Israel's Indian Jews and their lives in the 'promised land'

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The Bene-Israeli cricket club in Beer Sheva

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just left India after a six-day official visit during which the two countries heralded a "new era" in ties. BBC Hindi's Zubair Ahmed travelled to Beersheba in Israel to meet a community of Indian-origin Jews who migrated there soon after the nation's creation.

Naor Gudekar is 61-years-old, but he is still a fighting fit cricketer. He is also the administrator of Israel's first cricket club, which was founded by immigrant Indians like him 65 years ago in the desert city of Beersheba.

Mr Gudekar is overseeing a practice session for the club team when we arrive at the grounds in what is a decidedly nicer part of the town.

Around 20 people of varying ages are gathered there, some playing cricket while others are there just to socialise. All of them are Bene Israelis - Jews of Indian origin.

The ancient Israeli city of Beersheba is home to thousands of Bene Israelis who migrated to the "promised land" soon after the state was created in 1948.

Mr Gudekar himself is now part of a growing clan. Some of them followed him from India, while others were born in Israel.

'Return to the promised land'

Most of the Bene Israeli population - thought to number around 80,000 - came from the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

A few who migrated in the 50s and 60s recall that before leaving India they were readied for their "return to the promised land" by being taught Hebrew and a few basic Jewish prayers.

But for many families, the migration did not go as smoothly as hoped.

Mr Gudekar says that like many others of his community, his family were discriminated against because of their darker skin colour and because they could not speak fluent Hebrew.

They were allotted an inferior home, built of asbestos, and tin. Mr Gudekar says his father often regretted leaving their life in India.

But, he says, going back was not an option as they had burned all their bridges with Mumbai.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
India still has a small Jewish community spread across the country

Dr Shalva Weil, who wrote a thesis on Bene Israelis and spent a lot of time with the community, said many of them had chosen to leave India as they were unsure how they would be treated in the newly independent state.

"Once India got independence I think Jews were anxious about their future. Don't forget Bene Israel received favours from the British. I think many of them were quite worried and, after all, they had always believed that Israel was their true Jewish home land."

But she agreed that the community faced discrimination as soon as they arrived in the country.

"I don't think people had seen Indians in the 1950s. They were the darkest group in Israel which seems extraordinary today," she said.

She said she spoke to people who alleged grocery shop owners would give them black bread, telling them that it was for black people.

"Of course it's very ironic, because today black bread is more in demand than white bread," she added.

But the biggest crisis faced by the community was in 1962, when a rabbinic council decreed that Bene Israelis would have to have their maternal ancestry investigated if they wanted to marry Jews from other communities.

Image source, AFP

Dr Weil said the community was up in arms. "They used to conduct sit-in strikes outside the chief rabbinate's office saying they were Jews for more than 2,000 years and had the right to marry who they wanted."

It took two years, but they finally succeeded in seeing their demands fulfilled.

Many in the community are much happier today, and intermarriage between Jews from various communities is now common.

Mr Gudekar's wife Elena, for instance, is Russian - and he says he has converted her into a cricket fan. His three young daughters are also ardent followers of the game, with one declaring herself an off-spin bowler.

And it's not just about being able to marry whomever they want.

Many hold prestigious jobs in the government and private sectors. They also run for local elections and are vocal supporters of Israeli foreign policy.

And while they do not teach their children Hindi, Marathi or any of the Indian languages they grew up speaking, many in Mr Gudekar's generation say they want to keep their link to India alive.

In addition to cricket, which they play in India team jerseys, many of them are avid watchers of Bollywood films, and have even opened Indian food restaurants across the country.

"We are both Israeli and Indian. India is our motherland and Israel our fatherland," he says proudly.

But Dr Weil believes that this may not be a feeling that extends to the younger generations of Bene Israelis.

"Bene Israelis feel more and more Israeli. If you look at younger people they act and sound like Israelis. They have little to do with their Indian roots," she says.

Correction 11 April 2018: This article has been amended after an earlier version stated incorrectly that in 1962 the chief rabbinate prohibited Bene Israelis from marrying Jews from other communities.