When the Bnei Israel first came to Israel from India in 1952, little was known about their history, and their connection to the Jewish people was rejected by the Chief Rabbi of Israel. However, a new genetic study has justified their claims....
Theories about the origins of the Bnei Israel vary greatly. One theory holds they left northern Israel 2,000 years ago, another that they came from Southern Arabia or Persia, 500 years earlier, and yet another that they arrived from Yemen in the 8th century BCE. There is no independent support or substantiating evidence for any of these claims.
What is known is that at least as far back as the 18th century, Bnei Israel members lived in villages along the Konkan coast and were called Shanivar Teli, Marathi for ‘Saturday oil pressers’, since they worked as oil pressers but did not work on Saturdays. It is possible that the community had been there for much longer; Maimonides, a preeminent medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher, briefly mentioned a Jewish community living in India in a letter he wrote in the 13th century.
After Israel became a state in 1948, 2,300 of India’s 20,000 Jews arrived in Israel. Soon after, most of the remaining community immigrated to Israel. There are approximately 50,000 Beni Israel in Israel today, though 5,000 still remain in India, mainly in Mumbai.
In 1962, Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Yitzchak Nissim, ruled that the lineage of Indian applicants for marriage licenses would be closely inspected. In case of doubtful or unclear Jewish ancestry, the applicant was required to undergo a formal conversion. The press in India accused Israel of racism, and the Indian community in Israel staged protests against the religious policy, leading to a 1964 rabbinical ruling that the Beni Israel are “full Jews in every respect”.
Now, fifty years later, groundbreaking technology is able to back up the prescient ruling. A new genetic study of the Indian Jews proves that the community shares “considerable genetic ancestry” with today’s Jews, leading researchers to conclude that they are, indeed, of Jewish origin. The study was conducted by Dr. Yedael Waldman of Cornell University with an international team of scholars.
The study, published March 24th in PLOS ONE, concluded that the Bnei Israel did share much of their DNA with other Indians. But they also found genetic components that are not present in other Indian groups – components which connect them to the Jewish people.
“The study showed that the genetics of Bnei Israel resemble the local Indian populations, while at the same time constituting a clearly separated and unique population in India,” the study stated. “They are unique among Indian and Pakistani populations we analyzed in sharing considerable genetic ancestry with other Jewish populations.”