When you think of Israeli, what image pops into your mind? Is it a tanned person with dark hair, and a bowl of hummus in their hand? Did their family migrate from Poland or Hungary? For me, as an average American Jew, the Ashkenazi Jew was where my mind went when picturing Israelis, but I was wrong. Right now, in addition to the many different types of Jews such as Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Russian, and Ethiopian, there are over 80,000 Indian Jews living in Israel, serving in the military, holding leadership positions, and running companies. Upon the establishment of the Jewish state, 25,000 Jews left India to live in the land of Israel. However, when they left India, they left to make their people proud and still identify strongly with their motherland.
On December 1st, Dr. Maina Singh, author of the book “Being Indian, Being Israeli: Migration, Ethnicity and Gender in the Jewish Homeland” came to speak to CAMERA-supported group Realize Israel at NYU and NYU Shruti on what it means to be an Indian Jew. While working in Israel as a Diplomat’s wife, she had the chance to conduct outreach with the Indian Jewish community and learn about the history of the Indian community in Israel and conduct her research. Fascinated by the contrasting environments of ultra conservative Jerusalem and the “gay-capital of the world” Tel Aviv, she immersed herself into the diversity of Israel’s population. Dr. Singh’s research was based on her interest in the Indian diaspora communities and what happens to a population once they leave home to go to an adopted homeland, and how it impacts upon their identity.
India’s Jewish community is nearly 2,000 years old and prides itself on being the only country without a history of persecution of Jews. The migration of these Jews was extremely powerful as they were not moving out of fear, the way many others making Aliyah were. Their travel to Israel was in search of housing, opportunity and a return to a “fatherland” that they have a deep connection to. The meaning of the Jewish diaspora to Indian Jews is vastly different than it is to American or European Jews.
In Israel, these Indian Jews created tight-knit communities that embraced both Indian and Israeli customs. This community of Jews feels at home in their motherland of India, but also thrives in their “fatherland” of Israel, leading to a unique intersectionality of the population being connected to Israel through their Jewish identities, but also celebratory of their Indian culture. Dr. Singh noted duel citizenship creates a sense of identity and belonging for many people, but in India, you can’t have a dual citizenship. Those populations leaving for Israel forfeit their Indian citizenship to become citizens in the land that their ancestors called home, but this does not mean they lose their connection to India. The celebration of Indian customs and rituals thrives in Indian Jewish communities in Israel (even if they may have lost their formal citizenship), and while Indian Jews will serve in the Israeli Defense Forces and will marry outside of their communities, they always stay connected to their Indian Jewish roots.
The Indian Jewish population in Israel challenges the perception of the Jewish diaspora as they have two places that they proudly call home. There is a beautiful connection between the Israeli and Indian Jewish communities that allows for groups like Realize Israel and NYU Shruti to come together through a unique common thread and build relationships. As one NYU student said, “To have two very distinct communities come together to learn about our similarities through the lens of Israel was an amazing experience. Events like these rarely happen on a college campus and I have heard incredibly positive things from both the Shruti and Realize Israel clubs that were present.” A member of NYU Shruti noted, “Professor Singh’s lecture highlighted the importance of film, art, music, and dance in helping Israeli Indian community maintain their Indian origins. As an Indian American, I find myself holding onto my Indian roots through art and music as well.”
These opportunities enable two distinct groups to come together and find common ground that they may not have found otherwise, fostering a sense of compassion and understanding.
Contributed by Northeastern University CAMERA Fellow Kaila Fleisig.
This article was republished in the Algemeiner.