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India, Israel and the Jewish People

Jewish-Hindu dialogue

India presents itself as a secular state, but its people are deeply religious, more so than most Westerners, including, in part, Israelis. Many modern, Westernized Indian businessmen or scientists continue to perform the daily religious ceremonies of the Hindu faith in their homes. In the early 1990s American Jewish organizations began to reach out to Indian Americans in an effort to form and strengthen links. Several interfaith programs bringing Hindus and Jews together were initiated. In the United Kingdom too, a dialogue between the sizeable Hindu and Jewish communities is underway. In 2005, the UK chief rabbi met with the secretary general of the Hindu Forum of Britain (the largest representative body of British Hindus). Alongside this historic meeting, British Hindu and Jewish religious and political leaders, scholars and intellectuals gathered to discuss cooperation between the two communities.

But the most significant initiative to date has been the holding of Hindu-Jewish summits successively in New Delhi (2007), Jerusalem (2008) and Washington (2009). The Hindu delegation included prominent religious and spiritual leaders from the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, an organization with influence over millions of worshippers in India and around the world. The first meeting was attended by one of Israel’s chief rabbis and other members of its Rabbinate. Members of the U.S. Congress and administration joined the third meeting.

The religious leaders agreed on a number of common principles, the most important of which was the agreement of both parties that there is “One Supreme Being who is the Ultimate Reality, who has created this world” (First Declaration). The Second Declaration explains that the Hindu does not worship “gods” and “idols” but “relates to only the One Supreme Being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation.”66 By positioning Hinduism as monotheistic, the Hindu delegation allowed the Orthodox rabbis to co-sign a statement of spiritual compatibility. At the same time, the Hindus, who had been under Muslim and Christian pressure for centuries, were satisfied to receive confirmation from representatives of the first monotheistic religion that Hinduism, too, could be expressed in a monotheistic language.67 The fact that neither Judaism nor Hinduism is a missionary religion, is another important point of commonality.

The First Declaration also recalled a shared memory of “painful experiences of persecution, oppression, and destruction” – a reminder that the driving force behind this effort to establish affinities was political and strategic at least as much as spiritual. On the Jewish agenda was the obvious concern about the growing wave of anti-Semitism and de-legitimization of the Jewish state. Thus, a Hindu recognition of the legitimacy of the Jewish people and state was timely and welcome. Bawa Jain, Secretary General of the World Council of Religious Leaders and a main initiator of the Hindu-Jewish dialogue, responded well to the Jewish concern: “In the coming together of the world’s two oldest religions, I see great prospects for furthering strategic relations between India-Israel and India-Israel and the U.S.” The Hindu delegation hoped that a rapprochement between Hindus and Jews would result in some political benefit for India in Washington, considering the perceived Jewish influence in the Unites States. Jewish representatives had hopes similar to those of Bawa Jain. As Rabbi David Rosen of the AJC, one of the main organizers of the meeting, once said, “diplomatic and political relations are by definition transient and can be superficial.”68

Hindu and Jewish leaders in India, Israel, and the United States expressed their satisfaction with the beginning dialogue, and it was reported that the first meeting in New Delhi had a resonant echo among India’s Hindus. No similar echo came back from the Jewish and Israeli side. Jews did not grasp the long-term geopolitical importance of possible friendship links with the more than one billion Hindus in India and across the world. Most were indifferent, and strictly Orthodox Jews were hostile to any relations with a non-Jewish religion.

Still, these meetings opened a discussion of Hinduism by a few Orthodox Jewish scholars guided by traditional Jewish law, the halacha. According to halacha, non-Jews must abide by the “Seven Noahide Laws” to avoid being branded as “idolatrous.” Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, who is knowledgeable about Hinduism, quotes the opinion of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz that Hinduism and Buddhism are “adequately monotheist, adequately non-idolatrous, and at least adequately ethical.” Hence, according to Steinsaltz, they qualify as compliant with the Noahid laws.69 It must be added that this conclusion applies to Hindu theology, not necessarily to all practices or beliefs of individual Hindu worshippers. Further, it does not apply to Jews: they are subject to stricter anti-idolatry rules than non-Jews. Rabbi Steinsaltz and other rabbinic scholars came to this conclusion by using the same criteria that Rabbinic authorities of Medieval Europe had used to exempt Christianity from the charge of idolatry. Such exemption was necessary lest Jews be precluded from trade with Christians. Thus, according to this opinion, what applies to Christianity applies to Hinduism as well. Even if most Orthodox scholars and decision makers are unlikely to support this view today, at least a critical theological debate can now begin. It has to begin in view of India’s growing importance for the world, and for Israel.   

