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Near East Kingdoms

Levantine States

 

Indian Jews (Israel)
Incorporating Baghdadi Jews, Bene Israel Jews, Cochin Jews, & Malabar Jews

Today's Israel and Palestine are irrevocably linked in terms of their history. The former was carved out of a large proportion of the already-expanded latter from 1948. Prior to that lies four thousand years of history, sometimes recorded, sometimes alluded to, and sometimes a complete mystery. Unpicking it to establish a relatively stable story has been the work of decades, and even today there are differences of opinion regarding many of the details.

The region in which both names came to be created was Canaan, which consisted of the long Mediterranean coastal strip between ancient Syria and Egypt. Today the northern part of this is known as the Levant. Various Semitic-speaking groups formed states in this region from around 3000 BC onwards. During climate-induced social collapse in the late thirteenth century BC, both a state known as Israel and a region known as Palestine emerged, giving both terms similar founding dates (very approximately), with the Phoenicians emerging to the immediate north during the same period.

Then came the beginnings of the Jewish Diaspora and the age of great empires in the form of the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Eastern Romans, Islam, and the Ottomans, until the twentieth century saw the most recent phase of empire-building come to an end and individual sovereign states emerge. Until that happened both Judea and Palestine remained occupied territories.

By the time independence was regained, Jewish groups had been emigrating to and from Israel and Palestine for two thousand years and more, spreading them far and wide across the Old World in a number of generalised groupings. Despite these groupings being joined across those centuries by converted regional locals, most modern Jews still carry a marked Near Eastern heritage in their DNA. Connections between the separate groups have also helped to maintain elements of unified practice in synagogues.

The usually-small population of Indian Jews have a poorly-chronicled origin, claiming migration during the lifetime of the kingdom of Judah or being part of the ten lost tribes of Assyrian-conquered Samaria. More likely is a small level of diffusion through Sassanid Babylon - where a large community certainly prospered during the first few centuries AD - and into eastern Iran and medieval India where the arrival of Britain's East India Company made advancement more practicable. The creation of Israel in 1948 saw this population dwindle greatly as much of its number returned to its ancestral homeland.

Chochin Jews (otherwise known as Malabar Jews) formed a small but particularly distinct community in the southern Indian kingdom of Cochin. Their roots are claimed as being laid down in the eleventh century BC, during the time of Solomon. If true then the likelihood is that they formed part of a rare overseas trading community of that period. They were joined at the end of the fifteenth century AD by a small number of Sephardi Jews who had been forced out of Castile-dominated Spain.

The Bene Israel Jews of India have been claimed as the descendants of one of the lost ten tribes of Samaria, as the northern splinter state of the formerly-united kingdom of Israel. By the nineteenth century AD they were settled in the Konkan region of India which includes Goa. It was then that they encountered the British colonial presence in the sub-continent and learned about the other branches of contemporary Jews. They began migrating from their ancestral villages into colonial-controlled cities to play a prominent role in the administration until their return to Israel after 1947.

The Baghdadi Jews were a diaspora sub-grouping which was formed by Iraqi Jews who were fleeing persecution in Ottoman-controlled Baghdad. They settled mainly in ports along the trade routes in South Asia (especially India) and in the South China Sea where they may have interacted with later-arriving communities of Chinese Jews.

The Arch of Titus

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Bible Atlas, and Jewish Encyclopaedia.)

722 - 721 BC

After King Hoshea stops paying tribute, Samaria is invaded and eventually falls to Assyria. The ten (of twelve) Hebrew tribes in Israel are relocated by the Assyrians (27,290 inhabitants in all).

Samaria excavations
This general view of the 1933 excavations of the city of Samaria shows them while looking towards the north

A proportion of them are resettled in Media in the Zagros Mountains, forced to walk all the way, while a small community is later to be found in India in the form of the Bene Israel Jews, claimed to be part of this enforced movement which reaches India via a shipwreck in the first two centuries AD.

586 BC

Following conquest of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar II exiles the majority of the native populace, with many being taken into captivity in Babylon itself. This forms the earliest basis of today's Mizrahi Jews classification.

Gedaliah ben Achikam, the Babylonian governor of Yehud province, advocates submission as a means of ensuring continued partial Jewish autonomy. Under his brief administration, the Jewish colony does indeed prosper.

After just seven months however, Gedaliah is killed by conspirators during a rebellion which is instigated by Baalis of Ammon. The entire Babylonian representative embassy is also murdered. In retribution, even more of the population is shipped to Babylon - although some flee to Egypt - and any surviving autonomy is removed.

The Roman destruction of Jerusalem
Nebuchadnezzar's attack on Jerusalem in 586 BC deliberately destroyed the city, making it generally inhabitable to all but a small populace, with Mitzpah in the northern Benjimanite territory becoming the region's capital

459 BC

Ezra, a 'scribe', leads the second body of exiled Israelites back to Jerusalem from Babylon. He also writes the Book of Ezra, and according to tradition collects and edits the books of the Old Testament. Those Jews who remain in Babylon form the main basis for today's classification of Mizrahi Jews, while smaller Jewish Diaspora groups gradually head into the Arabian peninsula where they form the Yemenite Jews.

