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Jewish Social Studies 7.2 (2001) 89-113

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Constructing a Jewish Nation in Colonial India: History, Narratives of Discent, and the Vocabulary of Modernity

Mitch Numark

Throughout the nineteenth century, Baghdadi 1 and British Jews questioned the "Jewishness" of the Bene Israel community of western India. Leading the charge were the Bombay Baghdadi Jews. One reason why the Baghdadis challenged the Bene Israel's Jewishness was to achieve the status of Europeans in colonial India. 2 They viewed the Bene Israel as an Indian community with a tenuous Jewish claim. Baghdadi Jews, in contrast, viewed themselves as "pure" Jews. Association with the Bene Israel, for Baghdadi Jews, was viewed as an association with Indians. This was unacceptable for many in the anglicized Baghdadi community who saw themselves as foreigners in India. In Britain, some in the Anglo-Jewish community questioned the Jewishness of the Bene Israel because the Bene Israel were unlike so-called "traditional Jews." That is, for many British Jews and Baghdadi Jews, the Bene Israel seemed Indian, not Jewish.

These views challenged the Bene Israel's late-nineteenth-century self-conception that they were unquestionably Jewish. The Bene Israel community before the mid-eighteenth century was unknown to the Jewish world. But by the late nineteenth century, the Bene Israel, steeped in almost a century of Christian missionary education that-- perhaps ironically--promoted their Jewishness, identified themselves as part of the Jewish people. Moreover, throughout the nineteenth century the Bene Israel--assisted by Christian missionaries and other [End Page 89] Jewish communities--furiously acquired the accoutrements of conventional Jewish life. Beginning in the 1880s, the Bene Israel began passionately to defend their Jewishness in Indian journals and, in particular, in London's premier Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle.

Haeem Samuel Kehimkar (1830-1909) was the Bene Israel educator-scholar whose writings spearheaded the defense of the Bene Israel's Jewishness. His task was not easy: Kehimkar was quite aware the Bene Israel had unique religious practices 3 that could easily be mistaken for "Hindu" or "Muslim" practices. Before the eighteenth century, the Bene Israel did not have any regular contact with the Jewish world. In fact, it was well known that the Bene Israel were a "recently discovered" Jewish community, educated in Judaism by Christian missionaries and Cochin Jews. 4 Moreover, the Baghdadi Jews' criticisms of the Bene Israel were confirmed by the British Indian government when the 1885 Bombay Gazetteer--the official ethnographic text of the Bombay government 5 --ascribed to the Bene Israel "superstitions and heathenish [Indian] customs." 6 These statements, for the Bene Israel, were disparaging because they implied that the Bene Israel's practices were Indian and not, therefore, Jewish.

This article is an excavation of Kehimkar's defense. Unlike most scholarship on the Bene Israel, the question of whether the Bene Israel are "true" Jews does not concern me. Rather, I am interested in how Kehimkar explained the Jewishness of the Bene Israel and the epistemological framework used to support that explanation. In his historical writings 7 --composed between 1888 and 1897--Kehimkar was keen to "prove" the "true" Jewishness of the Bene Israel as a means to thwart the claim that the Bene Israel were not a Jewish community but an Indian community. Kehimkar articulated his defense of the Bene Israel's Jewishness through the language and the classificatory schemas of modern thought. Using primarily his History of the Bene Israel of India, completed in 1897, which incorporated his early writings, I will illustrate that the inter-related discourses of modernity--such as nationalism, evolutionism, racialism, Orientalism, communalism, 8 and historicism--as well as the epistemological frameworks that enabled those discourses' legitimacy, were familiar to and employed by Kehimkar.

An argument embodying those discourses is significant because it signifies the Bene Israel acceptance of imported European categories of knowledge, which changed their worldviews and self-identity. In other words, Kehimkar's employment of modernity's discourses illustrates the naturalization of a hitherto alien framework of knowledge. It is this colonization of thought that produces...


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