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India, Israel and the Jewish People

India and Israel’s independence in 1947 and 1948 respectively coincided with the disappearance of India’s greatest spiritual leaders, with whom Jewish admirers and representatives had been in contact. Rabindranath Tagore died in 1941, Gandhi in 1948, Sri Aurobindo Ghose in 1950. Moreover, within a few years the overwhelming majority of India’s Jews left their country of birth and settled in Israel. For the next three decades India focused its relations increasingly on the Third World and the Soviet Union. Now it was American Jewish politicians, leaders and organizations that maintained the link between the Jewish people and India, and the main theme of their discussions was Israel.

Initial efforts of American Jewry to encourage India’s recognition of Israel and normalization of relations

In contrast to the United States, the Soviet Union and nearly all Western, Communist and Latin American countries, which recognized Israel shortly after its declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, India’s Prime Minister Jawarhalal Nehru announced recognition of the Jewish state only in September 1950, more than two years later. Between 1948 and 1950, the Indian government had received many Israeli requests to proceed with recognition. In addition, important Jewish politicians, too, exerted pressure on India. In particular, Emmanuel Celler, a prominent Jewish U.S. congressman known for his pro-India sentiments, played a significant role in lobbying the Indian government to recognize Israel.43

Even after granting formal recognition, India refused to establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel, which was quite unusual in the annals of international diplomacy. Again, Israel launched several unsuccessful initiatives to bring India around, and again, important Jewish politicians participated in these efforts and cultivated contacts with the Indian leadership. In 1957, for instance, after Israel’s participation in the Suez campaign against Egypt, which exacerbated India’s hostility, the chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Nahum Goldman, met with Prime Minister Nehru, in an attempt to comprehend, if not influence, India’s stance on normalization.

American Jewry’s advocacy for Indo-Israeli normalization in the 1980s and early 1990s

Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister in 1984 after the assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi, and remained in office until December 1989. The beginning of the breakup of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s prompted him to envisage policy changes in different areas, including the Middle East. Around that time, he also came under intense pressure from American Jewish groups to normalize relations with Israel. In a early move, the president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), Edgar Bronfman, traveled to India to argue for normalization of diplomatic relations and development of commercial ties between India and Israel. After additional meetings between American Jewish organizations and the Indian prime minister (notably in New York in 1985 with the Anti-Defamation League, and in New Delhi in 1988 with other senior representatives of American Jewry), India began to relax the restrictions imposed on the Israeli Consulate in Bombay (Mumbai) and took a number of additional confidence building measures to convince American Jews that it was moving in the direction of softening its policy toward Israel.

Stephen Solarz, chairman of the Congress sub-committee for Asia and the Pacific and a staunch supporter of India, made an enormous contribution to the rapprochement between Delhi and Jerusalem. After the newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao announced the normalization of relations with Israel in January 1992, both India and Israel praised Congressman Solarz publicly for his key role in helping achieve this historic change.

American Jewish leaders: key instruments of leverage

In their meetings with Indian government officials, representatives of the American Jewish community certainly underlined the anomalous character of India’s Israel policy at the time when most non-Muslim powers and even Egypt, the largest Arab country, already had full diplomatic ties with Israel.

But first and foremost, their key argument was to stress that if India maintained its anti-Israeli posture and refused to normalize relations with the Jewish state, it would disappoint Israel’s friends in the United States and, in turn, negatively affect U.S. policy toward India. In other words, the American Jewish leadership began to “play hardball” with India. In 1987, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released its report, India’s campaign against Israel, which harshly condemned India’s overall anti-Israeli policy. The report’s primary objective was to persuade India to let an Israeli tennis team participate in a Davis Cup tennis tournament in New Delhi. But the report also played a significant role in the subsequent decision of the U.S. Congress to reduce Washington’s foreign aid to New Delhi by almost half.

In late 1991, a delegation of the World Jewish Congress visited New Delhi in another attempt to convince India to normalize relations with Israel. A senior member of the WJC delegation told Prime Minister Narasimha Rao quite undiplomatically that “the leaders of the American Jewish community … would regard him as no different from the Head of Iraq or another Third World country if he continued with the hypocrisy of refusing to recognize some sort of normalization of relations with Israel.”44 There is no way to determine the extent to which this discussion contributed to Rao’s decision to normalize relations with Israel. Many other factors intervened in the process. India entered a period of political and intellectual turmoil when many of its traditional domestic, economic, and foreign policy principles were subjected to critical reexamination. The novelist V.S. Naipaul called this intellectual upheaval “ A Million Mutinies Now.”45 Still, the imperative for India to build sound relations with the U.S., the sole superpower in the new international system, was one of the key factors – if not the most determinant one.

In late January 1992, Indian Prime Minister Rao was preparing to visit the United States to meet for the first time with President George H.W. Bush and solicit help from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for India’s shaky economy. India, like China in the same years, believed that the American Jewish lobby had a major influence on Washington’s foreign policy decisions, and that improving relations with Israel would not only enhance India’s standing vis-à-vis the American Jewish community but also, in turn, help advance links with the United States. It is certainly not coincidental that on January 29, 1992, only hours before he flew to the U.S., Prime Minister Rao officially announced the normalization of ties with Israel. American Jewish assistance and discrete interventions to advance relations between India and Israel continued even after the establishment of diplomatic relations. It would be an error to assume that Prime Minister Modi’s more favorable policy toward Israel will make American Jewish support redundant. Not everyone in India’s large administration shares Modi’s views. The weight of the American Jewish Community will in all likelihood continue to be helpful to Israel in the future.