Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel, descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. An ethnoreligious group is an ethnic group unified by a common religion. Much like other Indigenous tribes worldwide, Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, and religion/spirituality (Judaism) are inextricable from each other.
Our history dates back some 4000 years, and, as such, we were one of the oldest tribes in the world. In fact, the word “tribe,” which comes from “tribus” in Latin, was first used to refer to the twelve Israelite tribes.
It’s worth noting that the term “Jews” and “Judaism” do not come from a faith but rather, from a place: specifically, the Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587 BCE), one of the two Israelite kingdoms after the split of the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel in 930 BCE.
The fact that modern-day Jews descend from the ancient Israelites should not be up for debate (unfortunately, because of deep-seeded antisemitism and propaganda surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, it is). Archeological evidence, a plethora of genetic studies (“Jewish” DNA is among the most studied in the world), historical record, and the continuity of Jewish culture all conclusively tie the origins — and very identity — of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.
Hindus are the world’s third largest religious group after Christians and Muslims, with some 1.2 to 1.35 billion adherents around the globe. Hinduism is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and includes a large number of denominations, deities, and scriptures. Like Judaism, Hinduism is not a religion in the western sense, but is also a cultural identity. Though Hinduism is many thousands of years old, self-identification of Hindus as one people or religious group probably emerged during the Muslim invasions of the 12th century, as anyone that was not Muslim or Turkic in origin came to be known as “Hindu.” Like Jews, Hindus do not proselytize.
Differentiation between Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains is a modern, European-in-origin construct; for example, Jains sometimes worship Hindu deities, and intermarriages amongst the three groups, as well as Sikhs, have been common throughout history. The majority of the world’s Hindus — over 94 percent — live in India.
Relations between the Israelites and Hindus date back to antiquity, over 3000 years ago, particularly in the area of trade. In fact, it is one of the longest trade links between two civilizations to ever exist.
The Torah mentions the sale of animals such as monkeys and peacocks; modern geographical analysis tells us that these animals likely came from India.
Cultural communication and trade between the Land of Israel and India is mentioned in the “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” an ancient Greco-Roman first-hand account outlining navigation and trading opportunities from a number of ports along the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean. This document is around 2000 years old.
We know from the Talmud that Jews had trade relations with India during the Babylonian period (587 BCE and onwards). This trade relationship continued well into the Middle Ages, with nearly a thousand letters dated between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries attesting to the relationship between both communities. This relationship continued into the eighteenth century and has never fully been severed.
Of course, the relationship was never limited to trade but included cultural exchange as well. Interestingly, philologists have discovered various Tamil and Sanskrit loan words in the Tanakh. More recently, a 1778 document describes a London Jew — a Kohen (i.e. of the inherited priestly class) — who became a Hindu as he wished to marry a Hindu woman that he met during his travels; however, he had decided that he wished to return to Judaism. Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (1713-1793), Chief Rabbi of Prague, wrote: “after a Kohen repents he may fulfill all the functions of a Kohen…[his conversion] does not make him an apostate. He did so only because otherwise the woman would not have agreed to marry him.”
There are various sub-groups of Indian Jews. Groups recognized as Jews by the Jewish community at large include the Bene Israel, Cochin Jews, various sub-groups of Sephardic Jews who arrived while fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, and Baghdadi Jews, originally Iraqi Jews who settled in India beginning in the eighteenth century. Two other groups, the Bene Menashe and Bene Ephraim, claim descent from the Lost Tribes, though those claims are fairly recent and historically unlikely. Genetic testing shows no evidence of Israelite ancestry. As such, they must undergo conversion to be considered members of the Jewish community.
The Bene Israel (meaning “sons of Israel”) are the oldest Indian Jewish community, having arrived over 2000 years ago. In India, Bene Israel are known as “Shanivar Teli,” or “Saturday oil-presser,” as that was traditionally their position. According to their oral tradition, their ancestors fled colonizer violence in the Land of Israel. They were shipwrecked off the coast of India, which marked the beginnings of their community. This legend is actually included in my book!
