The Bene Israel (Hebrew: “Sons of Israel”) are a group of Jews who migrated in the nineteenth century from west Maharashtra to the nearby Indian cities, primarily Mumbai, but also to Pune, Ahmadabad, and Karachi (Karachi later became a part of Pakistan). Prior to these waves of emigrations and to this day, the Bene Israel formed the largest sector of the subcontinent’s Jewish population, and constitute the bulk of those sometimes referred to as Pakistani Jews. The native language of the Bene Israel is Judæo-Marathi, a form of Marathi. Most Bene Israelis have now immigrated to Israel.
The Bene Israel claim to be descended from Jews who escaped persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century B.C.E. The Bene Israel resemble the non-Jewish Maratha people in appearance and customs, which indicates some intermarriage between Jews and Indians. The Bene Israel, however, maintained the practices of Jewish dietary laws, circumcision and observation of Sabbath as a day of rest.
The Bene Israel believe their ancestors were oil pressers in the Galilee and that they are descended from survivors of a shipwreck. In the 18th Century they were “discovered” by traders from Baghdad. At that time the Bene Israel were practicing just a few outward forms of Judaism (which is how they were recognized) but had no scholars of their own. Teachers from Baghdad and Cochin taught them mainstream Judaism in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Jewish merchants from Europe traveled to India in the medieval period for purposes of trade, but it is not clear whether they formed permanent settlements in south Asia. The first reliable evidence of Jews living in India comes from the early 11th century. It is certain that the first Jewish settlements were centered along the western coast. Abraham ibn Daud’s 12th century reference to Jews of India is unfortunately vague, and we do not have further references to Indian Jews until several centuries later.
Under British hegemony, many Bene Israel rose to prominence because their religion classified them as “Anglo-Indian.” They were not affected by racially-discriminatory policies, and as such were able to gain higher, better paying posts in the British army when compared with their non-Jewish neighbors. Many Bene Israel rose high enough that when the British left India in 1947, they felt that they stood to lose more than they could possibly gain under Indian independence. As such, most immigrated to Israel.
It is estimated that there were 6,000 Bene Israel in the 1830s, 10,000 at the turn of the century, and in 1948—their peak in India—they numbered 20,000.  Since that time, their population in India has decreased through emigration (mostly to Israel) to under 5,000.
In 1964 the Israeli Rabbinate declared that the Bene Israel are “full Jews in every respect.”
The Bene Israel claim a lineage to the Cohanim, the Israelite priestly class, which claims descent from Aaron, the brother of Moses. In 2002, a DNA test confirmed that the Bene Israel share the same heredity as the Cohanim