This Week in History: Indian summer in the Knesset

Tensions among Bene Israel community reach high, accusing Chief Rabbinate of discriminatory marriage stipulations.

BeneIsrael (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On August 16, 1964, the Knesset passed a resolution emphasizing its recognition of the Bene Israel Indians as Jews following a bitter conflict between the Rabbinate and the community over their Jewish identity. Bene Israel is the largest community of Indian Jews, and the Knesset called an emergency session over the "Bene Israel problem," focusing on obstacles placed by the Rabbinate in marrying members of the community to other Jews, based on doubts concerning their Halachic Jewishness. "The Israeli government reiterates that it sees the Bene Israel community from India as Jews… without any restrictions or differences, equal in their rights to all other Jews in all respects, including matters of matrimony," then-prime minister Levi Eshkol stated at the special Knesset session.
The Bene Israel, according to their tradition, were 14 survivors (seven men and seven women) of a shipwreck off the west coast of India, which occurred while they were escaping persecution in the Galilee in the second century BCE. It is not known exactly when they arrived in India or from where, but it is likely that they came from outside India over 1,300 years ago.
Isolated for many centuries from other Jews, they were called Shanwar Teli ("Saturday oilmen") by their neighbors because of their occupation as sesame oil pressers and their strict abstention from work on the Sabbath. They adhered to Kashrut, circumcision, recited the Shema in Hebrew and observed some festivals. Their centuries-long detachment from any other Jewish communities was at the root of some rabbis' concerns regarding intermarriage and mamzerism (offspring of specific, biblically prohibited moral deviances).
In the 18th century many Bene Israel moved from the villages to Mumbai and enlisted in the British Army where they were considered good soldiers and officers. Through contact with the Cochin Jews, 1,000 kilometers down the coast, the Bene Israel gained deeper knowledge of traditional Judaism. The Cochinis introduced them to cantorial singing and British Jews sent them prayer books.
The Baghdadi Jews' arrival in India in the 19th Century confirmed Bene Israel's return to the wider Jewish world, but also caused difficulties. At first the wealthier Baghdadis prayed in the Bene Israel synagogues, but they later built their own and severed communal ties with their hosts. The Baghdadis eventually shunned the Bene Israel, saying they were not Jewish according to the Halacha. To this day Bene Israel blame the Baghdadis for encouraging the doubts later expressed by the Chief Rabbinate regarding their Jewishness.Bene Israel immigration to Israel was gradual beginning even before the establishment of the state in 1948, peaking in 1954 and continuing throughout the 1960s, with active encouragement from the Jewish Agency. In fact, most of the Bene Israeli community eventually made aliya, and today only an estimated 5,000 Bene Israel live in India, while there are some 60,000 living in Israel. They mainly settled in Beersheba, Dimona, Ashdod, Ramla and Eilat.
Their transition to Israel was not entirely smooth, as the questions they had previously faced from the Baghdadis in India regarding their Jewishness re-emerged. Despite the fact that Sephardic Chief Rabbi Itzhak Nissim stated in 1961 that there was no foundation to prohibit marriage between Bene Israel and other Jews, and that the "the sect of the Bene Israel in India is of the seed of the House of Israel without any doubt," several rabbis in Israel still refused to marry Bene Israel to other Jews.
In 1962, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate appointed a commission of four rabbis to meet with representatives of the Bene Israel to research their customs. Apparently concerned about previous intermarriage and mamzerut, the committee learned that divorce was not an aspect of their culture at all, and they did not permit widows to re-marry, as per Indian customs at the time. This also meant that any concerns regarding the practice of levirate marriage (man's duty to marry brother's widow if she is childless) or halizah (ceremony to avoid levirate marriage) were not relevant.
On October 18, 1962, the Council of the Chief Rabbinate decided that marriage with Bene Israel was permissible. However, the Council ruled that the rabbi registering the marriage must investigate their maternal ancestry to ensure that neither their parents or grandparents had remarried after a divorce and were not within the prohibited degrees of kinship.
This decision fueled a feeling among the Bene Israel community that they were victims of discrimination, leading to hunger strikes and demonstrations in Jerusalem in the summer of 1964. Hundreds of Bene Israel came to the capital from around the country and rallied the wider public behind them. During one rally, activists burned a portrait of Rabbi Itzhak Nissim, triggering a counter protest held by Orthodox rabbis the next evening. Some members of the Bene Israel community even returned to India due to the atmosphere of discrimination, most of whom re-emigrated to Israel at a later stage. The series of demonstrations spurred the Knesset to take action, passing the Bene Israel resolution on August 16, which was read in an emergency Knesset session the next day. The resolution stressed the equal rights of Bene Israel, condemned the Chief Rabbinate and called upon it to dispel any feelings of discrimination among Bene Israel and the general public. It passed with a 43 to 2 vote.
The Chief Rabbinate responded to the Knesset resolution, revoking all references to the Bene Israel in the directive and substituting it with a general order which was made applicable to anyone whose family status was in doubt. Years later in 2002, a DNA test confirmed Bene Israel's claims that they were descendants of the Kohanim, laying to rest any doubts concerning their Jewish origins.
Material from The Jerusalem Post archives was used in this report