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India, Israel and the Jewish People

Today’s growing relations between India and the Middle East are renewing ancient economic and cultural links. Ties between India and the Middle East are deeply embedded in the past. Archaeological excavations have uncovered a large number of stamp seals and other artifacts from the first Indus civilization in what had been ancient Mesopotamia, showing that Indian civilization has reached out to the Middle East since time immemorial. In fact, when it was first discovered, the Indus civilization was initially referred to as the Indo-Sumerian civilization (Sumer, often regarded as the earliest civilization in the Middle East, was located in southern Mesopotamia), so close the relationship between the two regions was thought to be. The artifacts found indicate that a fairly intensive and broad network of trade between Ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro existed 4,000 years ago.

Trade as well as extensive people-to-people contacts and cultural interactions between India and the Middle East continued to prosper over the centuries, at least until the rise of the English East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries. The expansion of Islam over the entire Middle East and large parts of India was a key factor contributing to the development of relations between the two regions.

Many Indians prefer the designation “West Asia” rather than “Middle East,” which they view as Eurocentric. West Asia is in better accordance with the geographical proximity of the region to the Asian subcontinent and the long-standing historical ties between the two sides. In this chapter, however, for reasons of coherence and because it is more suitable for a Western or Jewish audience, we will stick with the term “Middle East.” Although Israel is very much a part of the Middle East, the term as used here is meant to cover Turkey, Iran, and the Arab world from the western boundary of Libya to Iraq’s eastern border, including the entire Arabian Peninsula.

Abundant literature has appeared in recent times to describe the noticeable shift in the balance of power from the West to the East, with the West yielding some of its exclusive power to a rising Asia led by China and India. Yet, attention has just begun to be paid to the rapidly growing presence and influence of Asia in the Middle East.1 A recent notable contribution to the topic is the authoritative 2010 book by Geoffrey Kemp, The East Moves West: India, China, and Asia’s Growing Presence in the Middle East, to which we will occasionally refer. Kemp includes almost all the countries of Asia in his analysis. However, although Japan and South Korea have undoubtedly acquired impressive economic and industrial clout in the Middle East, their political influence on Middle Eastern affairs is likely to remain very limited, and this is even truer of other Asian countries, such as Vietnam or Thailand. In contrast, the rapidly growing links of China and India with the Middle East are likely to have major geopolitical impacts on the region. Since Kemp published his book, organizations such as the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace have begun to work on India’s growing links with the Middle East.

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