintained their identity and, in their small way, prospered,
is an impressive example of their tenacity.
you tell us about some contributions made by Jews in India?
most of the earliest female stars of Indian cinema were Jewish, like Sulochana,
Pramila, Rose, Romila – of all the ethnic and religious groups in India, the
earliest female film stars came from a minority within India’s smallest
Baghdadis, one of the three Jewish communities in India, completely anglicised
themselves. The only other similar community was the Parsis. But Parsi women
were not the first to boldly act in films, braving all the risks involved – the
initiative was taken by Baghdadi Jewish women.
Jews also played an important role in the development of Mumbai and Kolkata. A
Bene Israel Jew, Nissim Ezekiel, is widely acknowledged as the father of
India’s modern English poetry. Lt Gen J F R Jacob played a crucial role in
India’s war with Pakistan in 1971 – which led to the liberation of Bangladesh.
three challenges faced by the Jewish community in India today?
continuity of their centuries’ old presence in India – numbers are dwindling
with migration to Israel. Secondly, preservation of cultural heritage and
lastly, striking a balance between their eternal yearning for the Promised
Land, Israel, and their love for India – their home.
Indian Jews think of Palestine’s demand for statehood?
other community, Indian Jews are not a monolith – members hold different points
of view on this.
Brexit and Donald Trump are tom-tomming terms like ‘outsiders’ in political
discourse – how does India compare?
stands out – it’s always welcomed ‘others’, though the phenomenon involved was Swikriti
(acceptance) rather than equality, as Amartya Sen points out.
was kind enough to open her doors freely to those seeking refuge. In the 1930s,
hundreds of German and East European Jews were given refuge in India. Nehru
persuaded the British government for this and made the Indian Medical Council
recognise Continental medical qualifications to enable refugee doctors to
grateful refugees introduced new industries to India. During World War II,
Polish and other European Jews also escaped Hitler and took shelter here.
India’s grappled with an ‘intolerance’ debate – your views.
debates only strengthen democracy – these should be welcomed.
democracy’s prerequisites is awareness of cultural, religious and ethnic
diversity – lest democracy turns into majoritarianism.
celebrate plurality – this can be done only by promoting minority studies
though. I lament the absence of Jewish studies in India. In contrast to India,
China – that doesn’t even have a Jewish community any more – has Jewish studies
as an academic discipline.
other communities influenced Indian Jews?
India’s produced beautiful examples of Jewish-Muslim amity – not found anywhere
else in the world.
close associations, Bene Israel Jews adopted a number of Islamic terms – like
the word Masjid for synagogue and Namaz for prayers.
synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in India are looked after by Muslims. Most
students in India’s two Jewish-run schools are Muslims. The only assistant
professor of Hebrew in India is a devout Muslim, Khurshid Imam. The most
prominent Hebrew calligrapher of India is a Muslim, Thoufeek Zakriya. The only
engraver of Jewish tombstones for Maharashtra is a Muslim, Muhammad Abdul
Arab-Israel conflict failed to dent cordial relations of Indian Jews and