India

There has been a native Jewish presence in India since antiquity, as well as a Sephardi population that arrived in India at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. However, Sephardi Voices UK has been interviewing members of another section of Indian Jewry, the Baghdadi Jewish community, also known as Indo-Iraqi Jews. 

The Baghdadi Jewish community began in the 18th century as Jewish merchants from Iraq began to trade with the British East India Company. By the end of the 18th century around 100 Arabic speaking Jews were living in Surat. As Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay (now Mumbai) developed into commercial centres, Jewish merchants moved there to escape persecution in Iraq and began to build communities in India. Whilst the majority of the Baghdadi Jews did in fact come from Iraq, a small minority also came from Syria and Egypt. 

Several Indo-Iraqi families flourished throughout the 19th century, trading in cotton, fabrics, tobacco and even opium. This merchant elite funded synagogues and community life, including welfare for poorer Baghdadi families. The vast majority of the Baghdadi Jewish community worked in business, industry and finance, with very few entering Professions. Whilst wealthier Baghdadis quickly adopted European dress and the English language, poorer families continued to speak in Arabic and wear Arabic dress. The community never had its own Beth-Din (Jewish law court), instead deferring to Baghdadi law, and after WWI, to the Sephardi Rabbis in England. At its peak the Baghdadi community numbered between five and six thousand people.

Following the violence that accompanied the partition of India in 1947, fears of communism in the new state and increasing trading restrictions with the Middle East, many of the wealthiest Baghdadi Jews left India and settled in England. Once this elite subsection of society had left the country, the rest of the community quickly followed by emigrating to the UK or Israel and by the mid-1950s the community had all but disappeared. Throughout its history the Baghdadi Jewish community in India suffered remarkably little antisemitism.

 

Today there are less than 20 Baghdadi Jews living in India.  
 

Interviewees

SVUK is grateful for the support of The Exilarch's Foundation, The KC Shasha Charitable Foundation & The Shoresh Charitable Trust

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