Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A little India within Israel

The Israeli city of Dimona, which recently came under rocket attack from the Palestinian militant group Hamas, is also home to 7,500-strong Indian Jewish community.

Also known as “mini-India”, Dimona lies in the Negev desert, some 35 kilometres west of the Dead Sea, above the Arava valley in the southern District of Israel and it was one of the development towns created in the 1950s under the leadership of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.

The city comes under constant attack as it houses the famous dome-shaped Negev Nuclear Research Center. Israel acknowledges the existence of the site, but refuses to disclose any information about its purpose in a policy known as nuclear ambiguity.

In total, there are about 70,000 to 80,000 people of Indian-origin in Israel most of whom live in the south of the country, close to the conflict-ridden Gaza Strip, including Dimona.

There were two main migrations of India’s Jews to Israel. The first came with the almost simultaneous partition of India and Palestine in 1947 and 1948, which led to the creation of the religiously exclusive states of Pakistan and Israel.

“In both cases, Partition sparked an unprecedented transfer of communities from towns and villages in one nascent state to another. While in India, Hindu refugees flooded in and Muslims moved out, in West Asia almost 750,000 Palestinians were forced out and replaced by Jews from across the world, including those from India,” says Sejal Mandalia, author of ‘Out in the Cold: The Palestinian Refugees’.

Some 30,000 Indian Jews are believed to have migrated to Israel starting late in the 1940s. The Indian Jews went to Israel mainly because of their religious affiliation and hopes for a better economic life, and not because they faced any form of discrimination in India.

The country then was run by Ashkenzai (European) Jews on their terms and the Indian migrants had tough time adjusting. Lacking adequate economic and social support systems, the Indians had to struggle in the small development towns and agricultural settlements to establish themselves in Israel.

The first public demonstration in Israel, or satyagraha as the Indians called it, was staged by Indians from 1962 to 1964. Indians who came in the first flush of Israel’s formation were soon disillusioned and staged a demonstration, wanting to return.

They argued they had never been persecuted in India and Israel wasn’t much better anyway. They demonstrated until their status as Children of Israel was officially acknowledged, and this triggered the second largest migration of Indian Jews to Israel in the 1960s.

In his book, ‘The Jewish Communities of India: Identity in a Colonia Era’, Joan G Roland writes: “In the early 1980s, an Indian-origin Jewish municipal councillor in Dimona was concerned when he conducted a survey and discovered that a very high percentage of children in the lowest and the vocational tracks were of Indian origin. His protests to the offices of the ministries of education and social welfare in Beersheba -- the regional center for Dimona -- led to extra money being injected into the Dimona schools.”

In Dimona, the Indians began as textile workers and, in fact, about a third of the city’s population works in industrial workplaces (chemical plants near the Dead Sea like the Dead Sea Works, high-tech companies and textile shops).

The migrants from India in Israel essentially belong to four groups -- The Bene-Israel of Maharashtra, the Cochin Jews, the Baghdadi Jews and the Bnei Menashe of Mizoram.

Of these, the Bene-Israel of Maharastra mostly settled in Dimona and, according to experts, they had the most difficult time integrating into their new society. Says Dr Shalva Weil, an anthropologist at the Hebrew University specializing in Indian Jews: “Unlike the Cochin Jews, who were put into agricultural settlements and became wealthy, the Bene-Israel were placed in peripheral towns such as Dimona, Ashdod or Beersheba, not in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. They are now on the margins of society; this was not the case in India, where the Bene-Israel played a prominent part, such as Nissim Ezekiel, who was awarded the Padma Shri.”

Women in typical Maharashtrian attire, shops selling Indian spices, vegetables, video cassettes, Hindi film magazines, and mannequins wearing salwaar kameez suits, are usual sights on the streets of Dimona today.

Marathi can be heard everywhere, and even the younger generation is familiar with words like ‘Sonpapdi’, ‘Gulab Jamun’, ‘papri chaat’ and ‘bhelpuri’, with several shops selling these very Indians delicacies.

In efforts to keep the new generation connected with their heritage, community leaders have even created a special section in the central municipal library in Dimona, and the stocks have been rapidly growing with community members contributing books following their trips to India.

There are about 3,500 Indian books, mostly in Marathi but also a significant number in Hindi, mainly focusing on the folklores of Maharashtra and its history, but some are also related to prominent Indian leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Books dealing with heroic exploits of Chhatrapati Shivaji can be seen in plenty, the collection donated by elders of the community, many of them no more alive. Also prominently visible is the cricket ground at the entrance of the city where a lot of youngsters attend regular coaching classes.

The Cultural Center in Dimona often organizes plays based on Hindi films.

(As published in The Indian Diaspora in July 2014)

No comments :