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Mumbai's Jews remain at one with Muslims despite antisemitic attack

As the first reports broke of last week's attacks on Mumbai, the fact that two heavily armed Islamist extremists had broken into a mottled apartment block hidden deep in the ramshackle sprawl of south Mumbai almost escaped notice.

Within hours, however, it had dawned on India's Jews, a community that traces its roots to the court of King Solomon, that for the first time in their history they had been targeted because of their religion.

Six people – all foreign Jews – died inside Nariman House, the home of the American-Israeli Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, and his pregnant wife, Rivka. The couple's two year old son Moshe was saved by his Indian nanny.

The hospitality of the Holtzbergs was legendary. The building, a centre run by the ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement, was a home-from-home for young Israeli backpackers and high-flying corporate nomads alike, who went there for kosher food and companionship.

The brutality their home witnessed on November 26 and 27 – there are indications that the six who died inside were bound and tortured – has shaken Mumbai's Jewish community to the core.

"We are a tolerant society, we've never had any anti-Semitism in India. We can't fathom the reasons for this attack," Elijah Jacob, a local Jewish leader, said. "We can no longer remain complacent."

Numbering only about 5,000 in a city of 18 million people, Mumbai's Jews constitute but a speck in the city's cosmopolitan whirl.

But scattered around the city, there are relics that bear witness to how the Jews helped create Mumbai, a city built on land claimed from the Arabian Sea. For more than a century, the most important has been the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. A grand colonial building in the heart of Mumbai's financial district, its flaking turquoise façade stands testimony to how a handful of Jews helped shape modern India.

If the bullet-scarred Nariman House were to usurp the synagogue as the concrete symbol of the fate of India's Jews, it would mark a pitifully sad turn in a hitherto resplendent history.

The community's true origins are tangled in a web of apocryphal accounts. Some believe the first came as emissaries from the court of King Solomon, to live peacefully with India's Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and – later, from the days of the Mughal Empire – Muslims.

In the 18th century, Jewish merchants landed in what was then British Bombay from Syria and Iraq. These "Baghdadi Jews" established themselves as master traders and about 200 remain in the city. Much of the apparatus that cemented Mumbai's status as India's counting house, the country's commercial capital, such as the massive Sasoon docks, was financed by them.

Today, most of Mumbai's Jews trace their roots back to the Bene Israel community, said to be descended from seven Jewish families who were shipwrecked while fleeing persecution in Galilee 2,200 years ago. This group adopted Indian customs and went on to become a force in that most Indian of industries: Bollywood.

Even after the terrible events of last week, Mumbai's Jews insist that their relationship with India – and with its Muslims – has not changed.

They note how their ties with their city's Muslim community have historically been strong, the two groups have been drawn together as minorities in a Hindu-dominated land – even by the similarities of their non-vegetarian diets.

"For these reasons, most Bene synagogues in Mumbai are in Muslim areas," Jonathan Solomon, chairman of the Indian Jewish Federation, said.

It should not be surprising then, that the city's Muslims have echoed the wider world's abhorrence of last week's brutality. Mumbai's Muslim Council has ordered that the nine gunmen killed should not be buried in the city. Even before the edict, the Jama Masjid Trust, which runs the Badakabrastan graveyard in the heart of the city had broken with Islamic tradition and refused to receive the bodies. Hanif Nalkhande, a spokesman for the trust, said: "People who committed this heinous crime cannot be called Muslim. Islam does not permit this sort of barbarism."

The gesture has been appreciated by the Jews. "It show we are all together in this fight," Mr Jacob said.

Meanwhile, some are seeking solace in the belief that those who came to kill were from outside Mumbai, a theory that tallies with Indian officials' insistence – yet to be proven – that the gunmen came from Pakistan.

"It is this outside influence that has played havoc," Mr Solomon said.

"There have been Indian Jews since time immemorial. We have not just been tolerated but treated with love by all sections of the community, especially the Muslims. In fact, I often think that if the Jews and Muslims of Mumbai can live so well together, why can those of Israel not?"

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Added: Dec-6-2008 Occurred On: Dec-5-2008
By: berlin_hamann
Iraq, News
Tags: mumbai, jews, muslims, violence, terrorism
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