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.
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.