Rabbi couple asked to leave - Fear 26 / 11:

Ananthakrishnan G.

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March 11: The shofar (Jewish trumpet) has fallen silent at the Pardesi Synagogue in Kerala’s Mattancherry, home to the oldest Jewish settlement in India. A few yards away from the shrine built in 1568, its sole rabbi, Shenor Zalman Bernstein, and his wife Yaffa Shendi Keing are busy packing bags. The couple, who were issued quit notices by the foreigner’s office in Ernakulam district in central Kerala, will leave India tomorrow after an honourable exit provided by the high court. The exit would leave Jews, numbering not more than 46, in the district without a qualified priest to hold services like reading the Torah — the five books of Moses — or blowing the shofar on Jewish New Year’s day.

Their departure will also cap months of innuendoes, which at one stage prompted Israeli diplomatic intervention, and a disclosure that suggests the couple are being asked to leave because the Indian security establishment does not want to risk a rerun of the 26/11 Chabad House attack in Mumbai in which Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife were killed. Rumours implying that the couple in the southern state were Israeli secret agents were set to rest by a Kerala High Court ruling on Friday, though they lost the legal battle to stay on in India.

“Having heard the parties, I’m of the opinion that justice would be met if petitioners 1 and 2 are allowed to leave the country voluntarily without attaching any stigma on them in respect of their activities in Kerala and without any endorsement in their passports regarding the orders passed against them, treating them as tourists leaving the country after visiting India,” Justice S. Siri Jagan said. “If there are any difficulties for arranging tickets, they shall be given one more day’s time and in any event, they shall leave the country on or before 13-3-2012,” the court ruled.

A deportation notice was issued on February 3 by collector P. I. Sheik Pareeth, who is also the civil authority under the Foreigner’s Act. The order echoed the view of the foreign registration officer and the deputy commissioner of police that Bernstein and his wife “violated visa conditions by organising activities related to their religious life and belief under the organisation Habad in a synagogue in Mattancherry”.

Their visas had no endorsement that they could perform such activities, the notice said and asked them to leave India within 15 days. The couple contested this in court, saying they had not violated any visa condition and that they had mentioned the religious service in the visa application.

Their counsel, R. Lakshmi Narayan, pointed out that the report had even gone wrong on the word Chabad, referring to it as “Habad”. “The reference would have been to Chabad, an ideological movement within Judaism, whose members, as volunteers must assist all Jews around the world in their observance of Judaism,” Narayan submitted. In an interim order, the court asked the collector to hear out the couple. After the meeting on February 15, the collector “assured” the petitioners that they could continue in India till the expiry of their visa in April, Narayan told the court.

In his report on February 21, Pareeth upheld the Israeli couple’s contention that their intention to visit India was for synagogue service but added that “the same has not been endorsed in the visa issued by the embassy”. Pareeth then not only stuck to his original stand but also cited an “intelligence report against them” to justify the deportation order.

As the perplexed rabbi and his wife sought details of the “intelligence report”, state attorney P. Vijayaraghavan told the bench that their presence in Kochi (the commercial capital that falls in Ernakulam district) could jeopardise national security. The explanation given called into question the ability of the Indian State to protect people within its territory. The attorney said the presence of the couple could irk jihadi groups and there was a possibility of them being targeted.

The intelligence brief was shown to the high court but never made public. Highly placed sources said the agencies were concerned about a Mumbai-style operation in the city if the Jewish couple continued to stay there. By then, Israel’s minister for public diplomacy and diaspora affairs, Yuli Yoel Edelstein, had taken up the matter with the Indian ambassador in Tel Aviv, Navtej Sarna.

Expressing shock, Edelstein wrote to Sarna: “To the best of my knowledge, Rabbi Bernstein has not broken any laws or violated any of the terms of his visa.… The Cochin Jewish Community in Israel is astounded over the treatment of the benevolent Rabbi in India. It is my understanding that he has helped the community with the traditional Torah reading during the Sabbath services and has conducted funeral services for three elderly Jewish men who passed away in Cochin since he has been there. These services would not have taken place had your embassy not generously granted the visa to Rabbi Bernstein.”

According to the case papers, the couple had first come to Kerala in 2010 on a double entry visa on a request from the synagogue. They went back upon expiry of their permits but the synagogue took up the matter afresh. The rabbi and his wife returned to India on April 4, 2011, on a multiple-entry visa expiring on April 1, this year. The couple were not available for comment. “They do not want to get into any controversy,” Narayan said.

The Jewish community in Ernakulam, whose ancestors came to Kerala fleeing persecution and built the Mattancherry synagogue in 1568 on land gifted by the then king, is aghast. The Synagogue warden Joseph Hallegua, the last surviving member with knowledge of the rituals, is 86 and ailing. The Kochi Jew Town, a tourist attraction, had around 250 families before 1948 when the state of Israel was formed. Less than 10 members of the community are left in the town now and about 46 in the whole of Ernakulam.

“We are not a votebank and so there is no one to speak for us,” said Elias, an office-bearer of the Association of Kerala Jews.


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