Sidestepping Jewish apartheid
Edna Fernandes, author of The Last Jews of Kerala, responds to Ben Rich's criticism of her book in the July/August issue of New Humanist
It was with some bafflement that I read your reviewer Ben Rich’s piece on my book The Last Jews of Kerala. He casually dismissed the people as “not terribly interesting” and opined there “must be more” to the history than what he described in his review. Indeed, there is a lot more.
Mr Rich has made the glaring omission of failing to mention the crux of the book and history – apartheid between the Black and White Jews which lasted for centuries and resulted in a bitter conflict and civil rights battle that raged for four hundred years. Just a small omission, then.
He characterises the Cochini Jews as small-minded and not worth mentioning. Yet my book portrays a people torn by an apartheid he dares not mention. The man he describes as “pretty unpleasant” is the son of the leader who emancipated the Black Jews, AB Salem, who was a protégée of Gandhi and Nehru and who used the same tactics used in the Indian Independence movement to fight for justice in Cochin. He is an Indian and Jewish hero who earned the epithet of the “Jewish Gandhi”. His son Gamy Salem tells me that amazing story, yet Mr Rich prefers to focus instead on a light hearted joke that has been deliberately distorted to make an old man look bad.
So, Mr Rich. Apartheid, a civil rights battle, a Shakespearian feud and a Jewish Gandhi. Personally, I think that’s pretty interesting. Indeed, Mr Rich found it so interesting that he made it the subject of his column in another publication – yet he chooses not to mention this same divide is the subject of the book he is reviewing.
For my part, I found the Jews of Kerala tormented by the realisation that they must close the door on a history tainted by division. I absolutely disagree with the reviewer when he says they are not worth our attention and “not very nice” as he puts it. I lived among them. They are ordinary people dealing with the extraordinary pressure of knowing they are the last of their kind after 2000 years.
Last, we authors expect some caustic reviews along the way. That is part of the terrain. What authors should never accept is sloppy reviews that distort the facts through deliberate omission.