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India, Israel and the Jewish People

Cultural policy to build soft power

No country wants to rely solely on military and economic means in the conduct of foreign relations. Cultural outreach to foreign audiences in order to promote a positive image of one’s country has become a common practice, and cultural policy to build “soft power” is today one of the pillars of international relations. Dance, music, literature, painting, photography as well as other performing and visual arts are forms of expression accessible to all and can break through language, political, and other barriers. In a world where politics polarizes societies, art can succeed in fostering dialogue. Academic and educational exchanges and initiatives can also be key instruments in improving mutual understanding and reciprocal perceptions. If cultural diplomacy helps build a foundation of trust between two nations, it could also encourage the development of ties on other levels.

Engaging foreign countries through cultural activity is particularly relevant to Israel. Many foreigners, including entrepreneurs and investors, show reluctance to visit Israel or initiate business activities in a country that they see as prone to instability and war. Exposing them to Israel’s remarkably dynamic culture and society could help overcome negative perceptions and arouse their interest in pursuing business opportunities in this country. More broadly speaking, cultural diplomacy can serve to influence foreign public opinion of Israel and help counter ignorance and misconceptions. Generally, it is an underutilized tool in fighting the international campaign to delegitimize Israel. This is particularly important, considering that many see Israel almost exclusively through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict.39 There is no continent where Israel’s cultural outreach is as critical, could have as much impact, and would be as well received as Asia, particularly India and China.

Asia is the fastest rising continent, yet for the great majority of Asians, if one excludes Muslims, Israel and Judaism are a blank slate. There is no tradition of indigenous hostility, and if there are prejudices and misunderstandings, they are imports from the West or from the Muslim world. Yet, there is no continent where Israeli and Jewish cultural outreach has been as weak and insufficient as Asia. Of course, this was originally due to the fact that few Jews lived in Asia and that most Asian countries established relations with Israel long after the West. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Jewish interest focused on the regions where Jews were living in the past and present: Europe, America, and the Muslim world. The case of India exemplifies the effort that will be necessary to close the gap.

Widespread Indian lack of knowledge of Jews and Israel

India is one of the few countries that have been historically free from anti-Semitism, whether popular or governmental. In the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that targeted, among other sites, the city’s Chabad Jewish center, Mumbai’s Jewish community continued to stress that Jews had never suffered from anti-Semitism and had always maintained friendly ties with their neighbors, including the Muslim community. Likewise, Indian public opinion of Israel is not hostile, in contrast to that of western European countries. In fact, according to a 2012 BBC annual global survey, 54 percent of the Indian public has no opinion about Israel’s impact on the world, whereas only 17 percent perceive Israel’s influence as mainly negative, well below the world average (50 percent) and that of Western countries.40 Another undated study has Israel’s favorability rating in India at 70 percent.41 Indian Jews as well as Israeli diplomats and visitors confirm the impression that India is a country where most people have no view of Israel or Jews at all, and if they do have one it is rarely hostile or negative. A poll carried out for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which measured attitudes toward Israel in 13 countries in 2009 found that no less than 58 percent of Indians were well disposed to Israel and supported the country, the best international score.42

Still, a degree of caution is required. The perception of Jews and Israel in India is not always clear-cut. For one thing, anti-Semitism was, in fact, not completely absent in Indian history, but when it emerged, its sources were not indigenous. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Indian Jews living in the states of Goa and Kerala endured harsh persecution at the hands of Portuguese Christian rulers and missionaries. To this day, a form of transplanted European Christian anti-Semitism can still be found in Goa. It sometimes expresses itself in hostility and resentment against young Israeli tourists who, admittedly, are not always the most respectful of local inhabitants and culture. Also, a few 19th century Hindu writings about Judaism and Jews can be seen as anti-Semitic. Further, some Indians have endorsed Christian- and Muslim-inspired anti-Jewish stereotypes, depicting them as greedy and unscrupulous moneylenders, blaming them for the death of Jesus or for conspiring against Muslims. A more widespread and contemporary perception, including among the Indian urban middle and upper-middle class, is that Jews and Israelis play a major role in, and wield disproportionate influence over, global politics and economics, in part owing to their close ties with the United States. This view can take the form of positive philo-Semitism, widespread in India and other Asian countries, including China and Japan. As for sympathizers of the Hindu nationalist right wing, they often see Jews and Israelis only through the lens of a strategic alliance against Muslims, a view with which the Jewish and Israeli side is not always comfortable. On the other hand, there is outright hostility toward Israel among a few sectors of the Indian population. Indian left-wing organizations and individuals, as well as some Muslims are strongly antagonistic to Israel, and this attitude has permeated the views of some of India’s intellectual elite (Chapter 4).

