Friday, 18 November 2016

Dr Navras Jaat Aafreedi's interview with THE TIMES OF INDIA

‘Unlike China, India’s Jews survived … Indian Muslims, Jews unique friends … tolerance debate, minority studies vital for India’

July 1, 2016, 2:00 am IST in The Interviews Blog | Edit Page, India, Q&A | TOI
Navras Jaat Aafreedi teaches history at Presidency University, Kolkata, and has written Jews, Judaizing Movements and the Traditions of Israelite Descent in South Asia. Speaking with Eram Agha, Aafreedi discussed ‘minority’ status for Maharashtra’s Jews, Jewish amity with Indian Muslims – and ‘intolerance’: 

What does ‘minority’ status now mean to Jews in Maharashtra?

It means official recognition of the separate identity of Indian Jews – the proportion of Jews in India’s total population being a mere 0.0004%.

China and India are the only two countries in the world where Jews lived for centuries in peace with non-Jewish neighbours because of the non-proselytising nature of major religions in these countries. Also, these countries never felt threatened by Jews because of Judaism’s non-proselytising nature.

But Chinese Jews ceased to exist as a result of complete assimilation – Indian Jews, on the other hand, never lost their distinctive identity, helped by India’s endogamous nature and its tolerance.

The fact that Indian Jews maintained their identity and, in their small way, prospered, is an impressive example of their tenacity.

Could you tell us about some contributions made by Jews in India?

Interestingly, most of the earliest female stars of Indian cinema were Jewish, like Sulochana, Pramila, Rose, Romila – of all the ethnic and religious groups in India, the earliest female film stars came from a minority within India’s smallest religious minority!

The Baghdadis, one of the three Jewish communities in India, completely anglicised themselves. The only other similar community was the Parsis. But Parsi women were not the first to boldly act in films, braving all the risks involved – the initiative was taken by Baghdadi Jewish women.

Baghdadi Jews also played an important role in the development of Mumbai and Kolkata. A Bene Israel Jew, Nissim Ezekiel, is widely acknowledged as the father of India’s modern English poetry. Lt Gen J F R Jacob played a crucial role in India’s war with Pakistan in 1971 – which led to the liberation of Bangladesh.

What are three challenges faced by the Jewish community in India today?

Firstly, continuity of their centuries’ old presence in India – numbers are dwindling with migration to Israel. Secondly, preservation of cultural heritage and lastly, striking a balance between their eternal yearning for the promised land, Israel, and their love for India – their home.

What do Indian Jews think of Palestine’s demand for statehood?

Like any other community, Indian Jews are not a monolith – members hold different points of view on this.

Meanwhile, Brexit and Donald Trump are tom-tomming terms like ‘outsiders’ in political discourse – how does India compare?

India stands out – it’s always welcomed ‘others’, though the phenomenon involved was swikriti (acceptance) rather than equality, as Amartya Sen points out.

But India was kind enough to open her doors freely to those seeking refuge. In the 1930s, hundreds of German and East European Jews were given refuge in India. Nehru persuaded the British government for this and made the Indian Medical Council recognise Continental medical qualifications to enable refugee doctors to practise here.

The grateful refugees introduced new industries to India. During World War II, Polish and other European Jews also escaped Hitler and took shelter here.

Recently, India’s grappled with an ‘intolerance’ debate – your views.

Such debates only strengthen democracy – these should be welcomed.

One of democracy’s prerequisites is awareness of cultural, religious and ethnic diversity – lest democracy turns into majoritarianism.

We must celebrate plurality – this can be done only by promoting minority studies though. I lament the absence of Jewish studies in India. In contrast to India, China – that doesn’t even have a Jewish community any more – has Jewish studies as an academic discipline.

Have other communities influenced Indian Jews?

Well, India’s produced beautiful examples of Jewish-Muslim amity – not found anywhere else in the world.

Owing to close associations, Bene Israel Jews adopted a number of Islamic terms – like the word masjid for synagogue and namaz for prayers.

Most synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in India are looked after by Muslims. Most students in India’s two Jewish-run schools are Muslims. The only assistant professor of Hebrew in India is a devout Muslim, Khurshid Imam. The most prominent Hebrew calligrapher of India is a Muslim, Thoufeek Zakriya. The only engraver of Jewish tombstones for Maharashtra is a Muslim, Muhammad Abdul Yassin.

Even the Arab-Israel conflict failed to dent cordial relations of Indian Jews and Muslims.

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