Israel’s Indian diamond dealers (Tablet Magazine)
By Anna Behrmann
For decades, diamond cutters and merchants from India—many of them Jains—have made their home in Tel Aviv. But their future prospects are cloudy.
In the sprawling urban suburb of Ramat Gan, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, four concrete and glass towers house Israel’s famous diamond exchange. Inside, aside from the occasional advertisement for spectacular transparent pink diamonds, the hallways could belong to any other slightly run-down white-and-gray office block. But this is no ordinary office. There are thousands of diamonds on site—and, I’m told, if one goes missing, the whole exchange goes into lockdown and no one can get in or out.
In just over 50 years, the Israel Diamond Exchange has become a leading diamond dealing and polishing market, competing with the larger Antwerp and Indian exchanges. A large trading floor is surrounded by hundreds of offices with thousands of workers. Deals are traditionally sealed with surprisingly little paperwork, and the words mazal u’bracha—luck and blessing.
Within the exchange, there is a tight-knit community of Indian diamantaires, with many of the families living in a nearby building complex. There are approximately 30 Indian companies, the majority of whose owners belong to the ancient Jain religion, the rest being Hindus. While some of the Indian diamantaires have lived in Israel for decades, they have not been granted citizenship under the country’s strict immigration laws. But many Indian diamantaires, who renew their visas through the diamond exchange every three years, consider the country to be their home.
Ajay Kumar Dhadha, 73, who is known by everyone as Shanti, has his flagship jewelry shop near the diamond exchange. He was one of the first Indian diamantaires to come to Israel, arriving in 1977 as an ambitious young man. He founded Shanti Gems and began buying and selling rough and polished diamonds, before setting up a small chain of jewelry shops.
Shanti appears quite formal, but quickly becomes very warm. Asked why he came to Israel, he said: “I believe in destiny.” Shanti is a strict vegetarian, as Jains believe that plants and animals also have souls. His ancestors are from Rajasthan in northern India, where they were involved in diamonds and trading coral. His family in India has a centuries-old tradition of hosting one of the largest religious carnivals in the city of Bikaner in Rajasthan each year, dedicated to the goddess of fertility.
While he originally came almost on a whim because there were very good rough-diamond prices, Shanti felt an affinity with Israel. “I liked the people,” he told me, “maybe because the Indian and Israeli mentality suit each other. Nowhere else in the world, apart from Israel and India, can you knock on someone’s door and walk in without making a prior arrangement. You feel like family here.”
Shanti has a Jain shrine in his home and office, but he also prays at the Western Wall as well as in mosques and churches. He used to go to Jerusalem twice a month with visiting members of his family from India. “I am Jain by religion, but I am a human being first and foremost,” he said. “People have asked me many times why I pray at the Western Wall. Jains believe in one God, and I believe that wherever you pray, you can pray according to your feelings.” He has stayed put in Israel through various conflicts, doggedly going into his office every day, even when Saddam Hussein was firing Soviet Scud missiles toward Tel Aviv in 1991.
When Shanti first arrived, he was surprised to see that Israeli women did not wear diamond engagement rings or jewelry. He recalls going to a bar mitzvah with his nephew from Mumbai, who wondered why Israeli women didn’t display their diamonds, unlike in India. He told the nephew that “surely, surely it will change.” Shanti was one of the first to open diamond jewelry shops in Israeli malls.
Shanti’s grandnephew, Pratiek Dhadha, 29, studied jewelry design in Florence and has lived in Israel since 2007. He selects jewelry for the 12 Shanti Gems shops and designs pieces inspired by Indian and Italian motifs. “I want to continue the legacy here,” he told me.
In his office within the diamond exchange, Shanti showed Pratiek and me his private collection of colored diamonds: blue, yellow, and pink ones in all sorts of shapes and sizes, carefully graded according to the four C’s—color, clarity, cut, and carat. As I weighed them in my hands, Shanti jokingly asked, “Is there something boiling?” Meaning: Are you likely to get engaged soon?
While Shanti intends to stay in Israel, he warns that Indian diamantaires are leaving—their numbers are down dramatically from their peak of around 50 companies in the 1980s—and business is suffering. He believes that the government is stifling growth by being overly heavy-handed with the industry, following recent fraud cases. This means that companies working within the law are still concerned about punitive measures. It is also now cheaper to polish smaller stones in India.
This sentiment is shared by Raju Shah, 52, another Jain diamantaire, who opened his business, Segaldiam, in Israel in 1988. The name of his company is inspired by his wife’s name, Sejal, which reminded him of the Hebrew word for violet: sigalit. While Shah likes living in Israel—“the weather is very nice, and the people are very friendly”—he no longer hopes that his two sons, both in their 20s, will follow his path. “I don’t want my children to stay in Israel,” he said bluntly. “Business is dying.”
Hitesh Patel, 64, founder of Shlok Diam, is more upbeat. Originally from a family of Hindu farmers, rising at five in the morning to grow rice, sugar cane, and vegetables, he moved to Surat, a center for diamond cutting and polishing in India, where he started out as a sorter and cleaver, a highly skilled cutter. The company he worked for sent him to Israel to buy rough diamonds, and he stayed there. He became very involved with the Indian diamond community, helping to organize events such as a Diwali party.
“I feel that Israel is my home and I want to stay until the end of my life. I love the country,” Patel said. His two sons, Shreyes, 35, and Abhaishek, 33, have both joined him in the diamond business. “We feel we have a future here.”