The Cochin Mizrahi

'In India I was a Jew, in Israel I am an Indian.' These words of a Cochin Jew, now an Israeli citizen, sum up the collective experience of a miniscule minority that had lived for centuries in India before its departure to the 'promised land' in far-off Palestine. The Cochin Jews had been an indelible part of the Subcontinent, though no one knows exactly when or how the community came to inhabit the Malabar coast. According to legend, the Cochin Jews came to the Subcontinent from Israel during the reign of King Solomon, during the 10th century BC. It is also possible that this community was made up of ethnic Southasians who adopted Judaism – though in order to adhere to the popular narrative, this review will stick to the premise that the Jews of Cochin migrated to the region.

A very religious community whose existence revolved around the synagogue, the Jews of Cochin did slowly incorporate many local Hindu Malayali customs. Still, it generally kept a low profile. Testimony to the fact that these people led peaceful, if uneventful, lives is that the state of Israel has officially acknowledged India to be one of the few countries without any record of anti-Semitism, though Jews have lived within the country's modern borders for almost two millennia.

Nonetheless, when the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, urged Jews around the world to migrate to their promised land after the country's establishment in 1948, the Jews of Cochin were some of the first to respond. Some even came back later to exhume the mortal remains of their relatives and transport them for burial in Israel. What motivated this mass departure, and how did they fare in their new homeland? These are the central questions tackled in The Jews of Cochin in Israel, which began as a doctoral thesis but has become one of the few detailed studies on the issue.

'The Jews of Cochin in Israel: Ethnicity, marginality and identity' by Ginu Zacharia Oommen. Manak Publications, 2011
'The Jews of Cochin in Israel: Ethnicity, marginality and identity' by Ginu Zacharia Oommen. Manak Publications, 2011

The first Jews and Zionists to arrive in Palestine from the diaspora were those from Europe, known as the Ashkenazim. Ginu Zacharia Oommen, now a researcher at the Indian Council of World Affairs in Delhi, traces how the Ashkenazim came to dominate the political, economic and socio-cultural scene in Israel, which meant that European culture and values were imposed on Israeli society – a primary example being the imposition of socialism. The Law of Return – the 1950 legislation that allowed any person of Jewish origin Israeli citizenship – motivated thousands of Jews settled in Arab and other Asian countries to migrate to Israel, both for greener pastures and also for reasons of security. Known as the Mizrahi, Oommen writes, these Jews 'were not Israel's first choice but there was no alternative than to accept them.' As immigration of Jews from Europe decreased, 'Zionist leaders … changed their position in order to satisfy the economic, demographic and military needs of the newly created state with its Ashkenazim elite. The immigrants came to Israel with their different norms, culture, values and lifestyle.' Perhaps inevitably, this led to issues of assimilation underpinning Israeli society.

The Mizrahi have always been viewed by the Ashkenazim as culturally, religiously and intellectually inferior. Hence, for instance, Golda Meir referred to Jewish migrants from Yemen this way: 'We do not want Yemenite way of life. We shall bring the immigrants to Israel and make them human beings.' It is within this context that the assimilation of Cochin Jews in Israel needs to be viewed.

Moshav relegation

It is to Oommen's credit that he was able to conduct extensive interviews with Cochin Jews in Israel, for which his Malayali roots most likely helped. (Oomen, a Malayali himself (belonging to the Syrian Christian Church), has been interested in diasporic studies as his home-state, Kerala, has generated a significant overseas diaspora.) Accessing data that tells of a community's marginalisation is never easy. Historian Ilan Pappe has told this reviewer that 'human engineering' (for instance, they underwent months, if not years, of being taught facial exercises in order to get rid of their Arabic accent and learn to speak Hebrew as the Ashkenazim did) was conducted on the Mizrahi Jews by the state of Israel, in pursuit of its policy of homogenising Israeli society – where homogenisation meant mainstreaming Western culture and values. The outcome, Oommen writes, was 'the marginalisation of the Mizrahi in the cultural sphere and the discrimination against them in the economic sphere.'

How did the Cochin Jews fare within this hierarchy? Jewish immigration to Israel is considered unique by the Israeli intelligentsia, as it is purported to be based on ideology rather than economic imperatives that migration usually implies. Oommen's contention, however, is that the migration of the Cochin Jews factored in both considerations. In 1948 there were about 2500 Cochin Jews living in India; currently there are no more than 30. At the time of Independence, the Cochin Jewish community were divided into Malabaree and Pardesi Jews; the former, who are the subject of Oommen's study, were economically disadvantaged and with low levels of education. Oommen records that 'the great majority of Malabaree Jews were poor, chiefly engaged as fishermen, book binders, peddlers, petty traders, wood choppers and unskilled labourers. The first group left for Israel in December 1949 … consisting of 17 families of around 100 people.' By the mid-1960s, most of the Cochin Jews had migrated to Israel 'except for a few well-to-do families'.

