23/05/2015 8:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Nakba And Indian Jews

MOHAMMED ABED via Getty Images
A Palestinian demonstrator holds the national flag during clashes near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City on May 15, 2014, to mark Nakba Day. Palestinians are marking 'Nakba day' which means in Arabic 'catastrophe' in reference to the birth of the state of Israel 66-years-ago in British-mandate Palestine, which led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who either fled or were driven out of their homes during the 1948 war over Israel's creation. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week on 15 May marked what Palestinians mourn as the day that Israel became a state and Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their land. Israel made over 750,000 Palestinians refugees whom the United Nations granted the right of return with UN Resolution 194. To ensure that this would not happen, Israel destroyed over 500 Palestinian villages. This process of destruction an the forced removal has continued unabated since 1948 and indeed began in the years prior to Israel's statehood. This history and this ongoing process of colonisation of Palestinian land is known as an nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe.

It's a history that many Indians are familiar with, although it seems that in recent years many Indians have forgotten it. Whenever I bring up the fact that Jews, primarily from Europe and Russia, colonised Palestinian land with the help of their British partners, Indians seem to want to elide this reality. They want to talk about initiatives that call for "equality" between Israelis and Palestinians. If I ask whether or not that worked for Indians when they were trying to gain independence from the British, usually they are at a loss for words.

"I'm not sure how these scenarios became the norm--for average Indians to hear the word Palestine and ask about Israel."

There have been so many oddities about how Indians whom I've encountered over the past three years engage with the subject of Palestine. In fact, whenever I mention the word Palestine, Indians seem to have an array of curious replies: one person asked what Israeli kibbutzes are like; another told me about Israeli restaurants in Benares; yet another asked me how I liked living in Israel (I've only ever lived in the West Bank and had made that clear). From a more knowledgable person, who was nevertheless groomed on Leon Uris' books, wanted to know why Israel and Palestine don't just agree to a population exchange like India and Pakistan. I'm not sure how these scenarios became the norm--for average Indians to hear the word Palestine and ask about Israel. But it's an experience I've had all too often over the past three years in various parts of the country.

I've been thinking about these experiences as I traveled around Kerala last week trying to learn more about the Kochi Jewish population. Although I have been reading books about Indian Jews for some time, none of my pressing questions seem to be answered by them: namely, why would a population that never experienced anti-Semitism choose to move to Israel? How did Zionism enter the Indian Jewish consciousness?

Although I only had a chance to meet three Kochi Jews last week, my questions still feel unresolved. The one who never left India has dementia and obviously could not tell me much of anything for certain. The other two were Indians who did move to Israel but who returned. And yet even after discussing this topic with them I still am not entirely sure why. And the impulse to abide by Zionist interests--whether or not one actually knows what that is--remains a touchy subject so to delve into the issue with either researchers or the Kochi Jews themselves is quite a challenge.

One theory is that many of the Kochi Jews--especially those Swadesi Jews (sometimes called Black Jews) who have been subjugated over the years by their neighbouring Paradesi Jews (also known as white Jews)--left for Israel in the 1950s because of the perceived economic opportunities. There are also those who are quite Orthodox in their religious practice and imagined that such a move would be a spiritual one. Still there are others who left because of the need to find a spouse, a need that was particularly difficult given that the Paradesi Jews prevented marriage to those who were too Indianised (in other words those who were too dark).

"This meant that Jews who spent centuries in the lush environment of Kerala were sent to places like the Naqab (Negev) desert instead of so-called "development towns"."

Racism was perpetuated in new forms when the first Kochi Jews reached Israel to settle and colonise Palestinian land. On the one hand there were the Ashkenazi (European) Jews who pushed all the brown Jews from Asia and Africa to the frontiers of their new state, a phenomenon depicted in the film Turn Left at the End of the World. This meant that Jews who spent centuries in the lush environment of Kerala were sent to places like the Naqab (Negev) desert instead of so-called "development towns". The policies of the Israeli state were structured to subjugate those who were not white, something that one can see vividly in the recent protests of Ethiopian Jews in Tel Aviv.

The larger part of this narrative of racism is the role that Kochi Jews were thrust into when they were settled onto Bedouin land. Prior to an nakba, there were around 90,000 Palestinians who had lived in that region since the Byzantine era. For the first twenty years of Israeli statehood, the Palestinian Bedouin population was subjected to a variety of policies intended to push for their removal: they were corralled into towns, denied grazing rights, and were not allowed any public services such as water and electricity because some of their villages were deemed "unrecognised" according to Israeli law. Likewise Bedouins became known as "trespassers" on their own land. There are some Bedouin villages in Naqab that have been destroyed as many as 84 times--most recently this past week. Indeed, Naqab is one area of historic Palestine where you can see how the ongoing nakba continues unabated.

Meanwhile, several of the remaining Swadesi synagogues in Kerala--one in Mala and one in Mattancheri--are in a state of disarray. There are many Malayalis who are deeply invested in preserving Jewish history in their state, but the Jews who come to visit, especially Israeli Jews, don't seem to support their efforts. It's another aspect of Zionism: they would rather forget history before the colonisation of Palestine just as they work diligently to erase whatever traces of the nakba that remain.

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