Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
|Total population:||65,000 (est.)|
|Significant populations in:|
|Language||Traditionally, Marathi; those in Israel, mostly Hebrew.|
|Related ethnic groups|
The Bene Israel ("Sons of Israel") are a group of Jews who, in the mid-twentieth century, lived primarily in Bombay, Kolkata, Delhi and Ahmadabad. The native language of the Bene Israel is Marathi, while the Cochin Jews of southern India speak Malayalam.
The Bene Israel claim to be descended from Jews who escaped persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century B.C.E. The Bene Israel resemble the non-Jewish Maratha people in appearance and customs, which indicates intermarriage between Jews and Indians. The Bene Israel, however, maintained the practices of Jewish dietary laws, circumcision and observation of Sabbath as a day of rest.
The Bene Israel say their ancestors were oil pressers in the Galil and they are descended from survivors of a shipwreck. In the 18th Century they were "discovered" by traders from Baghdad. At that time the Bene Israel were practicing just a few outward forms of Judaism (which is how they were recognized) but had no scholars of their own. Teachers from Baghdad and Cochin taught them mainstream Judaism in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Jewish merchants from Europe traveled to India in the medieval period for purposes of trade, but it is not clear whether they formed permanent settlements in south Asia. Our first reliable evidence of Jews living in India comes from the early 11th century. It is certain that the first Jewish settlements were centered along the western coast. Abraham ibn Daud's 12th century reference to Jews of India is unfortunately vague, and we do not have further references to Indian Jews until several centuries later.
It is estimated that there were 6,000 Bene Israel in the 1830s, 10,000 at the turn of the century, and in 1948 -- their peak in India -- they numbered 20,000.  Since that time, their population in India has decreased through emigration (mostly to Israel) to under 5,000.
In 1964 the Israeli Rabbinate declared that the Bene Israel are "full Jews in every respect."
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