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The silent Jewish population in Bangladesh

Crypto-Judaism, Bene Israel, Jews in Dhaka, Jews in Bangladesh, Baghdadi Jews, Mesopotamian Jews, German Jewish, Adolph Hitler, Nazi, British Empire, Jews, Israel, Bangladesh

Oped

The silent Jewish population in Bangladesh

Ask any of the ignorant journalist with pre-conceived mindset about existence of Jewish population in Bangladesh, they will give a prompt reply stating “Jewish community virtually non-existent in Bangladesh”, while others will say – Jewish population has gone extinct in Bangladesh. But the fact is just opposite. There certainly are Jews in Bangladesh. Now, only a few Jewish families live in Bangladesh very quietly (practicing Crypto-Judaism) due to government policy of anti-Semitism and hostility towards the State of Israel.

According to Wikipedia, the history of the Jews in Bangladesh refers to the history of a tiny Jewish community in Bangladesh, previously known as East Pakistan. Jewish history in the country can be traced to the 18th and 19th centuries. The Jews of British India and Pakistan had a small community in what is now Bangladesh, particularly in the city of Dhaka. Jewish residents were also reported in Rajshahi. The Jews of Bangladesh are reported to have been Baghdadi Jews and the Bene Israel.   

Most of these Jews emigrated by the 1960s.

Jews have been linked to the modern history of Bangladesh. Some of the prominent Jewish residents included Mordechai Cohen (popularly known as Mordi Cohen), a former television newsreader and actor; and Alex Aronson, an academic who taught at the University of Dhaka. Some foreign Jews who are prominently associated with the country include the American architect Louis Kahn, who designed Bangladesh’s parliament; and J. F. R. Jacob, an Indian army general who served in the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Mesopotamian Jews, also known as Baghdadi Jews, settled in the cities of east Bengal. During the Mughal period, east Bengal was a hub for Eurasian merchants due to the thriving muslin trade in Bengal. Baghdadi Jewish merchants had settled in Dhaka during the 18th-century. The region was later administered by the British Empire. A notable episode during the colonial period involved Alex Aronson, a German Jewish academic and friend of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

During the outbreak of the Second World War, Aronson was viewed as an enemy alien by the British colonial government. Despite being a Jew, he was suspected of being a spy of Axis Germany. Aronson was detained and placed under house arrest, which disrupted his work in Santiniketan University in India. His friend Rabindra Nath Tagore requested the British government to release him but Tagore’s request was initially turned down. Tagore then secured the help of Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin of Bengal to have Aronson released.

It may be mentioned here that, Indian political leader Subhash Chandra Bose had not only met Adolf Hitler, he had reportedly extended support and assistance to nefarious Nazi forces. German Jew Alex Aronson was arrested in India at the special request of Hitler’s Nazi officials.

After Tagore’s death in 1941, Aronson began to teach in Dhaka University in the hometown of Sir Nazimuddin, a member of the Dhaka Nawab Family.

The Jews were mainly based in Calcutta of West Bengal. They managed to create a full community, built synagogues, schools, and hospital for the Jewish community.

The Jewish population in East Bengal was only about 135 Jews at the time of the Partition of British India in 1947.

Mordechai Cohen, who was born in Rajshahi, became an English and Bengali newsreader for Pakistan Television in Dhaka, then East Pakistan.

Members of the Bene Israel community also resided in Dhaka in the 1960s. By the late 1960s, much of the Jewish community had left for Calcutta. According to historians, “There were two Jewish families in Bangladesh [after independence], but both migrated to India — one in 1973 and the other in 1975”. In 2018 4 Jews were in Dhaka.

Again, this figure is not ample. As I have mentioned, Jewish families live in Bangladesh very quietly (practicing Crypto-Judaism), the exact number of Jews in Bangladesh is undocumented as they are not allowed to openly declare their religious identity. Back in 2009, I have repeatedly said, there are almost five thousand Jews in Bangladesh. While a Jewish synagogue, which later was mentioned as prayer hall by some writers including Dr. Shalva Weil (a specialist in India’s Jews and a Senior Researcher at the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) – still remains in Dhaka, this has not been covered by most of the Jewish media. . But unfortunately, Iranian regime and Palestinians had hired some journalists from the US to outrightly reject my claim about existence of Jews and a synagogue in Bangladesh.

