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'If Israel is in our hearts, India is in our blood': Indian Jews

July 04, 2017 08:52 IST

While they have never faced any form of discrimination in India, Indian Jews say a minority status for Jews is among their foremost expectations from Prime Minister Modi's visit to Israel.

IMAGE: Jewish Rabbi Ezekiel Markel at the Judah Hyam Synagogue in New Delhi.
Approximately 6,000 Indian Jews live in the country and enjoy a minority status in Maharashtra.
Photograph: Kamal Kishore/PTI Photo

India's small community of Jews is looking forward to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Israel -- the first ever by an Indian prime minister -- hoping that it will lead to Jews being granted a minority status in India.

Some 6,000 Indian Jews live in the country, which has been home to the community for the past 2,000 years.

Jews are spread across cities in West Bengal, Maharashtra, Kerala and Gujarat, apart from Delhi.

The community says while they have never faced any form of discrimination in India because of their religion, a minority status for Jews is among their foremost expectations from the prime minister's visit, which starts on July 4.

"We look forward to the PM's visit and hope that a minority status is conferred upon the community," says Ezekiel Markel, the rabbi (priest) at the Judah Hyam Synagogue in Delhi, the only synagogue in the national capital.

In Maharashtra, Rabbi Markel says, Jews have been recognised as a minority, and a similar step should be taken at the central level.

Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Jains are currently notified as minority communities in India.

The community, he adds, has not faced anti-Semitism in India.

"For us, India is our motherland. We are Indians first and Jews second. If Israel is in our hearts, India is in our blood," he says.

IMAGE: Rabbi Markel blows into the Shofar, an ancient musical horn made of ram's horn, used for Jewish religious rites, at the Judah Hyam Synagogue, New Delhi.
Photograph: Kamal Kishore/PTI Photo

The rabbi's views are echoed by Queenie Hallegua, one of only five Jews inhabiting the Mattacherry area in Kochi.

Jews who chose to move to Israel did not leave India because of persecution, she stresses.

"They were all very happy, they were all well settled. But they desired to live in their own country and die there," she says.

Kolkata resident A M Cohen stresses the need for more direct flights between India and Israel.

"I want that during this visit both countries should take initiatives to start more direct flights from India to Israel, so that it becomes easier for us to visit our families and friends there," she says.

Navras J Aafreedi, an assistant professor at Presidency University in Kolkata, who specialises in Jewish studies, says there are about 26 Jewish families left in Kolkata.

Modi's Israel trip, besides strengthening ties on the defence, agriculture and medical fronts, should lead to enhanced cultural exchanges between the two countries, Jonathan Solomon, chairman of the Indian Jewish Federation in Mumbai, says.

"We feel honoured that our prime minister should take the trouble of visiting a small country. It speaks volumes about his intentions and of the goodwill that the two nations share," he adds.

The Mumbai advocate says he expects New Delhi to render "all possible help" in preserving the Jewish community's links with Israel.

"The next generations should know the rich history that binds Jews in Israel and India," he says.

IMAGE: Jews Street, Mattancherry, Kochi. Photograph: PTI Photo

Rabbi Markel believes that while Jews are "a microscopic minority community, a drop in the ocean" in India, their contribution to the country's development in agriculture, cinema, medical science and other fields must be recalled.

He also hopes that the visit will lead to increased student exchange programmes to enable the younger generation to "learn about the cultures and teachings in both countries."

An improved "people to people contact" between the two countries is what Ian Zachariah, a retired advertising executive in Kolkata, hopes for.

Hallegua of Mattacherry says her relatives in Israel have told her that over 4,000 people of Indian origin are expected to attend Modi's meeting with Indian Jews there.

"That is something wonderful. They have made arrangements from every state. Names and phone numbers of people from every state have been given so that those who wish to attend the meeting can be transported to the venue," she says.

Asked why she did not leave for Israel when her relatives did, she says, "You have to learn Hebrew, which is difficult. And I am too old to start life there. I am happy here."

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