Origin of Bene Israel
Known to be descended from one of the Lost Tribes, the Bene Israelis are the sole survivors of a shipwreck off the Konkan coast near Navagaon, which is about 48 km south of Mumbai. There are plenty of theories speculating the origin of the Bene Israel community in India. And as per one of these theories, it is said that the ancestors of the Bene Israelis had been tarrying in Persia and Yemen before finally ending up shipwrecked on the coast of Konkan. Their arrival in the Konkan coast has been estimated sometime in the period from 8th century BCE to 6th century CE.
History of Bene Israel
The community of Bene Israel was discovered by a Kochi Jew named David Rahabi, who recognized their vestigial Jewish customs and taught the people about normative Judaism. He even trained some young men among them to be the religious preceptors of the community, who were later known as ‘kajis’. They eventually became recognized as judges and settlers of disputes within the community.
In the 1830s, it was estimated that there were 6,000 Bene Israel, which increased to 10,000 by the turn of the 20th century. And by 1948, the population of Bene Israelis had peaked to 20,000 but soon that number decreased as most of the population immigrated to Israel, which was their new Jewish homeland.
During the period of British colonialism, the Jewish community of Bene Israel thrived as they gained better paying posts in the British Indian Army when compared with their non Jewish counterparts. Some of them even joined the British in the British Protectorate of Aden but all these privileges changed when they had to face discrimination and hostility from the anglicized Baghdadi Jews.
The Baghdadi Jews questioned the authenticity of the Jewishness of the Bene Israelis and in response they tried to portray themselves as a totally foreign community in India. They divided the community into two endogamous groups, white or ‘gora’ and black or ‘kala’. The Bene Israelis claimed the whites had pure blood and the blacks were the progeny of Indian women and therefore impure.
The Bene Israel community had gained a fair amount of success under the reign of the British East India Company but prepared to leave the country after India gained independence in 1947. They believed that nationalism and the emphasis on indigenous religions would mean fewer opportunities for them; as a result most of them migrated to Israel.
Notable People of Bene Israel
In the early 20th century, numerous Bene Israel became known personalities in the new film industry in India. Actors like Ezra Mir, who was also known as Edwin Myers became the first chief of India's Film Division, and Solomon Moses was head of the Bombay Film Lab Private Limited from the 1940s to 1990s. Then there was Ennoch Isaac Satamkar, who was a film actor and an assistant director to Mehboob Khan, a prominent director of Hindi films. Other famous personalities of Bene Israel descent was Nissim Ezekiel, David Abraham Cheulkar, Eban Hyams and Esther David.