It may be mentioned here that the Polish-American Jewish architect Louis Kahn worked in East Pakistan and post-independent Bangladesh to design the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban [National Parliament building].

During the Bangladesh War of Independence, Major General J. F. R. Jacob played a key role in the surrender of Pakistan.

According to record of the Jewish Telegraph Agency, on 7 February 1972, it is stated that “Israel has officially recognized the new state of Bangladesh. The announcement said that Foreign Minister Abba Eban informed Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdus Samad Azad of the recognition in a cable Friday. The recognition decision was taken after telephone consultations with all members of the Cabinet Friday instead of waiting for today’s regular Cabinet meeting. Israeli recognition was first requested last April in a letter from Acting President Nazrul Islam and Foreign Minister Mastaque Ahmed of the Bengali provisional government which was then fighting a war of secession from Pakistan”.

Describing the history of Jewish population in Bangladesh, Dr. Shalva Weil, a specialist in Indian Jews and a Senior Researcher at the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote in Asian Jewish Life wrote: It often comes as a surprise that there was once a thriving Jewish community in Pakistan. This is well documented. The real mystery and surprise is the fact that there was also once a Jewish community in East Pakistan, today Bangladesh, of which little is known.

Shalom Cohen (1762-1836) was the founder of the Calcutta Jewish community in West Bengal, which today is a part of India. He had migrated there from Surat (today in another part of India) in 1798. And, he also established the East Bengal Jewish community in what has become Bangladesh today. He sent his employees to Dacca (today Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh) to trade in cloths, silks and muslins, and he himself sojourned there too. In 1817, Moses Duek, a businessman married to Cohen’s eldest daughter Lunah (at the age of 13!), left Calcutta to live for several years in Dacca and established a prayer hall there. Duek carried out his business in partnership with a non-Jew from Aleppo. In 1822, Duek finally returned to Calcutta with his family from Dacca, but kept up business contacts there. It is significant that, while the Baghdadi Jews continued to trade in Dacca, mainly in textiles, but also in pearls and opium, most of the Jews did not live there but actually resided in Calcutta, where they established multiple synagogues.

… The Jews in East Pakistan (before it became Bangladesh) were in no way numerous and kept a very low profile in this Muslim country. Apparently today, a few Jews still remain, but they are quite assimilated. There is no synagogue today in Bangladesh, although a few expatriates do meet up on the eve of the Jewish New Year and on the Day of Atonement. Getting a portrait of this elusive community requires patience, a few of the right contacts and quite a bit of ‘digging’. A posting on Trip Advisor by a tourist asking where the synagogue is in Dhaka for Yom Kippur received no serious response and a few months later, the blog was closed “due to inactivity”. Another Jewish blogger shared that he went through a full orthodox conversion, is himself of mixed ancestry, his father being Yemenite Jewish and his mother Bangladeshi. Other people have written into the same blog saying they do business with Bangladesh, visit there and a few even reside there. As one person wrote: “The only Jews you will find in Bangladesh are those merchants with extensive business reasons to stay in Bangladesh.”

But liberating military commanders, the monuments of great architects, intrepid travelers and fortune seeking businessmen do not make a community. The question still remains, who are the Jews of Bangladesh? Joseph Edward of Ontario, Canada, explained the history of his family and their unique ties to the region. Joseph’s father Rahamim David Barook and his older brother Ezra Barook, were born in Calcutta, and moved to what was then East Pakistan. They adopted the surname Edward; his brother Ezra was known as Eddy Edward. Rahamim David Edward, Joseph’s father, married a Catholic of Portuguese descent. His uncle married a tribal king’s daughter from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and she gave birth to a son. However, his wife died during childbirth and Joseph Edward’s uncle gave the baby up to a Muslim family for adoption. Edward has been in contact with cousins living in Arad and Beersheba, Israel. Other members of the family live in Sydney, Australia, in the UK and in Toronto, Canada.

