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The contribution of Indian Jews to Israel


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The contribution of Indian Jews to Israel

Little do the people of Israel and world Jewry know that the Jews of India, known as Bene Israel, were actively involved with fructifying their dream of a return to Zion way back from about 1830. By NISSIM MOSES  AUGUST 12, 2020 14:58 The visit of the Kamarlekar family to Jerusalem in about 1902 (photograph…

Little do the people of Israel and world Jewry know that the Jews of India, known as Bene Israel, were actively involved with fructifying their dream of a return to Zion way back from about 1830.

By NISSIM MOSES
 

AUGUST 12, 2020 14: 58

The visit of the Kamarlekar family to Jerusalem in about 1902 (photograph enhanced and colored by Nissim Moses) (photo credit: Courtesy)

The visit of the Kamarlekar family to Jerusalem in about 1902 (photograph enhanced and colored by Nissim Moses)

(photo credit: Courtesy)



Little do the people of Israel and world Jewry know that the Jews of India, known as Bene Israel, were actively involved with fructifying their dream of a return to Zion way back from about 1830.

The Bene Israel played an important role in the creation and development of modern Israel from before the establishment of the state in 1948. They participated in activities in support of Jews suffering during the pogroms in Czarist Russia. They were also the first to revive the teaching of spoken Hebrew as a second language at the matriculation and collegiate level in India, way before Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who started in only 1880.

Bene Israel community members visited Jerusalem and Israel from the late 1800s and early 1900s. They donated money toward building a well and plaque at Rachel’s Tomb and they served in Indian contingents during World War I in Palestine.

After World War II, Lt. Ellis Ashton of the 3rd Maratha Light Infantry Regiment became a prominent fighter in the Hagana and given the code-name “Hodi” (meaning Indian in Hebrew). He smuggled in Polish Jewish refugees to Israel through Iraq, issuing them false documents and raiding British arms and weapons depots. He made the “ultimate sacrifice” and was killed in action when he was betrayed by a spy in the Hagana to the British, and was posthumously honored with a medal for gallantry and service to the State of Israel.

His story is one of many other unpublicized stories of assistance given in the past to Israel by Indian Jews. Two brothers, Col. Gabriel Ashton and Maj. Jacky Ashton, rose to senior positions in the IDF just after Israel’s independence. Today, more than seven senior well-known retired officers of the Indian Armed Forces who were from various Indian Jewish communities live in Israel. In addition, some 135 Indian Jewish youth made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of Israel. Many Bene Israel have risen to senior ranks in the Israeli army and other fields in spite of rampant discrimination. In India, the Bene Israel community and people – because of their tact and pleasantness – lived unharmed among all communities in total harmony with their neighbors as Jews and rose to the highest rank in India in every field – never being harmed or persecuted by antisemites.

Indian Jewish communities have produced distinguished person in every field. Our doctors, teachers, engineers, architects, lawyers and military officers were the leading personnel in their fields.

In the early part of the 20th century, many Bene Israel became active in the new film industry, as actors, producers and directors. After Israel was established, most Bene Israel moved to the Jewish state. Today there are an estimated 5,000 members of Bene Israel left in India, while the community in Israel numbers more than 60,000.

They were the only community that returned to Israel of their own free will, and not because of a need for survival. 

The writer is a historian and genealogist of the Bene Israel community of India

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