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Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish Community: The Long View

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In Part 1 of a two part series, Jay Prosser explores Jewish Racism in Bombay and Singapore.

The Board of Deputies’ Commission on Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish Community could herald a sea change in Jewish communities becoming truly welcoming of Black (and other non-white) members.   

The six-month enquiry, which has been initiated by the Board itself, is an expression of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.  The project places the UK at the vanguard of international Jewish anti-racism. 

But while the enquiry is new, the problem is an old and surprisingly long-distance one. 

Take two cities, Mumbai and Singapore. In both, my family spent generations, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In both, there were divisions and exclusions within the Jewish community.  

In Bombay, there were two Jewish groups of different origin.   

The Baghdadis came from Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) in the mid-nineteenth century. They were spearheaded by the Sassoons, who built the first textile mills in India. The Baghdadis tended to be the wealthier Jews.  

The Bene Israel worked in the mills. These Jews, of uncertain origin, had been in India centuries, possibly millennia, before the Baghdadis. Poorer, they came to the cities from the countryside. In Bombay, they welcomed the Baghdadis into their synagogue and the Jewish area of Byculla. 

But then as they became more numerous and affluent, the Baghdadis started practising a form of segregation from the Bene Israel.  

There was the famous case of the cemetery.  In 1836, David Sassoon petitioned the British governor to have a wall erected in the Jewish cemetery, to separate the Bene Israel dead from the Baghdadi.

He wrote that, two ‘distinct tribes of Jews inhabit this country, one having adopted the customs of the natives of India and the other faithful to their Arabian fathers.’  In effect, two races.  One Indian and mixed; one Baghdadi and — not so implicitly — ‘pure.’ 

In the Magen David Synagogue, the Baghdadi synagogue built by David Sassoon, the Bene Israel didn’t count as part of the minyan and were not called to the bimah. 

Scholarships and charity funds were designated exclusively Baghdadi. Sports were segregated, so desperate do the Baghdadis seem to have been to avoid contact with the Bene Israel.  Perhaps most shockingly, certain hospital beds were Baghdadi-only. 

The Baghdadis were prohibited from marrying the Bene Israel.  Suspecting the Bene Israel’s Jewishness, it was effectively considered a form of intermarriage.  Indeed, there are cases of Bene Israel being made to undergo Jewish conversion.   

In the 1930s, in the run-up to Indian independence, the Baghdadis submitted another petition to the British.  They wanted to be classified as European, and so they sought to recast themselves as Sephardi – though they had no connection to Spain (Sepharad).   

Previously, Baghdadi Jews had been classified by the British as ‘Asiatic Turks’. As such, during the First World War, they had been considered as ‘enemy aliens’. 

In projecting themselves now as Sephardi-European, the Baghdadis sought to distance themselves, not only from their own Asian origins, but further from the Bene Israel, whom they styled as ‘Asiatic’, as really more Indian than Jewish.     

The division was reinforced along colour and cultural lines.  The Baghdadis tended to be fairer skinned.  They anglicized, shedding Arabic names for English ones, taking on European dress.  Generations of Sassoons received knighthoods in the Order of Empire. Some emigrated to England. They wanted to be seen as British and as white.

The David Elias Building in Singapore

In Singapore, the situation was in a way even more startling.  For among Jews who were all Baghdadis, there was nevertheless a split made up along constructed race lines. The wealthier again identified as British and white. The poorer Baghdadis were again lumped together as Asian.   

In both Bombay and Singapore, the wealthier Jews distanced themselves from the poorer Jewish quarter by moving to the sea front.  

In both places, the joke about needing ‘two synagogues’ acquired a nasty reality, since, in both cities, European-identified Jews built synagogues in order to distance themselves from the synagogue the others went to. 

One of the reasons the Board of Deputies Commision is so extraordinary is because you have to ask how much the British were to blame for race divisions among Jews in Bombay and Singapore. Segregation of ethnicities was, after all, the British Empire’s strategy of ‘divide-and-rule’. 

I asked this question of a London-based grandson of the Baghdadi who ran the famous fez factory in Bombay.  His answer was that Bombay was a case of three overlapping systems of segregation. British ‘divide-and-rule’ met India’s historical caste system. But these were both underwritten by more subtle Jewish anxieties about purity and mixing with strangers.   

Nationalism in the form of Indian independence and the foundation of Israel bought a massive decline in the population of all Jews in India.  There’s still a thriving community in Singapore, but that’s due to the influx of Israeli Jews and other expats drawn to work in technology and trading.

Ironically, I found that the Jacob Sassoon High Jewish school in Mumbai is now mostly Muslim. There aren’t enough Jews of any ‘race’ to populate it. Indeed, in retracing my family’s routes through Asia, I was only able to visit the Jewish cemetery and the Magen David in Byculla with the help of Muslim caretakers.   

There’s a salutary lesson here. The cases of Bombay and Singapore suggest that racial exclusion and segregation within the Jewish community only led to dwindling, and potentially the disappearance, of the community.

It’s a lesson the Commission would do well to learn at the outset.

Cover image: Magen David Synagogue in Mumbai 

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Jay Prosser is working on a book about his Asian-Jewish family. He is reader in humanities at the University of Leeds.
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