The Indians’ lack of knowledge of Judaism and Israel remains a serious problem – but could also be a great opportunity for Israel and the Jewish people to establish their own narrative. An analysis of the place of Jews, Judaism, and Israel in India’s contemporary English language literature (Chapter 4) shows that ignorance and misperceptions have extended even to important parts of India’s cultural elite. Most Indians know nothing of their country’s ancient Jewish communities. Even in Mumbai, where the majority of Indian Jews live today, most residents of the city have no idea what a Jew or a synagogue is, as an American filmmaker recently discovered.43 Also, it is apparently not uncommon for Jews to be mistaken for a sect of Christians, Zoroastrians, or Muslims. Ignorance about Israel is similarly widespread among Indians. A field study published in early 2009 by an Israeli think tank in cooperation with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs surveyed perceptions of Israel among the Indian urban middle and upper-middle class. The study found that Israel was “virtual unknown” among a large share of respondents, and most had no clear idea of where Israel was geographically located within the Middle East.44 Knowledge regarding Israel is essentially limited to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to the Arab and Muslim Middle East. Accordingly, many participants saw Israel as a “troubled, backward, and desolate place embroiled in constant conflict.”45 They often assumed that Israel, like some Mideast Arab and Muslim countries, had an authoritarian system of government and accorded women partial, very limited rights. Even among those Indians aware of Israel’s economic and technological prowess, the salience of the Israeli-Arab conflict remained such that they perceived these advances as pertaining solely to the military. The study also found that many respondents made no distinction between Jews and Israelis. They tended to see Israel as a monolithic society, in deep contrast with multicultural and multi-religious India. But India is changing. The Indian media has begun to report more frequently about Israel, mostly not negatively. It is possible that a new study for 2017 would show a better-informed Indian reading public.

Particularly shocking for Jews and Israelis is India’s widespread ignorance of the Holocaust. No word exists for it in Hindi, India’s dominant language. Among Indian Muslims, some are aware of the Holocaust but generally view it as a Jewish hoax and tend to deny or minimize its magnitude. The Second World War is taught in Indian schools, but it does not occupy a significant place in the curriculum, and the Holocaust is barely mentioned. There is an old and apparently still surviving admiration for Hitler among Indian readers, including the youth. The largest publisher and distributor of Mein Kampf in India has sold over 100,000 copies since 2000. It seems that the book is not only popular in some ultra-nationalist circles but also among business students looking for advice on business management.46 This is troubling even if it is not linked at all to hostility to Jews. For Indians, the Second World War was much less about Germany than it was about Asia, Japan, and India’s struggle for independence from the British. Additionally, Indians remember that they lost millions to famine during the Second World War, and many more during partition.

In 2002 the Israeli government protested against the absence of the Holocaust in the standard Indian history schoolbooks. Since the first decade of the 21st century, a young Indian scholar of Muslim origin, Navras Jaat Aafreedi of Gautam Buddha University, has been fighting against Holocaust ignorance and denial in India. For example, in 2009, he organized the screening of dozens of movies about the Holocaust on the campuses of the two largest universities of Lucknow, a city notorious for its anti-Israel demonstrations and Muslim anti-Semitic discourse. Prominent Indian figures and intellectuals, many of them Muslims, came to address an audience of over 4,000 people and spoke out against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Israel’s embassy in New Delhi is undertaking other efforts to increase Holocaust awareness in India, for example inviting Indian educators to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Are Indians interested in learning more about Judaism and Israel? The evidence is mixed. Certainly, many are interested as religious beliefs and practices generally arouse fascination and curiosity among Indians. With respect to Israel, the aforementioned survey – which may be outdated in 2017 – revealed that it was not clear to respondents why learning more about such an “obscure” country would benefit their lives. Nonetheless, if the Indian interest can be stirred, it could easily serve as a basis of sympathy just because there is little historical baggage, no connection to Biblical times, nor the Holocaust. Highlighting Israel’s survival in a hostile environment and its social solidarity and collective spirit, in spite of the incredible diversity and heterogeneity of its society, could arouse empathic understanding and admiration. Israel’s multicultural society is more similar to India than Indians realize.

Cultural cooperation between India and Israel

Israel’s cultural outreach to India
Cultural contacts between India and Israel preceded normalization. From the 1950s to the early 1990s, the Israeli consulate in Mumbai organized frequent and diverse cultural activities, including lectures, concerts, and exhibitions. Cultural events were seen as a key instrument in reaching out to the Indian elite and cultivating friends of Israel in influential circles. Shortly after normalization, in 1993, the two governments signed a formal umbrella agreement for promoting cultural cooperation. In 1994, a directive of the Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs set as a key objective for increasing cultural, academic, and scientific activity in the international arena, “ to reach out to those places that until recently barely knew Israel,” including India in particular.47 It is the responsibility of the cultural attaché at the Israeli embassy in New Delhi to devise and organize initiatives to promote Israeli and Jewish culture. There are many different cultural and artistic activities. Dance and music are quite popular artistic disciplines in both countries, and they can help to break language and social barriers and shatter misunderstandings and misconceptions. These two artistic disciplines have been successful in reaching out to all sections of India’s population, including, and perhaps most importantly, children and young adults. The screening of Israeli movies in India is a relatively recent phenomenon, one with great potential. In particular, efforts should be aimed at screening Israeli movies that do not focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather raise global or social issues affecting the Israeli and Indian societies in similar ways. A Bollywood movie made in Israel, with Indian film stars in an Israeli landscape and background, would likely have tremendous appeal in India.

