The Jerusalem Post

Forgotten Zionist and Jewish freedom fighter of India

- • By SURAJ RAJAN KADANTHODU The writer is a doctoral student of Israel Studies at the University of Haifa.

With India completing its 75th year of Independen­ce on august 15, it should be understood that its struggle for “Azadi “(independen­ce) from British imperialis­m was long and filled with sacrifices made by extraordin­ary individual­s. though the history books speak about numerous such personalit­ies, many still remain in the shadows. this article is about one such forgotten hero who made a significan­t contributi­on to India’s independen­ce and its social reform.

abraham Barak salem, an Indian nationalis­t, jewish social reformer and later a Zionist, was born in 1882 in Cochin, in the princely state of Kerala. he belonged to the “Meshuchrar­im,” a community of jewish slaves who were freed and accompanie­d the sephardi jews in their immigratio­n to India following the 16th-century expulsion from spain.

this community of sephardi jews was popularly addressed as Pardesi (foreigner/white) jews. But the meshuchrar­im, though sephardi, were treated with neglect by the self-proclaimed pardesi jewish community. though many believed that all these different jewish communitie­s would exist in harmony, but contrary to that expectatio­n there was significan­t segregatio­n and discrimina­tion among them.

salem was vocal about the discrimina­tion that pardesi jews instigated against the black jews and members of the meshuchrar­im community. they did not allow them to sit on the benches, nor call on them to recite prayers and were not even granted the permission to marry white jews and were denied the right to be buried in the pardesi jewish cemetery. salem saw these as similar to the caste discrimina­tion that was prevalent in India and fought to change them and thus emancipate the community.

he ardently believed in “Satyagraha” and “Ahimsa” (nonviolenc­e) and firmly trusted that social reform within his community and independen­ce from the British could be achieved only through gandhian principles. this belief gave him the courage to fight against the discrimina­tion faced by the black jews and meshuchrar­im by bringing them both together and boycotting the entry to the pardesi synagogue and also practicing disobedien­ce against the synagogue authoritie­s.

his protest forced the pardesi jews to make amends and eventually allow entry to all the members of the jewish community. on a similar note, he also campaigned for allowing lower castes’ entry into the local hindu temples and was viewed as a social reform leader by local hindus, Christians and muslims. the use of gandhian ideals and his propagatio­n among the masses earned him the title “the jewish gandhi.”

salem was ambitious and earned his law and bachelor’s degree from madras in 1902, becoming the first person from his community to achieve this level of education. his life in the city of madras and interactio­ns with john matthai, the second finance minister of independen­t India, and C. rajagopala­chari, the veteran congressma­n, opened his affiliatio­ns with the Congress party and its leadership. he began his political activities in the 1920s by coordinati­ng the activities of the Cochin port labor associatio­n in the 1920s.

he was actively involved in the Indian independen­ce struggle from the 1920s. he worked as one of the first three secretarie­s of the Indian states’ people’s party founded under the presidency of jawaharlal nehru, an organizati­on that served as a wing of the Congress party in the princely states of pre-independen­t India. In 1929, salem represente­d the princely state of Cochin at the lahore session of the Congress party where they adopted the “Poorna Swaraj” (complete independen­ce) resolution from British rule.

salem also visited mandate palestine in 1933 and after that visit he was deeply attracted to the Zionist cause. the connection­s he had with Zionist leaders like yitzhak Ben-Zvi, moshe sharett and david Ben-gurion helped him organize the smooth emigration of Cochin jews to Israel in the 1950s.

though he faced criticism from Congress leaders, salem saw no contradict­ion between his commitment to Indian nationalis­m and his growing interest in Zionism and believed that Indian independen­ce was “the key to the solution of the jewish state in the holy land.”

however, this was not a view shared by most Indian nationalis­ts, who were disturbed by the colonial aspect of Zionism and its territoria­l claim based upon religious identity. he even appealed to prime minister nehru to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, but due to the political compulsion from maulana azad, nehru went back on that decision and relations were only establishe­d in 1992.

despite obtaining an immigratio­n certificat­e for his family after his first visit to the holy land, he never made aliyah. Instead, he called on his jewish brethren in India to “go forth and have a stake in the land of their fathers.” he believed that he would be a non-entity in the new state and could do more in public life in Cochin where he was well establishe­d. he then retired from social life and passed away on may 20, 1967, at his house in mattancher­ry.

today there is an a.B. salem road in mattancher­ry, Kerala, named after him. In the teen murti house in new delhi, the official home of India’s first prime minister jawaharlal nehru, there is a large photograph of salem with nehru.

a.B. salem represents a chapter of Indian independen­ce history that’s not often remembered. his love for his motherland, the sacrifices he made for reforming his community and his struggles for Indian independen­ce must not be forgotten for posterity.

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