Researchers Claim to Confirm Indian Bene Israel Community’s Jewish Roots
A new study conducted by Tel Aviv University (TAU), Cornell University, and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine has claimed to discover genetic proof that the Bene Israel community in western India has Jewish roots.
The Bene Israel community has always considered itself Jewish and believes it descends from 14 Jews who found themselves on India’s Konkan shore after they were shipwrecked. Legends indicate the shipwreck could have happened 2,000 years ago, while others estimate the date of the event to be about 175 BCE or in the 8th century BCE.
“Almost nothing is known about the Bene Israel community before the 18th century, when Cochin Jews and later Christian missionaries first came into contact with it,” said a statement by the study’s lead author, Yedael Waldman, a faculty member of both TAU’s Department of Molecular Microbiology and Cornell’s Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology. “Beyond vague oral history and speculations, there has been no independent support for Bene Israel claims of Jewish ancestry, claims that have remained shrouded in legend.”
The study’s team conducted comprehensive genome-wide analyses on the genetic markers of 18 Bene Israel individuals and found that “while Bene Israel individuals genetically resemble local Indian populations, they constitute a clearly separated and unique population in India,” according to Waldman.
“The results point to Bene Israel being an ‘admixed’ population, with both Jewish and Indian ancestry. The genetic contribution of each of these ancestral populations is substantial,” said co-lead author on the study Arjun Biddanda of Cornell. The results of the study explain that the Jewish and Indian ancestors of the Bene Israel interbred anywhere from 19 to 33 generations ago, corresponding to between 650 and 1,050 years ago.
“We believe that the first encounter involved Middle-Eastern Jews and was followed by a high rate of tribal intermarriage,” Waldman said. “This study provides a new example of how genetic analysis can be a valuable and powerful tool to advance our knowledge of human history.”
The Bene Israel ("Sons of Israel") are a historic community of Jews in India. Some believe that it is made up of descendants of one of the disputed Lost Tribes and ancestors who had settled there centuries ago. In the 19th century, after the people were taught about normative (Ashkenazi/Sephardi) Judaism, they tended to migrate from villages in the Konkan area to the nearby cities, primarily Mumbai. but also to Pune, Ahmedabad, and Kolkata, India; and Karachi, in today's Pakistan.Many gained positions with the British colonial authority of the period.
In the early part of the twentieth century, many Bene Israel became active in the new film industry, as actresses and actors, producers and directors. After India gained its independence in 1947, and Israel was established in 1948, most Bene Israel emigrated to Israel.
Bene Israel teachers of the Free Church of Scotland's Mission School and the Jewish English School in Bombay, 1856
According to Bene Israel tradition, their ancestors had migrated to India after centuries of travel through western Asia from Israel and gradually assimilated to the people around them, while keeping some Jewish customs. Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, mentioned in a letter that there was a Jewish community living in India: he may have been referring to the Bene Israel.
In the 18th or 19th century, an Indian Jew from Cochin named David Rahabi discovered the Bene Israel in their villages and recognized their vestigial Jewish customs. Some historians have thought their ancestors may have belonged to one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, but the Bene Israel have never been officially recognized by Jewish authorities as such.
Rahabi taught the people about normative Judaism. He trained some young men among them to be the religious preceptors of the community. Known as Kajis, these men held a position that became hereditary, similar to the Cohanim. They became recognized as judges and settlers of disputes within the community.
One Bene Israel tradition places Rahabi's arrival at around 1000CE or 1400, although some historians believe he was not active until the 18th century. They suggest that the "David Rahabi" of Bene Israel folklore is a man named David Ezekiel Rahabi, who lived from 1694 to 1772, and resided in Cochin, then the center of the wealthy Malabar Jewish community. Others suggest that the reference is to David Baruch Rahabi, who arrived in Bombay from Cochin in 1825.
It is estimated that there were 6,000 Bene Israel in the 1830s; 10,000 at the turn of the 20th century; and in 1948—their peak in India—they numbered 20,000. Since that time, most of the population have emigrated.
Under British colonial rule, many Bene Israel rose to prominence in India. They were less affected than other Indians by the racially discriminatory policies of the British colonists, considered somewhat outside the masses. They gained higher, better paying posts in the British Army when compared with their non-Jewish neighbours Some of these enlistees with their families later joined the British in the British Protectorate of Aden.
In the early twentieth century, numerous Bene Israel became leaders in the new film industry in India. In addition, men worked as producers and actors: Ezra Mir (alias Edwin Myers) (1903-1993) became the first chief of India's Film Division, and Solomon Moses was head of the Bombay Film Lab Pvt Ltd from the 1940s to 1990s. Ennoch Isaac Satamkar was a film actor and assistant director to Mehboob Khan, a prominent director of Hindi films.
Given their success under the British colonial government, many Bene Israel prepared to leave India at independence in 1947. They believed that nationalism and the emphasis on indigenous religions would mean fewer opportunities for them. Most emigrated to Israel, which was newly established in 1948 as a Jewish homeland.