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Tracking the Migration of Indian Jews to Israel

Photo: Maina Singh

Maina Singh

The inevitable question is asked.

“Are you Jewish?”

You can’t blame people for wondering. When Maina Singh visits synagogues, universities, and Jewish community centers around the country discussing her new book Being Indian, Being Israeli: Migration, Ethnicity and Gender in the Jewish Homeland, she displays such a deep understanding and appreciation for Indian Jewry that it often surprises audiences to learn that she is not a child of Israel.

The Delhi native did, however, live there. From 2005 to 2008 Singh travelled throughout the country researching the migration of first-generation Indian Jews. Today there are an estimated 70,000 Israeli Jews of Indian origin.

“One of the things that fascinated me was the kind of pride that these people had in their collective memory,” said Singh, the Clendenen scholar in residence at American University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Jews of Indian origin have lived in India for up to 2,000 years. They have been welcomed by other Indian communities. They have always lived in mixed neighborhoods, which is a very unusual Jewish experience.

“I went to cultural community programs of the Indian Jewish community. There would be two flags on the stage: the Indian flag and the Israeli flag. Now these people are not dual citizens. They left India 40 years ago. But they have a very warm respect for a country which housed them and hosted them. They appreciate the fact that India never had any anti-Semitism, and they were never subjected to anything because of their Jewish identity. To this day, many Indian Jews of the first generation say ‘India is our motherland, Israel is our fatherland.’”

While the majority of the migration took place in the 1960s, at no point was it a mass exodus.

“It was a very gradual process, because if you’re not living in a hostile environment then why would you want to move?” Singh said. “They were Zionists. They were attracted by the idea of a Jewish homeland. They were moving from one home to another.”

Once they arrived in Israel, many Indians found life to be difficult.

“Many when they came did experience a singling out as Indian,” she said. “Some of them have stories of the initial years when they faced a color bias. The bulk of Indian Jews who came were urban or suburban people. They had white collar jobs. But when they were settled in Israel, they settled in agricultural communities. So many of them faced a downward mobility in that sense.”

Singh points to those early years as a reason why Indian Israelis generally have not risen to the top of the country’s economic and social strata.

“Indian Jews are in the army, many work in the service industry, in hotels, in banks,” she said. “But they have no member of the Knesset. They have never had a really senior general of the Israeli army. In many ways they feel a distinction, because they came from a distinct culture and a distinct heritage which is not Arabic.”

Yet, in the more than 150 interviews comprising the backbone of her research, not once did Singh encounter a person who said they wished they never had come.

“I was amazed and very touched at the welcome I received when I said I wanted to study their stories,” she said. “They had this sense of feeling very highly, almost privileged, that their stories have been seen as worth documenting. I was quite overwhelmed at the affection and welcome that I received as people shared their stories and connected me to other people.”

Singh, a professor at the University of Delhi, came to AU when her husband, the former Indian ambassador to Israel, was transferred to the embassy in Washington. Part of her heart remains in Israel, where she plans to return to write a second book on the specific migration experiences of Indian Jewish women.

Living in Israel “was totally fascinating,” she said. “I didn’t know enough about Israel, so I kept discovering more and more. This is a small country but a very diverse and very complex one. Sixty kilometers between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is a world of difference. I not only enjoyed the experience of living there, but also of observing. I consider myself very fortunate.”