AD 214 - 224

The fractured Parthian empire which controls Babylon is breaking down. It is already effectively divided in two, with other minor kingdoms already emerging. By 224 the last Parthian king, Artabanus, has left it too late to confront expansion by his rivals within the empire. The Battle of Hormozdgān costs Artabanus his life, leaving the victorious Sassanids as the most powerful faction in Iran.

Sassanid control of Babylon proves beneficial for many, not least the Mizrahi Jews, although precise records are sadly lacking. A large Jewish Diaspora community certainly prospers in Babylon during the first few centuries AD. It is likely that there follows a small level of diffusion of Jewish groups eastwards through the empire and, eventually, into India to become labelled Indian Jews.

Sassanids
The coming of the Sassanids as replacements for the Parthians meant an entirely new and more vigorous empire being created on the eastern border of the Roman empire

260 - 272

Crisis strikes the weakened Roman empire, with two major splinter states forming in the same year. The Rhine frontier collapses completely at around the same time.

The second of these splinter states is the Palmyrene empire, which encompasses the Roman provinces of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and large parts of Asia Minor. It is ruled as little more than an expanded kingdom by Queen Zenobia for her infant son Vaballanthus, with a capital at Palmyra.

These crises, and the expenditure required to bring them to resolution, means a great deal of increased taxation across the empire. The Jewish population of Palestine seems to be especially impacted.

Large numbers of Jews emigrate to Babylon and the more tolerant Sassanids (where they form a large contingent of modern Israel's Mizrahi Jews, which in turn eventually supplies the nucleus for the later Indian Jews). There, autonomous Jewish communities are allowed to flourish, with individuals able to lead full and rewarding lives.

Babylon
Babylon was forever diminished by its roles in two major uprisings in the fifth century BC and by its subsequent demotion in importance - even the arrival of the Greeks did not revive its fortunes (click or tap on image to view full sized)

1492

The Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) sees the country's population of Sephardi Jews being expelled from Castile-dominated Spain in the same year. The main reason is to prevent them from influencing the recent tidal wave of conversions to Christianity (involving over half the country's Jewish population since 1391).

Further Jews convert to Christianity to avoid being kicked out of centuries-old homes. When looking for new places to settle, some of the remaining Jewish Diaspora communities return to Palestine, usually to adopt local Jewish traditions and language, while others migrate (heavily) into Ottoman empire North Africa, and into France, Britain, and the Netherlands. A small number head to India where they join the Cochin Jews.

1517

The Ottoman empire conquers Palestine. It maintains the previous administrative and political organisation in the region whilst carrying it out effectively. Ottoman controls allow an exodus of Jews, with the Yemenite Jews in particular being boosted in numbers at this time.

The Baghdadi Jews are a sub-grouping of Iraqi Jews who resettle mainly in ports along the trade routes in South Asia (especially India) and in the South China Sea where they may interact with later-arriving communities of Chinese Jews.

Ottoman coin
The early sixteenth century Ottoman conquest of Egypt (and Palestine) saw an influx of Ottoman coins, with this example being issued during the reign of Suleyman I the Magnificent (1520-1566)

1757 - 1765

In January 1757, the sultan of Bengal captures Calcutta, which contains the headquarters of the British East India Company. However, the British general, Robert Clive, has allies within Bengal who help to defeat and dethrone the sultan at and after the Battle of Plassey on 23 June.

The East India Company is now the effective master of Bengal through the Bengal presidency, which is established between 1765-1766, and then the position of governor-general which effectively rules all East India Company possessions in the Indian sub-continent. This makes the potential for advancement for Indian Jews to be much more of a realistic possibility.

1948

David Ben-Gurion makes his proclamation of the creation of the state of Israel on 14 May 1948, the last day of British Mandate Palestine. British troops are already pulling out, aware that the region is about to erupt into violence.

Official declaration of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948
The white-haired, sixty-two year-old David Ben-Gurion proclaims the declaration of the creation of the state of Israel, doing so in the small art museum on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv in 1948

On the following day the neighbouring Arab states of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria attack Israel, prompting the start of the Arab-Israeli War. Saudi Arabia sends its own military contingent to support the Egyptians. The war lasts for a year before a ceasefire is agreed.

The modern state of Israel has been established. It offers a home for Jews of all groups, whatever their part in the Jewish Diaspora and whatever their history across the two millennia or more since their ancestors had departed the region.

Ashkenazi Jews have already returned in large numbers whilst also entering the USA in equally sizeable numbers. Sephardi Jews trickle back in some numbers, while still retaining large communities in Western Europe. Indian Jews, Cochin Jews, and Bene Israel Jews also return home in heavy numbers, leaving their diaspora communities in India greatly reduced in size.

David Ben-Gurion and Harry Truman
David Ben-Gurion (right), Israel's first chairman of the 'Provisional State Council' in 1948 and also its first prime minister, chats to US President Harry Truman (left) and Abba Eban

 
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