Ophira Gamliel on Malabar Jews

It is with a sense of discomfort that I write about my new book, as the shadows of unspeakable violence are cast over my homeland Israel/Palestine. The book deals with the forgotten history of a bygone era, far removed from the intense and devastating reality of the present. Yet, this study of the so-called “Black” Jews of Kerala in southern India seeks to counter the historical erasures and orientalist fabrications that Jews of colour have been subjected to in patterns of historical erasure that pertain even more forcefully to Palestinian history as several scholars argue (see, for example, here and here). Ostensibly, similar threads of historiographical bias run through the history of many other displaced peoples and uprooted communities between the Arabian Sea and the Mediterranean. But the present study focuses on the specific case of Malabar Jews in a well-defined period that has so far remained under-researched.

Leaving the broader analysis of historical erasure to future research, the present book challenges the conventional narrative that has relegated the history of Malabar Jews to a fuzzy, semi-legendary biblical past, denying concrete solid evidence of Jewish engagements dated in inscriptions precisely between 849 and 1489. In this respect, my book joins a steadily growing body of Jewish histories as integrated in the Arab-Persian world in attempts to overcome the nationalist notion of the “Gathering of Israel,” celebrating our displacement and abrupt mass transfers to the nascent State of Israel in the 1950s. As a result, we are asked to accept a fantastic narrative, whereby Jewish history in the Arab-Persian World starts with the Bible in late Antiquity and disappears from the records only to resurface in the sixteenth century in validation of the orientalist’s imagination of the “Lost Tribes.” In my book, I aim to unwind these historiographical biases, to reclaim the indigeneity of Indo-Arab Jews and, in so doing, to contribute to a growing trend of telling our sober, evidence-based histories.

It is in the mid-ninth century that the earliest evidence of Jewish presence in the Malabar Coast emerge owing to the rise of Indo-Arab networks along the maritime routes between the West Coast of India and the Mediterranean coastlines via the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. It took another three to four centuries before clearly distinguished Jewish spaces began to surface in the lush landscape of the Malabar Coast. By the sixteenth century, several Jewish communities were well rooted in the Malayalam-speaking region alongside Muslims and Christians, prospering under Hindu rulers and kings. Four centuries later into the colonial period, Jewish history in the region reached its abrupt end; they were displaced and uprooted from their homeland, Kerala, thrust into the gushing currents of mid-twentieth-century transformations that, in many respects, are still fuelling the murderous violence in the holy land in the twenty-first century. 

Kadavumbhagam-Kochi synagogue in ca. 1940, image courtesy of Madayi family private collection

Initially, my book was planned to cover this whole period from the mid-ninth to the mid-twentieth century, before realizing that in fact, there is so much more to tell based on the existing evidence, much more than anticipated. Besides, I was somewhat reluctant to engage in the sources emerging from the sixteenth century onwards, as I strongly felt that this was the period in which profound changes began to reshape the maritime networks of Indo-Arab traders. At least as far as it concerns Malabar Jews, these changes resulted in their racialization and marginalization, and in a relentless process of historical and heritage erasure culminating in the mid-twentieth century. I decided to leave the long sixteenth century to a separate study, even though some of my recent work deals with the more recent aspects of heritage erasure (in Hebrew, see here). In this book, I attempted to explore the untold, erased history of the period preceding the sixteenth century, arguing that the recurring trope of the “dearth of sources” attributed to that early period is due to historiographical biases favouring anachronistic readings of later sources mainly in European languages. It is for this reason that my book ends in the late fifteenth century, with the construction of a second synagogue in Kochi commemorated in a Hebrew stone inscription dated 1489. This synagogue, Tekkumbhagam-Kochi, was preceded by an earlier synagogue with a stone inscription dated 1344, Kadavumbhagam-Kochi, which was probably the earliest marketplace established on the island.

We often hear about the contribution of Jews to the establishment of prominent port towns like Aden or Amsterdam, but the fact that the port of Kochi had a synagogue for its earliest religious institution has so far gone unnoticed. To be sure, the role of Muslims in developing the prosperous port towns of the Malabar Coast is by far more significant, even if deserving more scholarly attention. My humble contribution is to critically assess the historical place of Malabar Jews within the broader framework of the Indo-Arab maritime networks prior to the so-called “Age of Discoveries” and the rise of European domination over the seas. My book seeks to remedy the erasure of Malabar Jews from the maritime history of contacts and exchange, as I watch with heavy heart the rapid destruction of the peoples and landscapes on an ancient international port on the coast of another sea, in Israel/Palestine.

Meydad Eliyahu, Flagpoles, oil on canvas, 15/25 cm, 2014–2016. Courtesy of Meydad Eliyahu. 

Today, perhaps more than ever, it is important to unearth our story, the story of Jews of colour, whose historical links to the once-prosperous hubs of trade and culture were so abruptly severed in the mid-twentieth century. These erased histories may hold the key to healing the disconnections and ruptures inflicted upon the centuries-old alliances and partnerships that characterized the maritime networks of the Indian Ocean World in the past.

By Ophira Gamliel

The book is available now, here!

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