Israel’s visual arts are barely known in India. Their potential for strengthening cultural links should not be disregarded because, like the performing arts, the visual arts can break through language and political barriers and foster dialogue. Could sport become a bridge between Israel and India? India’s national sport is cricket. Israel’s national cricket team should visit and play in India. Last but not least, Israel’s rich contemporary literature is known to India’s interested readers, and public meetings between Indian and Israeli writers have taken place both in India and in Israel. Some Israeli cultural events in India are organized for huge audiences, at least by Israeli standards, often with a few thousand people in attendance. Children, teenagers, and young adults constitute a significant segment of the spectators, a positive trend considering that they will form the Indian elites of tomorrow.

The lack of a Jewish-Israeli cultural center in India, however, impedes the development of broader and more diverse Indo-Israeli cultural ties and people-to-people contacts. The delegations of Israeli artists brought to India by the Israeli embassy perform mainly in the framework of local festivals, and there are hardly any opportunities for Israeli artists to conduct independent performances or tours in India. The opening of a Jewish-Israeli cultural center would allow for regular cultural events, film presentations, academic debates, panel discussions and more, and should also include a library on Jewish history and civilization. Setting up such a center should become a joint goal of world Jewry and Israel.

A severe handicap limits cultural links: insufficient funding. The overall cultural budget of Israel’s Foreign Ministry is far too small to enable Israel to conduct appropriate and effective cultural diplomacy abroad. The budget allocated for the promotion of Israeli and Jewish culture in India is miniscule considering India’s size, increasing global importance, and rapidly growing population. As a result, Israel has to continuously seek other, non-governmental resources to fund Israeli performances in foreign countries. It has been said that the Foreign Ministry can fund no more than two activities for every ten that would be possible.48 Moreover, many Israeli diplomats lack appropriate fluency in the cultural fields and are usually more interested in dealing with political matters. Financial and other contributions of world Jewry to strengthen Israeli and Jewish cultural outreach in India would be both welcome and prudent. There are many Jews across the world who love or teach various aspects of Indian culture, or who collect Indian art. They could be very helpful in fostering cultural links between India, the Jewish people, and Israel.

In spite of all these constraints, in 2013 Israel opened a Consulate in Bangalore (Bengaluru), in order to complement its two diplomatic missions in the North (Delhi, Mumbai). Israel decided to also build cultural ties with South India. The south is a huge territory that is very different from India’s north. It has rich traditions and languages that date back thousands of years. Israel is keen on building a dynamic cultural relationship particularly with Puducherry (former Pondicherry), one of South India’s main cultural centers. This should facilitate the exchange of visitors representing the arts, film, and theater, and foster people-to-people ties.49

India’s cultural outreach to Israel
No survey has been conducted as of 2016 to investigate Israeli and Jewish perceptions of India and Indians. India is certainly a popular tourist destination for Israelis, particularly its youth. Beyond these backpackers who come back to Israel with some familiarity with Indian culture and traditions, and beyond the limited circle of India scholars and students, there are many other Israelis who are interested in India’s ancient and contemporary history and culture. From the 19th century on, some of the great scholars of Indian languages and civilization in the West have been Jews, and in the 20th and 21st centuries, the attraction that Gandhi, Tagore, Buddhism, Hinduism, Yoga and other forms of Eastern wisdom have had on quite a number of Western Jews is well known (Chapter 4).
In Israel, Indian cultural activities are organized and promoted by the Indian embassy and by several Israeli organizations representing the Indian Jewish community in Israel. Several Bollywood films have been screened in Israel in recent years, and Indian film festivals have been held in Israel. Still, showing Indian movies to Israeli audiences is a recent development, and its potential is just beginning to be tapped.

India’s cultural outreach to Israel parallels Israel’s outreach to India: performing arts such as music and dance are central, but the visual arts are little represented. India’s overall cultural policy toward foreign audiences has been often criticized for its lack of focus on contemporary art. India is reaching out to the Indian Jewish population in Israel. In 2011 the Indian Embassy organized for the first time a three-week cricket tournament in Israel, in order “to interact with the local Indian community in an informal, non-official, relaxed setting,” to quote the spokesman of the Indian Embassy.

