I suppose like me, not many people have heard of Haifa Day. Before giving an account of that, one needs to know of the history of India and Jews, with a brief account of the afternoon.
The Haifa Day commemoration I was privileged to attend on Sunday was organised by the Hindu Council of Australia with the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, and was the coming together of two ‘ancient communities’ of Jews and Hindus and another chapter in the relationship between both peoples here in Australia.
The afternoon was very warm and interesting with plenty of engagement and more than an ample supply of beautiful food! It started with a candle lighting ceremony and of course, speeches.
Jeremy Spinak, the president of the NSW Board of Deputies, said in his speech that the Jewish and Hindu communities in Australia were building a bond between two ancient peoples and adding another chapter to the story of Jews and India.
We enjoyed a young Indian woman singing a haunting song and Dahlia Dior really setting the hall ‘on fire’ with her beautiful warm vibrant singing of Hebrew songs , with the entire hall clapping and singing.
India and Israel have many large trade agreements and since 1992, when bilateral trade initiated that year amounted to $100 million, today, it stands in excess of $5 billion.
A common bond both Israel and India share is that both were established as independent states in 1948.
The history of the Jews in India is a very long and warm relationship which dates back to ancient times, some two and a half thousand years, when Jews arrived and were the first non-indigenous people to live in India.
Indian Jews are a religious minority in India, but unlike many parts of the world, have historically lived in India without any instances of antisemitism from the local majority people, the Hindus.
The Jewish numbers of the population in India is hard to estimate, as each Jewish community is distinct with very different origins. Some allegedly arriving during the time of the Kingdom of Judah, whilst others are claimed to be descendants Ten Lost Tribes of Israel..
The oldest of the Indian Jewish communities is in Cochin. The traditional account is that traders from Judaea arrived in the city of Cochin, Kerala, in 562 BCE, and that more Jews came as exiles from Israel in the year 70 CE. after the destruction of the Second Temple. The distinct Jewish community was called Anjuvannam. There is a synagogue still functioning in Mattancherry belonging to the Paradesi Jews , the descendants of Sephardim who were expelled from Spain in 1492.
There are/were seven Jewish groups in India:
The ‘black’ Malabar component of the Cochin Jews, according to Shalva Weil, might have arrived in India together with Solomon’s merchants. The Cochin Jews settled down in Kerala as traders. The ‘white’ component is of European and other Jewish descent.
The Spanish and Portuguese Jews and British arrived at Madras during the 17th century, mainly as traders and diamond businessmen. They also have a large presence in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, where the Goan Inquisition was initiated in 1560.
Another branch of the Bene Israel community, resided in Karachi until the Partition of India in 1947 when they fled to India (in particular: Mumbai). Many of them also moved to Israel. Jews from Sindh, Punjab or Pathan area are often called incorrectly identified Bani Israel Jews. The Jewish community who used to reside in other parts of what became Pakistan (such as Lahore or Peshawar) also fled to India in 1947, in a similar manner to the larger Karachi Jewish community.
The Baghdadi Jews arrived in the city of Surat from Iraq (and other Arab states), Iran, Afghanistan about 250 years ago.
The Bnei Menashe are Mizo and Kuki tribesmen in Manipur and Mizoram who are recent converts to Judaism.
The Bene Ephraim (also called “Telugu Jews”) are a small group who speak Telugu; their observance of Judaism dates to 1981.
The majority of Indian Jews have moved to Israel since Her foundation in 1948.
However, since the start of the 21st century, new Jewish communities have been established in Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore, and other cities in India. These new communities have been established by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which has sent rabbis to create them. The communities serve the religious and social needs of Jewish business people who have immigrated or visiting India, and Jewish backpackers touring India. The largest centre is the Nariman House in Mumbai.
With this history Jews and Hindus have a close bond.
Haifa was captured from the Ottomans in September 1918 by Indian horsemen of the British Army from the 15th Cavalry Brigade, with cavalry regiments from the Indian Princely States of Jodhpur, Mysore and Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry from the divisions 14th Cavalry Brigade.
Indian soldiers have a long and proud history with the British armed services and there is a very interesting account of the various battles of the time in Palestine at Wikipedia
Israel ambassador to India, Alon Ushpiz, who participated in the Haifa Day celebration at Teen Murti Bhavan September 23 2013 , said in his speech,
“The heroism, tenacity and cavalry skills of the Mysore and Jodhpur Lancers that took control of the city from the Turks on September 23, 1918, proved to be a decisive factor in the victory over the Ottoman Empire. The historical battle of Haifa paved the way to the victory of the British Army and 30 years later — to the creation of the State of Israel.”
The Indian military annually marks “Haifa Day,” the day in which the Ottomans were ousted from the city, unlike the city of Haifa, which until 2010 had no commemoration and few knew of the bravery of the Indian soldiers, some 900 of whom died in battle for Haifa’s freedom. It had been thought that Haifa had been deserted by the Turks and hence the high number of casualties.
An account in Haaretz says:
Along Haifa’s Jaffa Street, just south of the row of fast-food and shawarma restaurants for which the city is famous, lie two cemeteries widely known as the final burial places of British soldiers who were killed in the pre-state Mandate during both world wars.
Historically, Haifa became the most important city during British rule in Palestine after World War I. Its main seats of power in the country were located in the northern coastal city.
But few know that one of the cemeteries on Jaffa Street is actually a memorial site to honor Indian fighters whose ashes were scattered in a river back in their homeland. Even fewer are aware that those who liberated Haifa from the yoke of Ottoman rule in September 1918 were Indian horsemen who overran Turkish positions armed with spears and swords.
The Indian ambassador to Israel, Navtej Sarna, noted in his speech that the soldiers fought valiantly for the British while they were engaged in a struggle against the British for independence..
Shlomo Gilboa, a member of the Haifa city council, said that few in the city are aware of the history and the municipality would officially mark the occasion annually.