Two other families of Jewish descent do in fact still live in Dhaka, but they have converted to Catholicism. Priscilla nee Jacob was married to Alfie D’Costa, who died some years back. Priscilla had her own private school in Dhaka. Her brother Henry also married locally and still resides in Dhaka as a Catholic. Likewise, there were two other Jewish brothers in East Pakistan, whom Joseph Edward knew: Enoch and Zebulon Daniels. Enoch lived in Chittagong and Zebulon lived in Dhaka. Their children now live in Canada and the UK.

Here, with due respect, I would like to disagree with Dr. Shalva Weil. Jews in Bangladesh have not converted into Catholicism. They had to hide their religious identity due to fear of being persecuted by anti-Semitic radical Muslims. To my knowledge, there are hundreds of Jews in Bangladesh living by pretending to be ‘Jehovah’s Witness’. But in reality, they are Jews.

For many years, Blitz, the newspaper I have been editing has been regularly arranging special programs on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah in particular. We do have local attendants from people of various faiths, including local Jews.

After fifty years of independence, recently Bangladesh removed “except Israel” words from its passport, which has been seen as a positive sign by most of the people, including experts on geopolitics and diplomacy. They said, Israel is being successful in normalizing relations with a number of Arab and non-Arab Muslim nations, while there is strong possibility of establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Recently, Jo Cohen, wife of Mordechai Cohen (Mordi Cohen) gave an exclusive interview to me. Here are the excerpts:

Rare photograph of Mordechai Cohen (Mordi Cohen) with a friend, possibly taken in 1969. We received this photograph from Mrs. Jo Cohen, wife of Mordi Cohen

Blitz: June 23 was the 80th birthday of your late husband Mordi Cohen, a newspaper from Bangladesh, a country with which you have emotional attachment is seeking to publish your interview. Would you please tell us about those last days of Mr. Mordi Cohen, and if he was missing Bangladesh?

Jo Cohen: My late husband missed Bangladesh all the years that we lived in Calcutta. He came from Dhaka in August 1968, we met in 1969 and married in 1970, so I didn’t live in Bangladesh.

He used to say that he was a Barendra Bengali first and a Jew second. No mangoes were as sweet as those in his grandfather’s garden in Rajshahi, no fish as tasty as those he had eaten there, no biriyani as good, no dahi as rich. He never forgot the sweets of Natore, the khejurer gur, the watermelons that grew on the char land of the Padma river, the round cheese sold in shops around Baitul Mukarram. He loved the land, its language, its people, its culture, its music, its literature and history. 

When we visited Dhaka in 1972, he was eager to meet his old friends and happily made a guest appearance on TV, which was still in the DIT building in those days. And he wept for the friends, elders, teachers, doctors who lost their lives in the war.

He was delighted to be invited to Dhaka for the Golden Jubilee of Dhaka TV in December 2014, and was interviewed on TV and by some local papers.  A few of his old friends were still there and he was happy to spend time with them, talking about the old days.

Blitz: Despite the fact of existence of a very slip or almost no Sikh population in Bangladesh, we have Sikh gurdwara in Dhaka and other parts of the country. Do you think, Jewish population in the world needs to initiate establishment of a Synagogue in Bangladesh?

Jo Cohen: Interfaith dialogue and understanding are essential. Ignorance breeds suspicion, then fear, and that often leads to unthinking violence. In Kolkata I have been working for some years with interfaith groups, although the pandemic has interrupted that.

We, Bengalis are by nature, a grateful nation. We definitely value Israel’s support towards our war of independence and its recognition to a newly born Bangladesh, at a crucial time when majority of the Arab nations were unwilling to recognize us. Even Palestinian leaders, including the Grand Mufti had run nefarious propaganda against Bangladesh and our war of independence and branded our freedom fighters as “terrorists”. Despite such unacceptable behavior of the Palestinians, we have shown sympathy to them by donating cash and medicine. We have also established diplomatic relations with Pakistan, a country which had committed genocide of Bengalis and murdered three million people. As Bangladesh has already emerged into the paragon of socio-economic progress in the world, it is high time for us to reboot our diplomatic policies and mindset. We need to normalize relations with the State of Israel.

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An internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, research-scholar, counter-terrorism specialist, and editor of Blitz. Follow his on Twitter Salah_Shoaib

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