Promoting Hindi movies and the dance forms associated with them is another way for the Indian Embassy to help introduce Indian popular culture to Indian Israelis. There are 85, 000 Israelis of Indian origin.50 The Indian Jewish community forms the bulk of the audiences for cultural events organized by the Indian Embassy and by local Indian associations. This is the result of a deliberate cultural policy by the Indian Embassy, which until quite recently aimed primarily at strengthening ties with the Indian Jewish community. The Indian government worries that the younger, Israeli-born generation of Indian Jews will end up losing its “Indianness,” and views the maintenance of strong cultural links with this population as important. Of course, India’s policy in this respect is quite similar to that of the Israeli embassies, which cultivate privileged links with the Jewish communities all over the world and endeavor to strengthen the Diaspora’s attachment to Israel.

But change is underway, and India has begun to reach out to the broader Israeli public. The Indian Embassy organized, for the first time in 2011 and again in subsequent years, a three-week cultural festival in Israel, with a wide range of music, film, dance and other artistic events on offer in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. They provided the general Israeli public with “an occasion to engage with the cultural diversity of India’s heritage.”51 India has established cultural centers in its neighborhood, and in key cities throughout the West and the developing world. They present cultural programs involving the participation of local Indians, as well as programs with a greater intellectual focus, aimed primarily at enhancing understanding of India. However, there is still no permanent Indian cultural center in Israel, just as there is no Jewish-Israeli cultural center in India.

The academic scene: progress and gaps

Academic programs in Israeli universities on modern India, and programs in Indian universities on Israel, are severely underdeveloped and understaffed. This shortcoming in both countries does not do justice to the importance that the two have for each other today. It limits both countries’ mutual understanding. Israel’s few academic India experts have barely any links with Israeli decision makers in regard to India. Opening channels of communication between them could be useful to both sides.

At Tel Aviv University, courses on India essentially cover topics related to India’s classical civilization and colonial and immediate post-colonial history. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, too, attention is mainly paid to the philological, literary, religious, and cultural aspects of Indian civilization, rather than to contemporary issues. The department of Asian Studies at Haifa University, in contrast, emphasizes contemporary Asia with the aim of preparing students for future careers related to diplomacy, communication, commerce, and research. In addition, the Graduate School of Management at Haifa University has created an International Executive MBA program taught in English with a regional emphasis on conducting business in Asia, including India. In 2011, Haifa University also opened a program of Hindu-Jewish studies that aims at increasing mutual understanding between Hindus and Jews.

There are no departments of Jewish studies in Indian universities and academic institutes. There is no regular Hebrew instruction at Indian universities. The Israeli embassy in New Delhi receives frequent requests from Indian students, diplomats, and businesspeople interested in learning Hebrew – requests that cannot be met. For a long time, the only course taught about Israel at an Indian institute of higher education was that of Professor Kumaraswamy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. More recently, Navras Jaat Aafreedi, the Indian Holocaust scholar mentioned above, has also begun to promote Jewish and Israeli studies. Another recent and promising university institute to study and teach about Israel is the Jindal Centre for Israel Studies, JSIA, at the O.P. Jindal Global University in the state of Haryana (New Delhi Campus). In March 2017, the JSIA and the Tel Aviv University held an international conference on Indo-Israeli “Political and Cultural Crossings.”

Several Israeli and Indian universities have signed partnership agreements to facilitate student exchanges and visiting scholars programs. Significantly, bilateral cooperation agreements have been signed mainly in the science and technology arena. The Technion-Israeli Institute of Technology in Haifa has partnered with several Indian scientific establishments, including India’s International Centre for Entrepreneurship and Technology (iCreate) to launch a joint program of start-up incubation.52 In 2010, the Faculty of Science at the Hebrew University signed a cooperation agreement with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. The Hebrew University, the Weizmann Institute, and the Technion annually host dozens of visiting scientists from India, predominantly doctoral and post-doctoral researchers. Since 2012, the Israeli Council of Higher Education has offered annual post-doctoral fellowships to about 100 students from India and China. Under this initiative, each student is awarded an annual scholarship of NIS 100,000 (about $26,000 as of early 2016) to pursue research in one of Israel’s eight research institutes. Through 2015, 235 out of the total 300 scholarships have been availed by Indian scholars. In addition, since 2013 the Israeli government has offered 250 summer scholarships for short-term undergraduate courses for students from India and China. Around 30-40 Indian students benefit from this annually. Last but not least, in mid-summer 2014, India and Israel signed an agreement providing $10 million to carry out joint scientific research projects, the first agreement of this sort between the two countries.

Outside of the scientific disciplines, there are hardly any Indian students who come to pursue academic degrees or research in Israel. Primary attention should be directed toward expanding student and scholar exchange programs in business and the humanities. These students and scholars could play a positive role in advancing Indo-Israeli ties.