Jews and Judaism have had more links with old and new India, and played a more important role in the Indo-Israeli relationship than is generally known.
Contacts Between Two Old Civilizations
Words of Indian origin appear in the Hebrew Bible, e.g. for the spices imported from India for the daily Temple service in Jerusalem. The Jews of Hellenistic and Talmudic times knew India and its goods. Medieval philosophers, e.g. Maimonides and Yehuda Ha-Levi, discuss India. In modern times, Jewish refugees, adventurers, and seekers of Eastern spirituality have flocked to India. However, they have had little impact and built no lasting bridges between India and the Jewish people.
The Jews of India
In contrast, the Jews of India did build bridges. Jews lived peacefully in India for centuries. They preserved their Judaism not as a reaction against external hostility as in other cases – there was never any indigenous anti-Judaism in India – but because they cherished their Jewish traditions and developed creative cultural interactions with their Hindu and Muslim environments. Hindu India did not try to convert non-Hindus, was not jealous of Jewish success, and had no negative religious memories of Jews. In the 20th century, Jews made remarkable contributions to all facets of Indian life despite their small numbers – to public health, education, the film industry, the armed forces, and more. The Indian caste system, which prohibited intermarriage between castes and religions, helped the Jews to preserve their identity. When the caste system weakened after India’s independence, this protection risked collapse. This is one of the reasons why the great majority of Indian Jews emigrated to Israel after 1948. In Israel, Indian Jews have not become politically prominent, but perhaps a new role awaits them now. This is what the Indian embassy in Israel thought when it called on Indian Jews in 2015 to help strengthen Indo-Israeli links.
Failed World Jewish Interventions for Zionism and Israel 1920-1970/80
In the 20th century, world Jewish outreach to India focused on Zionism and Israel. India’s Jews received educational, professional, and economic help from Jewish organizations, but they were not discriminated against and their condition did not call for any foreign crisis intervention. There were Western Jews who sympathized with India’s struggle for independence and admired Gandhi. One of them was the South African Herman Kallenbach who became one of Gandhi’s closest friends (Gandhi lived 1893-1914 in South Africa). However, in the early 1920s, even before the first Zionist approaches, the Palestinian nationalist leader Hadj Amin El-Husseini understood the importance of India and sent emissaries to agitate there against Zionism and the – fabricated – “Jewish threat” against the El Aqsa mosque. Some years later, Zionist emissaries together with Kallenbach tried to convince Gandhi that Zionism was a just cause but failed. Gandhi’s opposition is often misunderstood and is still quoted by Israel’s enemies. Gandhi was attuned to Muslim sensitivities, particularly on Palestine, because his overriding aim was to prevent the partition of India and the creation of a Muslim state. He, Nehru, and the Congress Party feared that the proposal of a Jewish state requiring the partition of Palestine would become a precedent for the partition of India – which is indeed what happened in 1947. Albert Einstein, too, tried to convince Nehru in 1947 to agree to the creation of a Jewish state, but he also failed. Gandhi had great sympathy for the Jewish people and knew of their suffering but simply did not grasp the enormity of the Nazi threat. It is clear from his exchanges with Kallenbach that in private he did not oppose Zionism as he did publicly.7 There is some evidence that Gandhi slowly began to change his opinion about a Jewish state before he was assassinated in January 1948. In any event, early Zionist lobbying of Indian leaders was bound to fail. There was no chance that these leaders would yield to foreign pleas and run the risk of infuriating their country’s Muslims. Even after partition, the “Muslim constraint” did not allow open links with Israel. But India agreed to contacts with international Jewish organizations. This was an opening that the Jewish people could not, and did not miss.
Successful World Jewish Interventions
Almost from the day Israel was created and found the doors to India closed, international (mainly American) Jewish organizations opened a dialogue with the governments of India and lobbied them to recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations. The heads of the World Zionist Organization and the World Jewish Congress participated in these efforts, and so did prominent American Jewish congressmen who were regarded as friends of India and whose advice India could not easily ignore. In the end, whenever Indian leaders visited the United States, it became a habit for them to meet with American Jewish leaders. Jewish lobbying often focused on seemingly minor problems, such as restrictions imposed on an Israeli consulate or the visa difficulties of an Israeli tennis team. Playing in India. However, the ultimate purpose was always the same: to wear down India’s rejection of Israel by bringing the American super-power into India’s political calculations. In the 1980s, pressure could be quite blunt, for example when Jewish leaders warned India that it could lose friends in the United States if it did not modify its Israel policy. Several factors motivated India to finally establish relations with Israel. Retrospectively measuring the relative weight of American Jewish pressure in comparison to other drivers of Indian policy is difficult. But it is sure that this long-lasting pressure had an impact on Indian thought and policy.
American Jews did not limit their initiatives to Indo-Israeli diplomacy. Jewish organizations reached out to the increasingly successful Indian diaspora in the United States. Jewish leaders called it “an investment in the future”: If Indians and Jews worked together and supported common interests, there would be positive repercussions on India’s Israel policies. No less portentous was the decision of American Jewish organizations to set up “interfaith” programs with American Hindus – there are more than a billion Hindus in the world. Three Hindu-Jewish summit meetings resulted from this initiative in Delhi (2007), Jerusalem (2008) and Washington (2009). These and other American Jewish initiatives demonstrated creativity and enthusiasm. They are reinforcing the triangular relationship between India, Israel and the Jewish people. The rise to power of an Indian leader who is friendly to Israel does not mean that World Judaism has no longer a role to play in the “triangle.” On the contrary, old problems have not all disappeared and new challenges and opportunities are waiting.