U.S. SPEAKING TOUR. A Non-Jew Dreams of Bringing Jewish Studies to India

I was not born in a Jewish family, yet a tradition of my people’s origin connected me to Israel. I grew up in a city in India where there were no Jews, yet I got interested in them. Jewish Studies are not available in Indian universities, yet I found a way to research the Indian Jews and the probable remnants of lost Israelite tribes in India for my Ph.D. at the University of Lucknow, India. I did not have the means to go to Israel for higher studies, yet I managed to get there through a scholarship from the Israeli Government and a supplementary grant from the Tel Aviv University, which facilitated my post-doctoral research on the “Traditions of Israelite Descent Among Certain Muslim Groups in India.” I could ill-afford to go to America to present the paper I produced as a result of my research in Israel, at the 19th annual conference of the Midwest Jewish Studies Association in Illinois in October 2007, yet I made it there, thanks to the financial help from the association and to the honoraria I got from the lectures I gave, very kindly organized by Kulanu.

Muslims of Israelite Descent

I spoke at a number of venues in America during my three and a half months stay there. At the conference, I presented a paper on the “Traditions of Israelite Descent Among Certain Muslim Groups in India”, viz., the Kashmiri in Jammu and Kashmir, most of whom are Muslim, and the three Muslim groups in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, viz., the Qidwai/Kidwai in Barabanki; the Pashtun/Pathan in Malihabad (District Lucknow), Qayamganj (District Farrukhabad), Shahjahanpur and Rampur (also found elsewhere in India); and the Bani Israil in Sambhal (District Moradabad) and Aligarh.

All of these groups have had traditions of Israelite descent for centuries. Two of them, the Kashmiri and the Pashtun/Pathan, trace their descent from the lost tribes of Israel. The Pashtuns/Pathans in India have largely lost their traditions of Israelite origin, yet it is still very strong in their native places, Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

By the way, Pathans, Pashtuns, Pakhtuns and Afghans are names which are often used interchangeably. To be precise, those who inhabit plains and open plateaus are entitled to the name Afghan, which has a far wider connotation than just being a subject of the modern state of Afghanistan, founded only in 1747. The northern highlanders call themselves Pakhtuns, while the southern highlanders are known as Pashtuns. Unfortunately, Pashtuns/Pathans are the same people who largely fill the ranks of the Taliban today.

While the Qidwais/Kidwais trace their geneaology from a Sufi of Jewish descent, Qazi/Qadi Qidwatuddin of Rum (modern Turkey), who settled in India in 1191 CE, the members of the Bani Israil clan of Sambhal (District Moradabad) and Aligarh claim descent from a Jewish sahaabi (companion of Muhammad), Abdullah Ibn-i-Salaam. According to them, their ancestors settled in India a millennium ago to propagate and preach Islam.

Jewish Contributions in Film

My next presentation was at the Samuel Rosenthal Center for Judaic Studies, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where I spoke on the Jewish contributions to the world’s largest film industry, the Indian cinema. Jews played a crucially important role when the Indian cinema was in its infancy by giving it most of its earliest and some of its finest female actors, in a country where it was considered demeaning for women to indulge in performing arts. Most of these actors had come from the Baghdadi community, which settledin India in the 1830s. Sadly, these Jewish actors largely could not continue with their successful film careers once the talkies were introduced, because of their lack of fluency in the local languages.

Establishing Jewish Studies in India

Between these two presentations, I met the Chicago Area Director of the American Jewish Committee, Emily Solof, with whom I shared my vision of establishing Jewish Studies as an academic discipline in Indian universities. It is sad that a secular state like India, which has had a Jewish presence for more than two millennia and still has three Jewish communities, excluding the two newly emerged communities of Bnei Menashe and Bnei Ephraim, does not have Jewish Studies as an academic discipline, while Islamic Studies is available at all major Indian universities.

Jews in India are politically insignificant because of their miniscule numbers, while the Indian Muslims (comprising 13% of India’s population of 1.1 billion) are the second biggest Muslim population in the world (the biggest being Indonesians). Hence Indian politicians have feared losing Muslim votes if they introduced Jewish Studies. That is also the primary reason why India did not have diplomatic ties with Israel for 40 years, until the Madrid Conference and the disintegration of the USSR.

It is high time that Jewish Studies was introduced in Indian universities, with special emphasis on Indo-Judaica, and that a center devoted to Israelite-Jewish Studies was established, preferably in Lucknow or Delhi, right in the center of the Muslim heartland of India.

Such an Israelite-Jewish Studies centre could do a great job in the betterment of Jewish-Muslim relations, eradicating the stereotypes that exist of Jews among Indians at large. (Indians generally know Jews only through secondary sources that are often not fair to them, viz., the press and mass media, literature like the Merchant of Venice, and films like Mr. & Mrs. Iyer.) While most Indians are absolutely ignorant of Jews and tend to mix them up with Zoroastrians or Christians or Muslims, the Muslim Indians are just as antagonistic to them as the Muslims anywhere else in the world, because their perceptions of Jews are largely based on the misinterpretations of the Qur’anic references to Jews. The centre’s location in India’s Muslim heartland will make it easily accessible to the Muslims there and help us change their negative perceptions of Jews. Also, this center could do a good job at making the Afridi Pashtuns/Pathans there conscious of their putative Israelite roots and stimulating their interest in tracing their probable Israelite ancestry.

Afridi Pathans

I next spoke at the third-oldest Jewish congregation in America, Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia, on the “Theory of the Israelite Origin of Afridi Pashtuns/Pathans.” Numerically, Afridi is one of the biggest, and politically one of the most influential, of the 60 Pashtun/Pathan tribes found in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. The Afridi population was estimated to be around 275,000 in 1962, and according some estimates, their present population is 315,000. This is part of the total Pathan/Pashtun population of 20 million, as estimated in 1986, of which about 1 million live in Pakistan, and the remainder in Afghanistan. A sprinkling of Afridi Pashtuns/Pathans is also found in India, in Malihabad and Qayamgan, cities being marketed as international Jewish tourist destinations by Shai Bar Ilan Geographical Tours and Eretz Ahavati Nature Tours of Israel (the first tour to these exotic locations is scheduled for November 2008).

Afridis settled in India mostly between the years 1748 and 1761. Their tradition of Israelite origin finds mention in a number of texts dating from the 10th century till the present day, written by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars alike. Even modern scholars like the Israeli Shalva Weil consider them the “best candidates” for the status of the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Jewish immigrants from Afghanistan testify to the prevalence of many Jewish rituals and customs among them, viz., the lighting of candles on Shabbat, keeping of long sidelocks, wearing of shawls resembling the tallith, circumcision on the eighth day after birth, and Levirate marriage.

Judaising Movements in India

The very next day I spoke on Jews and the Judaising Movements in India. Indian Jewry can be broadly divided into three distinct groups – numerically the largest, the Bene Israel, the smallest, the Cochini, and the last to settle in India, the Baghdadi. Apart from these, two Judaizing movements have emerged in India, the Bnei Menashe in the northeast and the Bnei Ephraim in the south.