The Jews of India

A history of the Baghdadi Jews--who actually lived in India, not Baghdad.

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Public Life and Political Attitudes

Although most Baghdadi Jews had little interest in Indian politics, they were active in public affairs. In Calcutta members of the community were named as honorary magistrates. Leading Baghdadi Jews were invited to the viceroy's levees and celebrations, some of which they helped to organize. They were appointed sheriffs of Calcutta and served as municipal councilors.

In Bombay, the Jews played an even larger role. The government of Bombay offered David Sassoon many public appointments, but he accepted only the position of Justice of the Peace. His son, Albert-Abdullah, was a member of the Bombay Legislative Council. In the 20th century, two Baghdadi Jews served as Head of the Bombay Municipal Corporation--i.e., as Mayor of Bombay.

Racial separation between Indians and British, which was fostered by the colonial pattern, also affected the attitudes of the paler Baghdadis towards indigenous Indians. The Baghdadis wished to assimilate into British society and to be considered European, both socially and politically. Aside from religious observances, they quickly adopted an English lifestyle. The wealthier Baghdadis wore European clothes and became culturally westernized; poorer Baghdadis, especially women, continued to wear Arab dress.

Although they learned Hindi to be able to communicate on a day-to-day basis with Indians, most Baghdadis did not acquire a good knowledge of Bengali or Marathi, the regional languages. Instead, they made the switch directly from Arabic to English.

Baghdadis joined British clubs that excluded Indians, and their commercial establishments were affiliated with the British chambers of commerce. And yet, for all their efforts, they remained--like the Armenians—marginal members of the European community.

The Baghdadis' social concerns were reflected in their relations with other Indian Jewish communities. Initially, Baghdadi-Bene Israel relations had been positive, but the Baghdadis in Bombay, where the Bene Israel were concentrated, gradually drew away from the native-born community.

Doubtful about the Jewish status and religious observance of the Bene Israel, they were also anxious to protect their status in European society in India. Thus, the issues of purity, caste, and color, which were so important in the Indian environment and had been intensified in the British colonial context, created tension between the Baghdadis and the Bene Israel. There was little intermarriage, and for a while Baghdadis would not count the Bene Israel in forming a minyan (prayer quorum) nor call them up to the Torah in the synagogue.

By the mid-twentieth century, however, relations had improved.

Dispersal of the Baghdadi Community

Indian independence was not welcomed by most Baghdadis. Having always aspired to assimilate among the Europeans in India, and having spurned identification with Indians, the Baghdadi Jews were not supportive of Indian nationalism. They doubted that they would be comfortable in the new India.

After 1947, new economic regulations enacted by the Indian Government restricted imports and controlled foreign exchange, seriously hampering the business of many wealthy Baghdadis. Political changes in the Middle East in the late 1950s and early 1960s closed the markets of Iraq and Egypt to Baghdadi Jewish trade.

With family, connections, and funds abroad, members of the upper classes were free to migrate to countries such as England, Canada, the United States, and Australia. Less affluent Baghdadis who had relatives abroad or who could find a source of livelihood in the West also departed, with a relatively small percentage going to Israel. As the community disintegrated--and, with it, Jewish marriage prospects for children--more left the country. Of what had once been a community of perhaps 5,000 Baghdadis, barely 200 remained in the mid-1990s.

Unlike the Bene Israel and Cochin Jews, the Indian Baghdadi Jews who immigrated to Israel did not tend to maintain their own communal identity. Instead, they merged with the much larger Jewish community that had come directly from Iraq. They settled all across the country: in the major cities, smaller towns and, in a few cases, on kibbutzim.

However, there are small concentrations of Indian Baghdadis in the Kurdani neighborhood near Haifa, in Ramat Eliyahu, and in Ashdod. In these locales, some have maintained their Indian ties and identity and pray in synagogues attended by other Jews from India, rather than in those at the broader Iraqi community. Because their numbers in Israel are relatively small, however, Indian Baghdadi culture is more likely to be preserved in Golders Green in London, or in parts of Canada, Australia, and the United States, than in Israel.

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Joan G. Roland

Joan G. Roland is chair and professor of history at Pace University in New York City.