The Malabaree Jews were not involved in the Zionist movement until their arrival in Israel. Neither did they know Hebrew. Indeed, they were greeted in Israel with an unexpected welcome, being sprayed with disinfectant. Perceived to be primitive and poor, they were put in mabaarot, or transit camps, for much longer than the Ashkenazim had been, and were then settled in unfertile, hostile environs in the Negev Desert and near border areas. This isolation, Oommen writes, inevitably 'limited the Cochin Jews' potential economic, social and cultural participation.'

In the beginning, in addition to their low levels of education and lack of knowledge of Hebrew, the community was handicapped by its cultural differences, extreme religiosity (unlike the Ashkenazim, most of whom considered themselves relatively secular) and lack of connections within the Ashkenazim elite. They were first assigned to agriculture and, when that failed for many, to lowly paid jobs within the remote moshavs (cooperative agricultural towns), where they settled. Oommen writes, 'the settlement authorities, suspecting that the Jews of Cochin carried contagious diseases, forced them to settle in remote areas. Most of the Cochini Moshavs had no proper water supply and electricity in the beginning.' He continues: 'One of the Cochini settlements, Kefar Yuval, is on the Israeli Lebanon border, where they had a horrific life due to the enemy raids from Lebanon. In late 1970s, [Lebanese] attacked the Moshav and around ten Cochinis were killed.'

Over the years, the situation has improved. Domicile in Israel, the assertion of Mizrahi power after decades of neglect, and the community's increasing participation in the country's political life have helped to improve Mizrahi status, though the Ashkenazim remain the dominant group in Israel. But although their status has been improving, this has yet to translate into significant integration into Israeli political, economic or cultural life, and the Cochin Jews remain a marginalised community in their promised land.

Winter in Malabar

Today, however, a younger generation that was born and grew up in Israel has helped to instil a level of self-confidence and pride in the Cochin Jewish identity. They were indeed Jews in India but they remain Indians in Israel. With the establishment of full-fledged diplomatic ties between India and Israel in 1992, and with bi-lateral relations improving dramatically since then, the Cochin Jews have begun to assert their distinctive cultural identity.

The community had lived in India for over two millennia; while extremely religious, it was but inevitable that local Hindu customs would creep into its practice. Thus, community members continued to remove their shoes when entering the synagogue. Married women wore the mangalsutra, the marriage thread; on important festivals such as Passover, Cochin Jews touched the feet of their elders, seeking blessings. In Israel, while some of these customs have disappeared, others remain. Many Cochin Jews, for instance, still speak Malayali, listen to Malayali music and watch Malayali television. More wonderfully the Cochin Jews also remain one of the few communities in Israel whose members do not pack off their parents to homes for the elderly, preferring to have the latter live with them.

With the deepening of Indo-Israeli relations, and with a large number of Israeli tourists visiting India, many Cochin Jews have also begun to travel to their former homeland. Some now prefer to spend the winter months in the warmer climes of the Malabar coast, while others have bought property in Kerala. The Indian government decision in 2003 to grant dual citizenship especially for the community has been particularly welcomed by many.

Oommen's book is rich in data, culled from both primary and secondary sources, and he has ably explained the complex nuances of Israeli society. Still, a simplistic leftist bias seems to pervade parts of The Jews of Cochin in Israel, resulting in generalised references to Israel's 'fascist ideology' and it being described as a 'colonial settler state'. Nation-building has never been an easy proposition, especially while fashioning societies of multi-cultural and multi-racial groups. Racial and cultural tensions will be an integral part of such an enterprise. The status of different, especially marginalised communities, has been steadily improving in Israel, and it is important to give credit where it is due. And of course, no 'Fascist state' would have allowed Oommen to conduct the kind of research and field work that Israel did. In addition, while data analysis based on questionnaires is a sound way to collect information and the statistics presented are impressive, the inclusion of more case studies and personal narratives could have imbued the work with a richer human element. Nonetheless, in offering perhaps the most in-depth exploration of this tiny community yet available, Oommen's work merits attention in both Israel and our region.

~ Aditi Bhaduri is an independent journalist and researcher based in Delhi.

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