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India, Israel and the Jewish People

Civilizations have touched and influenced each other all throughout history. Written documents, archaeological discoveries, linguistics, or the new field of human genetics can reveal when and where such encounters have taken place. But more often they cannot, and the probability of an early civilizational encounter has to be left to the judgment and intuition of a later generation. But why should a book about geopolitics of the 20th and 21st century, more precisely about India, the Middle East, Israel, and the Jews end with a chapter about long-forgotten history? Earlier chapters have referred more than once to the importance that Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett and others, and India’s leaders, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, attach to the old links between India and the Jewish people. Today, interest in such links, even fascination with them, can be found beyond political or esoteric academic circles, particularly among some Indians. But why is this important today? Some Indian scholars balk at the notion of explaining modern India through the prism of ancient India. They have a point, but when a relationship between two nations is growing deeper, it is often followed and supported by a search for affinities beyond contemporary material interests. Common history, shared values, and affinities have been drivers of history, not only geopolitical and material interests. Listening to the daily political noise emanating from many countries in competition or in conflict, it is clear that values and affinities remain drivers of history.

Hence, the challenge which this chapter tries to take up is “to hear the echoes that connect, however tenuously, two ancient civilizations, each richly endowed with experience of God and of the world,” to quote the Hebrew University scholar Prof. David Shulman.1Can Indian and Jewish civilizations have a dialogue on a deeper emotional, philosophical, or religious level? Are there affinities between the two? What can we infer from the many low-key historical encounters between the two?

Indian civilization has touched ancient Israel, Judaism, and the Jewish people in one way or another over 3,000 years or more. India was never more than a minor influence, but it was a continuous one. Apart from India’s old contacts with China, India had few longer lasting contacts with other foreign and still living civilizations than those it had with old Israel and the Jews. The Jewish relationship cannot compare to the enormous history-shaping influence Islam has had on India in the last 1,300 years, but the Jewish link is more than twice as old and has never been problematic. Speaking of “encounters” between the Indian and Jewish civilizations could seem an overstatement, at least until the 18th century. Certainly, there has been a long Jewish monologue on India, but was there a dialogue? Did a response come back from India? Ancient Israel, Jewish civilization, and the Jews of India were receptive to Indian words, ideas, and goods, but there is no evidence of cultural influence flowing in the opposite direction prior to the 18th century – unless the historians have missed evidence of such in the regions where Jews lived for many centuries, the Konkan south of Mumbai and Kerala. There, Jews were well known to the local political powers, which sometimes granted them political and economic privileges. But Indians, apart from Indian Muslims and Christians, of course, did not see “their” Jews as branches of an old, global civilization and it is not known whether they absorbed Jewish cultural symbols or expressions into their own cultures, or they did it only indirectly, through Muslim and Christian influence. This is changing only now, as a consequence of globalization, India’s rise and outreach to the rest of the world and the emergence of the Jewish people as a new political actor in Israel and the Diaspora.

The following chapters are flashlights that try to illuminate a few ancient encounters between the Indian and Jewish civilizations. These chapters are inevitably incomplete and tentative. A comprehensive history of Indo-Judaic encounters has yet to be written and would require several specialized historians.