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Being Indian, Being Israeli

Maina Chawla Singh speaking in Washington, DC on Nov. 4, 2009.

Maina Chawla Singh speaking in Washington, DC on Nov. 4, 2009.

WASHINGTON, November 4, 2009 – Speaking at an Asia Society Washington Center event hosted at the Indian Embassy, Professor Maina Chawla Singh, author of Being Indian, Being Israeli: Migration, Ethnicity and Gender in the Jewish Homeland illustrated how the Indian Jewish diaspora in Israel is an invisible community, separate from the country's elite.

Thousands of Indian Jews, who emigrated to Israel from Bombay, Calcutta, and Cochin were sent to remote development towns with migrants from North and West Asia or the "Mizrahis" who, unlike the Ashkenazis or Jews of European origin, were discriminated against because of their "backward" origins or "dark skin."

Singh said that of the 70,000 Indians Jews, some are well positioned in business, education, and medicine, while the vast majority is in the middle class, with modest-paying jobs. This disparity is a result of the first two generations spending their lives in the moshavs (farming communities) due to language and cultural barriers that kept them away from educational pursuits. "The Indian Jews have a complete sense of comfort with what they left and what they chose. I do not recollect anybody saying that they regretted the aliya (ascent)," said Singh.

On the subject of the Indians' attachment to "Bharat Matha" or Mother India, Singh said that the Indian Jewish community is highly interactive with the Embassy of India in Israel and they are still very engaged with everything Indian—language, food, festivals, films, and clothing.

Joning the discussion was Professor Pamela Nadell, Director of Jewish Studies Program at American University, who said, "We are deeply indebted to Maina for documenting and bringing this critical Israeli section to the academic radar screen.”

In closing remarks at the program, Indian Ambassador to the United States Meera Shankar said that the enormous diversity of India has become part of the fabric of the country and that "Indian-ness" remains in people even after they migrate from India.

Reported by Bincy Ann Ninan, Asia Society Washington

Related link:
Jael Silliman: Bringing India's Jews to Light