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India, Israel and the Jewish People

Today, nearly all countries regard tourism as a cost-effective and pleasant means to foster mutual understanding and friendship between nations. Virtually every international treaty of friendship or cooperation has a chapter on the promotion of tourism. Tension or hostility between countries often manifests itself in restrictions or prohibitions of touristic travel. Hence, it is not surprising that prior to normalization, bilateral tourism between India and Israel was practically non-existent. Only in the late 1980s, following an Anti-Defamation League visit to India – an instance of beneficial involvement of American Jewry – did the Indian government relax visa procedures for Israeli tourists and groups. Incidentally, an attack in 1991 by Muslim militants against a group of Israeli tourists in the Indian state Jammu and Kashmir may have hastened the rapprochement process between India and Israel. One Israeli was killed, a second kidnapped, but the courageous struggle of the unarmed young Israelis against their aggressors was praised in the Indian media and impressed the Indian public. A senior Israeli diplomat, Moshe Yegar, flew to India to deal with the incident and met with senior Indian officials.53

After the normalization in 1992, the flow of tourists between the two countries began to expand quickly. The number of Israeli tourists visiting India has grown from fewer than 10,000 in 1992 to more than 40,000 a year from 2008 on.54 Israeli tourism to India has kept increasing after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, despite frequent travel warnings issued by the Israeli Counter-Terrorism Bureau. The post-army “big trip” to India has indeed become an institutionalized rite of passage for many young Israelis.55

Indian tourism to Israel has also increased substantially since normalization, and most significantly in the last several years. It grew from little more than 3,000 in 1992 to over 15,000 in 2000, and close to 40,000 as of 2011. In 2012, India overtook South Korea as the Asian country sending the most tourists to Israel. The same year, during the first ever visit of an Indian tourism minister to Israel, the two parties signed a joint memorandum setting the goal of doubling the number of tourists between the two countries within a three-year period, which has not yet been met. The Israeli tourism minister allocated a budget to promote Israel as a tourism destination for Indians, and advocated the introduction of additional direct flights between the two countries. There is great potential for attracting more Indian Christian pilgrims to Israel – they presently constitute almost half of India’s tourists to Israel.

However, tourism has raised a number of problems that have to be addressed. As in the case of Indian businesspeople wanting to visit Israel, it can prove challenging for Indian tourists to obtain a visa to Israel when their passports contain stamps from Muslim Mideast countries. In addition, unpleasant security checks of Indian travelers at Ben Gurion Airport, as already mentioned, will not encourage tourism.

India, too, has begun to impose more limitations on Israeli tourism, mainly in the form of visa restrictions. This could be the result of the repeated misbehavior by some young Israelis in India, linked for example to drug use and trafficking. A study by the Israeli researcher Daria Maoz, published in 2004, was already strongly critical of young Israeli backpackers in India, claiming that they often ignore the feelings of the locals and treat their traditions and customs with contempt. This may be true for some, but certainly not most Israelis. Maoz further polemicized against the perceived disrespectful relations of post-army Israeli travelers with Indian local people.56 In 2009, the Catholic Church in Goa, a haven for many young Israelis, leveled similar accusations against Israeli tourists.

While there is enough anecdotal evidence of Israeli misbehavior in India to leave those who seek closer links with India worried, it is not clear that such cases have had a more than local and temporary impact on Indian perceptions. Still, the Israeli government was sufficiently concerned by this issue to plan, in 2007, a “Backpackers for Peace” program. It would have called on young Israelis to participate in social projects in India and respect Indian behavioral norms, but it never got off the ground due, apparently, to budgetary restrictions.
In place of this unrealized official program, several Israeli and international Jewish NGOs have launched similar programs aimed at helping India and improving the image of Israeli travelers there. These include short-term programs that encourage Israeli travelers to take part in volunteer projects in local communities, as well as longer-term programs for young Jewish and Israeli adults that combine internship and training opportunities in Israel and India. The Israeli government and private donors should further support such projects.

It is much too early to tell what contribution tourism has made (and could make) to the links between India and Israel. This is only the beginning of a long story. More than 500,000 Israelis have visited India in the last 20 years. Among them one finds many who returned enthralled by the country’s culture, religions, food, and music. No doubt, India has great allure for Israelis.