The Jews of India and the Ten Lost Tribes

February 13, 2012 3:18 pm 3 comments

David Sassoon Library, Mumbai. Photo: wiki commons.

There are 5 distinct Jewish communities in India – the Cochin Jews, Bene Israel, the Baghdadi Jews, Bnei Menashe and Bene Ephraim.

The Cochin Jews are the oldest Jewish group living in India and claim to have first arrived in Cochin, which is now part of the South Indian state of Kerala, around the time of King Solomon.

More Jews arrived in Cochin following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E and in 379 CE, the Hindu king, Sira Primal, gave permission for Jews to own property and practice their religion freely there. In fact, these rulings were eventually codified on a set of copper plates. Some Sephardi Jews who fled persecution in the Iberian Peninsula arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries and later became known as Paradesi Jews.

In 1524, the Jews of Cranganore (Southwest India) fled to Cochin after Muslims attacked them for having a perceived advantage in the pepper trade. The Hindu Raja of Cochin gave them asylum and in addition exempted Jews from taxation. The Pardesi Synagogue in Cochin (Kochi) was built in 1568 and is the oldest synagogue in the British Commonwealth.

Bene Israel comprises the largest Jewish community in India. They claim to be descendents of the Jews who escaped persecution in Galilee.  There are at least 20,000 Bene Israel in Israel and most of them live in the town of Beersheva.

Baghdadi Jews trace their origins to Iraq as well as other Middle Eastern countries and before emigrating to Israel and the U.S. in large numbers, they were mainly based around the city of Bombay (Mumbai). David Sassoon was a key member in this community, helping to build several synagogues in addition to donations given to Jewish and public institutions. The David Sassoon Docks and Sassoon Library are some of the famous Jewish landmarks still standing today in India.

Bnei Menashe claim to be descendents from Manasseh, one of the ten Lost Tribes of Israel. There are approximately 9,000 Bnei Menashe in the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur. Based on a 2005 ruling by Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of Israel’s two chief rabbis, Bnei Menashe are allowed to enter Israel under Israel’s Law of Return. At least 7,200 Bnei Menashe plan to immigrate to Israel after undergoing a conversion process.

The Bene Ephraim are a small Jewish community who speak Telugu and live in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

There are claims that the 40 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan descended from Ephraim, one of the ten Lost Tribes of Israel (the Taliban are made up of mostly Pashtun militants). An Indian research fellow collected blood samples for an Israeli Foreign Ministry funded study at Technion University in Israel to test these claims. A  British researcher had also attempted to collect DNA for a similar study. Both studies appear to have not been carried out successfully due to security related reasons.

All the Jewish communities of India are in danger of disappearing mainly due to immigration to Israel and partly due to conversion and inter-marriage. The number of Indian Jews living in Israel ranges from 70,000 to 85,000, making up approximately 1% of Israel’s total population.

3 Comments

  • The Cochin Jews are the oldest Jewish community (living in the same place) in the world — as an Indian, I am very proud that they have been with us for more than 3000 years!
    I hope & pray that they will be in India forever — they are part of the Indian story.

  • Nissim Moses Bene Israel Historian

    Dear Mr Lakkana Nanayakkara,

    There are about 70,000 Bene Israel living in Israel today and another 20,000 in other places in the world like USA, UK, Australia, Canada etc. The Bene Israel community has large section of its population in several cities like Beersheba, Dimona, Kiryat Gat, Ashdod, Ashquelon. Kiryat Atta, Nazerath, Kiryat Shemona, Yerucham, Lod, Ramle, Petah Tiqwa, Haifa, Jerusalem and several other locations. The Bene Israel form the major single Jewish community of Indian Jews in Israel and not the others. Further it is the Bene Israel who have promoted and popularized Indian Music Dance and other cultural and sports activity in Israel (like cricket,badminton bollywood dance & pop songs and Indian cuisne like Batta Vada, Bajias, Sammossas Chutney etc.) Further itas a Bene Israel (the undersigned) who Established the first Liaison office in India on behalf of and Israeli Company in India & was the primer in the defence relations between India & Israel
    Regards
    Nissim Moses

    • wayne croning

      Dear Mr. Moses,

      My name is wayne croning; I was born in Karachi, Pakistan.Now living in Canada. There were many Jews living in karachi before Partition. Many left for Israel and other countries after this period. My mother is looking for an old classmate who was Jewish by the name of Kay Isaacs (or Isaacson). We think she may be living in Israel in the Bene Israel community. If you can help us get in contact with her that would be wonderful. She will be about mid 70 or so in age and her surname may have changed now. Truly appreciate your help.
      Shalom and thanks,
      wayne croning

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