The Bene Israel and Cochin Jews maintained their culture, traditions, and beliefs while also easily fitting into Hindu society. Indian Jews played a large role in early Bollywood, with some of the biggest stars being Jewish.
Most Indian Jews have since migrated to Israel. Today only around 5000 recognized Jews remain in India; however, this was not due to persecution, but rather, due to Zionist sentiment.
PROTECTING EACH OTHER
Hindus have never persecuted Jews, something that is virtually unheard of in Jewish history. In fact, India has no “indigenous” history of antisemitism.
The first recorded incidents of antisemitism in India came at the hands of Portuguese Catholic colonists in the sixteenth century.
The “Jewish copper plates of Cochin” are a royal charter issued by the King of Kerala in South India, dated to around 1000 CE. The decree promises to protect the local Jewish community “as long as the sun and moon endure.”
India took some 2000-5000 Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, between 1938-1947, though much of India was still under British rule at the time. These refugees were generally highly skilled and thus were able to find jobs in the arts, service industry, and especially in the medical field; they acclimated well to Indian society and contributed to it positively. However, since most of the refugees came from Germany, the British suspected them of Nazism and as such initially held them in internment camps with actual Nazis.
India took two Kindertransports, including one with 1000 Jewish children from Poland, thanks primarily to the efforts of Maharaja Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar, who had heard that the refugees were being held in Soviet gulags. The Maharaja’s clan claims descent from Krishna, a Hindu deity. The children in the Kindertransport traveled via the Soviet Union through Tehran, Karachi (then a part of India), Suez, and finally reached Palestine, where the British held them in Atlit concentration camp.
Though many of the refugees eventually left India, others stayed and married Hindus and Sikhs.
The period between 1947-1949 was a difficult period both in India and Israel-Palestine. The 1947 Partition of India resulted in the death of up to two million people and the displacement of 10-20 million people, the largest recorded mass displacement in history. Among the displaced were the Jews of the new state, Pakistan, who fled to India in fear of Pakistan’s rapid policies of Islamization.
Likewise, in November 1947, the United Nations voted in favor of partitioning the British Mandate for Palestine into one Jewish and one Arab state. Though Jews accepted the plan, the Arabs did not, murdering Jews in Yemen, Syria, and Palestine the very next day. The day after Israel declared its independence in May 1948, a coalition of Arab states invaded the newly independent nation. This war resulted in the deaths of 6000 Jews (with many more outside of Israel) and 5000-13,000 Palestinians, as well as the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians and 850,000 Jews.
After the Partition of India, some 1300 Jews remained in Pakistan. However, virtually all of them fled during and after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, as many Pakistani Muslims retaliated against the Jewish community.
Leading up to the partition of Palestine, the Afghani Jewish community fled Afghanistan in fear of antisemitic violence. They were given temporary refuge in India, until they were able to reach Israel.
Though both have survived multiple instances of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and forced conversions to Christianity and Islam, Jews and Hindus have never oppressed each other.
Though India voted against the creation of Israel, Hindu nationalists who advocated for a unified Indian state (as opposed to partition, which killed two million and displaced another 10-20 million) were supportive of Zionism.
In February 2007, the first Jewish-Hindu interfaith summit was held in New Delhi. There, the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel stated: “Jews have lived in India for over 2000 years and have never been discriminated against. This is something unparalleled in human history.”
Many of the leading scholars in the linguistics of Sanskrit literature and the study of Dharmic religions are of Jewish descent. Some people of mixed Jewish-Hindu heritage profess adherence to both Judaism and Hinduism, calling themselves “HinJews.” While this might seem confusing, some Hindu scriptures are actually monotheistic. For example, many Jews supplement traditional Hasidic musical meditation with yoga. According to expert in South Asian studies Barbara Holdrege, the Torah and the Vedas both are similar in that they “are portrayed not merely as restricted corpus of texts, but as a multileveled cosmic reality that encircle both historical and transmundane dimensions.”
Today India and Israel have very strong bilateral relations.
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