Friday, February 17, 2012

Recalling the Visit of Ezer Weizman to Cochin Synagogue - 1997

The Weizmans are welcomed by Sammy Hallegua
 By Bala Menon

Thursday, January 2, 1997 was a big, big day in Jew Town, Mattancherry. The flamboyant, Middle Eastern war hero and President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, landed in Cochin to visit the Paradesi Synagogue.

Indo-Israeli ties were beginning to warm after diplomatic relations were established in 1992 and Weizman's 7-day India visit, at the head of a 24-member delegation was intended to cement these ties.

Synagogue caretaker K. J. Joy recalls that there were about 5,000 security guards and police deployed in the narrow streets around Jew Town on the day of the visit.  The security men also marched to and fro in the synagogue and Joy's biggest concern was the possible damage to the antique blue porcelain tiles by the heavy boots of all the president's men.
A gift for the First Lady
The entire Jewish community of Cochin, headed by the late Sammy Hallegua, gathered to welcome the president and his wife Reuma. In his welcome address, Hallegua, who was also warden of the synagogue, said: "....this synagogue is built on land given in 1558 by Keshava Rama Varma, one of the most celebrated of the Cochin Maharajas...the location is near the vicinity of the palace...and successive rulers showed their benevolence."

And Weizman, in reply, hailed Cochin as a "symbol of the persistence of Judaism and of aliyah...I pay tribute to India for taking care of the Jews and their places of worship..." Speaking in both Hebrew and English, Weizman said: "May you all live happily ever after in all the world and in India." A video recording made on the
A 'battlefield' gift for the President
day shows Mr. Weizman telling invitees inside the synagogue that Israeli ties with India were blooming...

Standing alongside him was Bezalel Eliyahu, who emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s from the small Kerala village of Chennamangalam and was instrumental in turning Israel into one of the major flower exporters to  Europe.  (Bezalel has been hailed as the man who made the Israeli desert bloom and was showered with awards by the Israeli Government).

Gifts given to the Weizmans included a carved, wooden jewellery box and a sculpture  inside a glass case depicting the famous scene from the Mahabaratha with Krishna as the charioteer taking Arjuna into battle. Weizman then signed the visitor's book.

It was also a sentimental journey for the Israeli president, who served in India as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, operating out of the Yehlanka air base near Bangalore. He told high-ranking Indian officers, who gathered to give him a spectacular welcome at the base, about his career in the RAF.
"May you all live happily ever after"

"Those of us from Palestine, as it was then called, were considered more native than you in India and it took a long time to get into British flying school. After training in what was then-Rhodesia and later Egypt, I volunteered to fly a Thunderbolt  in the hope of catching the tail end of the war in Burma ... Unfortunately, after about half a year of  training in Bangalore they took the war away from us."

(In an interview, he recalled with nostalgia his weekly Sabbath visits to some Jewish homes in Bangalore. An Indian defence-related website (  reported: "...these visits tended to be noticeably more to one family than the others and everyone was  left guessing which family it was and, more importantly, why. All that could be gathered was that the President was indeed unmarried at the time!"). Incidentally, the Yehlanka air strip was built by Italian prisoners of war incarcerated in India.
Signing the synagogue's Visitors' Book
Ezer Weizman, (who was the nephew of Israel's first president Prof. Chaim Weizmann), was born in Tel Aviv on June 15, 1924, and raised in Haifa. He learned to fly at the age of 16, beginning his military career by joining the Royal Air Force in 1942 at age 18 as a fighter pilot. Weizman was one of a handful of pilots who founded the “Air Service” of the Haganah Jewish militia in Mandatory Palestine. He saw combat as a fighter pilot during the Israeli War of Independence, commanded a squadron, and later (1958-66) was commander of the  Israeli Air Force from 1058-1966. During the Six-Day War, which established Israeli supremacy in the volatile region, he was Chief of Operations of the General Staff, and later Deputy Chief of Staff. He retired in 1969 with the rank of major-general, and turned to politics. He became president of Israel on May 13, 1993.
Jew Town residents in the synagogue

His wife Reuma Schwartz was the sister of Ruth Dayan, wife of former Defence and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan.   Weizman died April 24, 2005, at his home in Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, at the age of 80.

Weizman wrote three acclaimed books: On Eagles' Wings: The Personal Story of the Leading Commander of the Israeli Air Force (1975)   The Battle for Peace (1981); Ruth, Sof (2002) (Hebrew)
Windows in Jew Town festooned with Indian and Israeli flags to mark the historic visit.

K.J.Joy, Mattancherry
Pictures: Courtesy - Kenny Salem of Mattancherry