Mumbai Jews on edge but still warm to local Muslims

After centuries of calm, leader of 5,000-strong community acknowledges: We can't be complacent anymore.

mumbai jewish memorial 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
mumbai jewish memorial 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Mumbai's tiny Jewish community feels itself under threat for the first time in hundreds of years in the wake of the deadly attacks by suspected Muslim terrorists that included a bloody two-day siege at the local Chabad house. Jews here said they had always considered themselves safe amid the tapestry of religions and ethnicities that make up this bustling city. Now, they are not so sure. "It's like a wake-up call. We are a tolerant society, we've never had any anti-Semitism at all here in India," said Elijah Jacob, a local Jewish leader. "We can't remain complacent any more." The November 26 attacks that killed 171 people targeted some of this city's best-known landmarks: two luxury hotels, a cafe famous with tourists and one of Mumbai's busiest train stations. During the panic, few noticed that another pair of gunmen had invaded the nondescript Nariman House on a back alleyway. The building served as the local Chabad house that acted as a spiritual oasis for traveling Jewish backpackers and visiting businessmen. By the time Indian commandos shot the gunmen dead two days later, six people inside the building - including Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka - had been killed. The local Jewish community was in shock. With only 5,000 Jews in a city of 18 million people, they barely made a ripple in city life and had never been targeted for attack. "We only consist of an iota of the entire population in India. We are a drop in the ocean," said Solomon Sopher, president of the Indian Jewish Congress. The community also had especially tight relations with local Muslims, said Jonathan Solomon, chairman of the Indian Jewish Federation. Brought together by similar dietary laws and other shared cultural values, the two groups historically lived in the same neighborhoods, and two schools run by a Jewish trust now educate predominantly Muslim students, he said. Many Jews said the attack would not cause a rift among the local communities, emphasizing that neither the Muslim attackers, nor the Jewish victims in the center were from India. The government has blamed the attack on an Islamic terror group based in Pakistan, saying the attackers trained for months in Lashkar-e-Taiba camps there. The gunmen were likely drawn to their target by their anger with Israel, rather than any conflict with the local Jewish community, Solomon said. "We are the unintended victims of this attack. There have been Indian Jews since time immemorial and we have not just been tolerated but treated with love and affection by all sections of the community, especially the Muslims," he said. "It is this outside influence that is playing havoc with our life in this country." Sopher agreed that the attack did seem aimed at foreigners, yet "it does to a certain extent make us feel more vulnerable than ever before." The community planned to beef up security at synagogues and Jewish institutions across the city, Jacob said. Outside the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue down a winding side street, an unarmed guard sat slumped in a white plastic chair Wednesday. He said he had worked there for at least eight months. The large, intricately detailed sky-blue building stands witness to the wealth and power the Jewish community here once possessed - and to how much it has diminished. It was built by Jacob Elias Sassoon, part of a legendary Jewish dynasty here, and his brother, Albert, in 1884 and quickly became an important center for Jewish life. Now, its paint is badly peeling, a few of its windows are broken and a section of the building has been converted into law offices. The sanctuary itself is only open for Shabbat, according to Pranani Sapte, who works at the synagogue. The Jewish presence in the region began about 2,000 years ago when, legend has it, a ship from ancient Israel crashed here and the survivors came ashore, Solomon said. Nearly 300 years ago, Jews from the Middle East and central Asia, traders known as Baghdadis, came to Mumbai as well. The community numbered about 30,000 in 1961, but many have since emigrated to Israel and Western countries, while others have intermarried, Solomon said. Some in the community hoped to lure back young emigres drawn to the new business opportunities in India's recent economic boom, Solomon said. But the global economic slowdown has hit India as well, dampening those prospects, and then the attacks came, he said. "These two twin blows we have to survive and hopefully come out stronger than before," he said. If India can emerge from the economic crisis and the government confronts the terror problem, the Jewish community will remain an important presence here, Solomon said. "The experience of 2,000 years can't be wiped out with one act," he said.