For India’s Jews, sense of security is shattered
MUMBAI, India (JTA) – The Colaba neighborhood that surrounds the modern apartment block where terrorists last week murdered a Chabad-Lubavitch couple and four other Jews has begun to return to normal.
The maze of dusty alleyways that surround the now infamous building, Nariman House, is bustling. Shoppers have returned to the market around the corner, where Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg used to buy chickens for kosher slaughter. On nearby apartment blocks, residents are repairing windows shattered by the gunshots and grenade blasts that took the lives of Holtzberg, his wife, Rivkah, and the others.
But for Mumbai’s ancient Jewish community, nothing will ever be the same.
“This is the first time when a Jew has been targeted in India because he is a Jew,” said Jonathon Solomon, a Mumbai lawyer and the president of the Indian Jewish Federation. “The tradition of the last thousand years has been breached.”
Jews are believed to have lived in India since the time of King Solomon, and throughout its ancient history the community has experienced virtually no anti-Semitism — a source of pride to India’s Jews and non-Jews alike.
“This is one of the few countries where Jews never faced discrimination and persecution,” said Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, who heads the Jewish community in New Delhi.
Mumbai’s Jewish associations run particularly deep. The construction of many of the city’s best-known monuments and civic institutions were funded by the so-called “Baghdadi Jews” – actually a collection of families from Syria and Iran as well as from the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Basra – who arrived in then-British Bombay as shipping barons and manufacturing tycoons in the late 18th century.
The city is also the heart of the Bene Israel community, a group of ethnically Indian Jews who claim to be descended from seven families shipwrecked on the southern Indian coast while fleeing persecution in the Galilee during the second century B.C.E.
In 1947, at the time of India’s Independence, it was estimated that about 25,000 Jews lived in India. Fewer than 5,000 remain today, the majority of them in Mumbai and its suburbs. But Solomon said that perhaps five times that many Indians have at least one Jewish parent.
Since the Nov. 26 terrorist attacks that laid siege to the city and left at least 170 dead altogether, a sense of sadness, shock and fear pervades the community, said Antony Korenstein, the India country director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The JDC provides social, cultural and educational services to local Jews.
“This attack has really shaken us up,” said one local Jewish educator, who in a sign of the newfound insecurity among the city’s Jews would only speak on the condition of anonymity because he feared he might be targeted in the future if his name appeared in the media.
“If with such ease they could finish off the whole Chabad House – the property and the people – now we have to have a fresh look at our own security,” the educator said.
Solomon said that Jewish leaders here are considering whether they would have to restrict access to synagogues and community centers to authorized visitors – a precaution common throughout much of the world but never done here.
“Jewish institutions in India are soft targets,” he said. “After being used to living fearless for so long, we are going through a phase where we are debating with ourselves about being careful and whether we need to change our mode of existence.”
Many of Mumbai’s old Jewish synagogues are in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. Historically, relations between Muslims and Jews in Mumbai have been cordial.
“The Jewish community has always been very close to the Muslims,” Korenstein said. “In this kind of society, with its hundreds of religions, the two great monotheist faiths living together, they find an affinity.”
Solomon Sopher, the chairman and managing trustee of the Sir Jacob Sassoon and Allied Trusts, agreed. He pointed out that 98 percent of the student body at the E.E.E. Sassoon High School in the Mumbai neighborhood of Byculla is Muslim, even though it was founded as a Jewish school and is run by a Jewish trust.
But Sopher worries that another international jihadi group will wish to target India’s Jews. The one alleged terrorist in Indian custody – he was part of the overall attack, but not the seizure of the Chabad House – has told interrogators that all the attackers were Pakistani and confessed to being a member of Pakistani-based militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, according to the Mumbai police.
“It is an outside hand and not something from within,” Sopher said.
Others are less certain. Among some Mumbai Jews, fears are growing about radicalization among the large local Muslim population.
“We have had of late this imported brand of hatred coming from west Asia which is really changing the Muslim population here,” said the local Jewish educator. “We see changes in them, and though there are moderates and good Muslims, there are some who speak against us.”
In the streets surrounding the Chabad House, Hindus and Muslims, Jains and Parsis all mix easily. This part of Mumbai has never experienced the communal violence that at times has wracked other parts of the city, according to residents.
Holtzberg and the other Lubavitchers staying at the Chabad center were a visible presence in the neighborhood, with their black garb and hats, said Kailash Sonawane, who lives across the street from the Nariman House. But Sonawane and other residents said the Chabad Jews kept to themselves, almost never speaking to local residents. Local residents were often shooed away from the Nariman House gate by the Chabad House residents, Sonawane and others said.
The Holtzbergs’ nanny would take their 2-year old son, Moshe, to play in the street outside the Nariman building, but she would never let anyone else play with or touch the boy, said Kalpana Sonawane, Kailash’s sister.
Still, they never had any concerns about the Jews living in their midst, the residents said. Following the attacks, however, the local residents said they were unhappy that Chabad-Lubavitch has declared its intention to rebuild another Chabad House on the same site.
They fear the new building could become a target again, endangering their lives. Terrorists firing from Nariman House during the siege shot and killed at least three Indians on the surrounding streets.
There seemed to be some separation, too, between Chabad and most of the local Jews, several in the community said. The community here has often been fragmented. The Orthodox Baghdadi Jews tended to look down upon the less observant and darker complected Bene Israel.
As the city’s Jewish population dwindled, however, these distinctions became less important. The Lubavitchers, however, remained unkown even to most other Mumbai Jews.
“Rabbi Holtzberg’s work was with visiting Israelis, businesspeople and tourists,” Korenstein said. In addition, the Chabad House is located in Colaba, at the southern tip of Mumbai’s long peninsula, whereas most Mumbai Jews live farther north.
But Holtzberg did provide kosher meat for the Orthodox among the Indian Jews and ran a Torah study class for local youth. He also led Shabbat services at the Keneseth Eliyahu synagogue, a turquoise-painted colonial-era temple that has become a popular tourist attraction for Jewish and non-Jewish visitors to the city.
Sopher said the attacks had already brought the community together as never before. He said the leadership of the various synagogues and community centers have met to figure out their response to the attacks and ways to enhance security.
But for now, the mourning continued. About 100 people gathered Monday at Keneseth Eliyahu to mourn the Jewish deaths.
Rivkah Holtzberg’s father, Shimon Rosenberg, memorialized his daughter and son-in-law, and thanked his grandson Moshe’s caregiver, Sandra Samuel, who escaped with the 2-year-old in the early hours of the siege.
“With great resourcefulness Sandra saved the life of my grandson,” Rosenberg said, according to reports. “Had she not he surely would have been murdered.”
During the ceremony, Moshe cried out for his mother.
Mark Sofer, the Israeli ambassador to India, spoke to the victims’ relatives and Mumbai Jews.
“The State of Israel will not sit quietly while Israelis and Jews are massacred just because they are Jews,” he said. “We will continue to work with India and with other countries in the world in order to prevent this kind of event from happening in the future.”