However, if the Jews did not understand the potential strategic significance of these meetings, the Muslims did. The meetings sparked violent protests by Muslims in and outside India because they suspected the emergence of an anti-Islamic alliance. Hostile comments were widespread in India’s Muslim media. This was certainly one of the main reasons why the Indian government, always fearful of possible inter-communal violence, did not encourage a continuation of such meetings. No further summit of Hindu and Jewish leaders has taken place since 2009. There could be additional reasons. Some statements by Hindu representatives seem to indicate a trend toward greater Hindu self-assurance. These statements do not seek affinities with monotheistic religions, but speak of the self-evident superiority and universalism of Hinduism.70

Irrespective of changing government concerns, Jews and Israelis who do not speak for the government should continue to seek dialogue with Hindu representatives and look for common ground. Some Orthodox Jewish scholars of religion are taking a new look at Hindu theology, rather than Hindu practice.71 If the current time is deemed to be inappropriate for public meetings between religious leaders, then at least there should be a regular dialogue between Hindu and Jewish religious scholars. Non-governmental Jewish organizations in Israel, in the U.S. and in the UK should take the lead, not the Israeli government.

Jewish-Muslim dialogue

Many references in this book emphasize the decisive influence the internal and external Muslim factor has had on India’s Israel policies. Furthermore, the influence of India’s Muslims goes beyond India. They have many personal, spiritual, and political links with other South Asian Muslims. There are more than 600 million Urdu-, Bengali- and other Indian language-speaking Muslims in this region. As emphasized earlier, there is no uniform Muslim hostility to Israel in India. Although many Muslims are hostile, many others do not know or care about this or any other foreign policy issue. Some seek peace and express a more balanced view of Israel. For longer than 1,000 years, until the late 20th century, Indian Jews and Muslims lived together in peace and generally maintained friendly relations, even during the 300 year-period when most of India was ruled by the Muslim Mughals. In no other country in the world did peaceful relations between Jews and Muslims last so long. The deterioration of these ties in the early 21st century, especially since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, is a small historical tragedy within the greater tragedy of the global rift between Muslims and Jews. In Mumbai, many Jews do no longer feel safe in Muslim neighborhoods and have, in recent years, moved out to settle in other neighborhoods.

Still, not all Indian Muslims were equally critical of the three recent Hindu-Jewish summits discussed above. Some Muslim leaders and organizations responded positively, seeing the arrival of a Jewish delegation in India as an opportunity to approach Jewish religious leaders. A gathering of senior representatives from all religions present in India was organized on the margins of the summit in New Delhi. It was the occasion for a rare and significant meeting between the Jewish delegation and senior Muslim religious dignitaries, including the president of the All India Council of Mosques and Imams (AICMI). The AICMI claims to have influence over almost two hundred million Sunni Muslim adherents. Jewish and Indian Muslim leaders issued a joint statement emphasizing the common values and history shared by Muslims and Jews, and pledged “to promote the sanctity of life and to advance justice and peace.”72 This initial exchange resulted in two high-profile visits of Indian Muslim leaders to Israel, facilitated by the American Jewish Committee and the Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council. In 2007, the son of AICMI’s president visited Israel in his invited father’s stead after the latter yielded to protests by Indian Muslims and the Muslim press. In 2008, and protests notwithstanding, the AICMI president finally made a five-day visit to Israel where he met with political and religious leaders. One can thus say that the meetings between rabbis and Indian Muslim leaders developed as a spin-off of the Hindu-Jewish summits.

Zionist leaders, as mentioned earlier, were aware of the importance of India’s Muslims long before Israel’s independence. Chaim Weizmann, for instance, reached out to Indian Muslim leaders before he tried to engage with the leadership of the Indian National Congress.73 Jewish and Israeli efforts to establish ties with the Indian Muslim community and improve mutual understanding had and still have a double-aim: to allow friendship between India and Israel by reducing the negative impact of the Muslim factor on India’s Israel policies, and to fracture the wall of global Muslim hostility that Israel’s Arab enemies have endeavored to build around Israel.

In recent years, Israel has increased its efforts to reach out to India’s Muslims. In 2008, the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi launched a website in Hindi and Urdu, the language most commonly spoken by Indian and Pakistani Muslims, offering a wide range of information on Israel. Israel also attempts to reach India’s Muslims through the press. The Embassy provides Urdu newspapers with short articles on Indo-Israeli cooperation in such areas as technology, and agriculture, and sometimes these articles also appear in the Urdu press. A visit by Israel’s ambassador to the Ajmer Sharif Darga, the most holy Muslim site in India, during Ramadan in 2010 was another effort to convey a message of peace and tolerance to India’s Muslims. This visit was covered widely in India’s Urdu, English, and Hindi press.

It is clear that current Indian Muslim hostility to Israel and the Jewish people is not entirely homegrown. It is stoked by advice, propaganda, and money flowing in from some of the Middle East’s oil-rich Muslim states. There is no way Israel alone could compete with these efforts, neither in money nor in personnel. World Jewry, in particular American, European, and Australian Jews have a very important role to play in reaching out to India’s Muslims. Jews can do what Israel cannot do, or cannot do alone. For Indian Muslim organizations and leaders who would agree to contact, it is always controversial, and sometimes outright dangerous to be seen linking up with Israel. So far, world Jewry has provided modest support, but more is needed.