The Paradesi Jews, also called “White Jews”, settled in the Cochin region in the 16th century and later, following the expulsion from Iberia due to forced conversion and religious persecution in Spain and then Portugal.
Some went beyond that territory, including a few families who followed the Arab spice routes to southern India. Speaking Ladino language and having Sephardic customs, they found the Malabari Jewish community as established in Cochin to be quite different. According to the historian Mandelbaum, there were resulting tensions between the two ethnic communities. The European Jews had some trade links to Europe and useful languages to conduct international trade, i.e. Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish, later on maybe Dutch. These attributes helped their position both financially and politically.
When the Portuguese occupied the Kingdom of Cochin, they allegedly discriminated against its Jews. Nevertheless, to some extent they shared language and culture, so ever more Jews came to live under Portuguese rule (actually under the Spanish crown, again, between 1580 and 1640). The Protestant Dutch killed the raja of Cochin, allied of the Portuguese, plus sixteen hundred Indians in 1662, during their siege of Cochin. The Jews, having supported the Dutch military attempt, suffered the murderous retaliation of both Portuguese and Malabar population. A year later, the second Dutch siege was successful and, after slaughtering the Portuguese, they fanatically demolished most Catholic churches or turned them into Protestant churches (not even sparing the one where Vasco da Gama had been buried). Nevertheless, they were more tolerant of the Jews, having given many asylum in the Netherlands. (See the Goa Inquisition for the situation in nearby Goa.) This attitude differs with the antisemitism of the Dutch in New York under Pieter Stuyvesand around those years.
The Malabari Jews (referred to historically during the colonial years as Black, although their skin colour was brown) built seven synagogues in Cochin, reflecting the size of their population.
The Paradesi Jews (also called White Jews) built one, the Paradesi Synagogue. The latter group was very small by comparison to the Malabaris. Both groups practiced endogamous marriage, maintaining their distinctions. Both communities claimed special privileges and the greater status over each other.
It is claimed that the White Jews had brought with them from Iberia a few score meshuchrarim (former slaves, some of mixed African-European descent). Although free, they were relegated to a subordinate position in the community. These Jews formed a third sub-group within Cochin Jewry. The meshuchrarim were not allowed to marry White Jews and had to sit in the back of the synagogue; these practices were similar to the discrimination against converts from lower castes sometimes found in Christian churches in India.
In the early 20th century, Abraham Barak Salem (1882–1967), a young lawyer who became known as a “Jewish Gandhi”, worked to end the discrimination against meshuchrarimJews. Inspired by Indian nationalism and Zionism, he also tried to reconcile the divisions among the Cochin Jews. He became both an Indian nationalist and Zionist. His family were descended from meshuchrarim. The Hebrew word denoted a manumitted slave, and was at times used in a derogatory way. Salem fought against the discrimination by boycotting the Paradesi Synagogue for a time. He also used satyagraha to combat the social discrimination. According to Mandelbaum, by the mid-1930s many of the old taboos had fallen with a changing society.
The Cochini Anjuvannam Jews also migrated to Malaya. Records show that they were settled in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia. The last descendant of Cochin Jews in Seremban is Benjamin Meyuhasheem.
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