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India, Israel and the Jewish People

India is developing the world’s third-largest economy, which will have to support the world’s largest population

In sheer numbers, India is impressive. In 2015, India’s population stood at 1.28 billion, with a very young median age (27 years). China’s population was 1.4 billion, with a median age 36.7 years. In 20 years (from 2015), India’s projected population will exceed China’s (1.5 billion versus 1.45 billion). India’s GDP in 2014 was approximately $2 trillion, and China’s around $11 trillion, around five times larger. India’s GDP is projected to grow more rapidly than that of any Western country, but is not expected to reach China’s (although in 2015 India’s projected GDP growth was 7.5 percent, exceeding China’s for the first time). Various international experts are confident that India will become an economic superpower. In 2012, the Paris-based OECD predicted dramatic changes in the distribution of global economic power by 2060.

Figure 1: Percentage of Global GDP, by Year and Country8

2011 2030 2060
USA 23% 18% 16%
Euro-Zone 17% 12% 9%
China 17% 28% 28%
India 7% 11% 18%

According to these projections, India’s GDP is likely to surpass that of Japan by 2020, that of the Euro-zone shortly after 2030, and that of the United States after 2050. In 2060, the combined economies of China and India will likely amount to 46 percent of the global economy, approximately the same rank the two countries had in the mid-18th century’s international trade before their internal troubles and the West’s expansion and imperialist interference began to undermine both. India’s predicted rise from 7 to 18 percent, in parallel to Europe’s decline from 17 to 9 percent, is particularly striking. Economic trend forecasts extending longer than half a century are hazardous. But the OECD has based its India figures on credible projections, such as that India will have the largest youth population in the world. A majority of Indians will be under thirty not long after 2030. A growing proportion of India’s young will increasingly be well educated, ambitious, and geographically and professionally mobile. The West, and particularly the Jewish people and Israel, must weigh the likely global political, military, and cultural implications of this dramatic shift in the global balance of power.

India is entering the Middle East – in big, though still discreet, steps

India’s links with the Middle East go back 4,000 years when the Indus civilization extended its influence into Mesopotamia and even Pharaonic Egypt, where many Indus artifacts have been excavated. In the first half of the 20th century, the common Middle Eastern and Indian struggle against British colonial rule strengthened these links. In most of the second half, during the Cold War, these links along with India’s quasi-alliance with the Soviet Union, compounded the domestic factors causing India to reject diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992. Concurrent with the establishment of formal Indo-Israeli relations, a historically unprecedented situation appeared: India’s dependence on Middle Eastern – Arab and Iranian – oil and natural gas. Although this dependence continues to grow, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is mutual. The Gulf oil producers need Asia’s economically growing and politically friendly long-term markets at least as urgently as Asia needs their oil. India also needs the remittances of the 7 million Indians who work in the Gulf. These new links are creating huge trade, investment, and personal flows between the two sides, accompanied by strong political and, in some cases, military relations. India’s annual trade with the Middle East amounts to approximately $170 billion. Thirty percent of this total, $60 billion, comprises trade with the United Arab Emirates, which has barely 9 million inhabitants but an Indian majority labor force. In comparison, trade between India and Israel amounts to approximately $5 billion annually, less than three percent of Middle Eastern trade. India also wants good relations with Iran, for geopolitical (common hostility to Pakistan), domestic (possibly more than 20 million Shiites), and historical reasons. However, India imports several times more oil from the Arabs than from Iran. Hostility between the Arab Gulf states and Iran would raise severe policy dilemmas India would not like to face. In spite of its economic weight, India currently does not wish to become directly involved in the most contentious problems of the region, including the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, India is not yet prepared to assume a great-power role in the Middle East and has few competent Arabic and other Middle Eastern language experts. But the quest for great-power status, which can be found among India’s elites, could one day propel India into seeking a greater role in the Middle East. In general, India until recently has found it difficult to project a meaningful message to the world and convince the international community that it has the will and the capacity to shape global policies. But this may slowly change in the coming years. An Indian policy maker privately and only half jokingly said recently that the Arabs and Iranians do listen to India because India does not say anything – would India say anything to them they would probably stop listening. But India was for centuries, and remains today, their largest nearby neighbor. It is, after China, the second largest market for Middle Eastern oil and natural gas. If India wanted, it could use its economic, political, and cultural influence to play a larger role in the United Nations and other international forums that debate Middle Eastern problems, as well as in the Middle East itself. India is still seen by many as a role model for Third World countries, and it is also one of the five BRICS countries, together with China, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, and its voice counts in that arena. Israel must be cognizant of India’s vast and complex relationship with the Middle East. On the other hand, India has learned a key lesson from its diplomatic experience in the Middle East: Diplomatic ties with Israel have not damaged its relations with either the Arab world or Iran. On the contrary, the Israel relationship has forced the Arab world and Iran to stop taking India for granted – which was the situation that prevailed before India had diplomatic relations with Israel.

India’s growing Muslim population, the second largest in the world, is susceptible to foreign-inspired radicalization

If energy is today the first driver of India’s entry into the Middle East, Islam is the second. Over the centuries, India has been subject repeatedly to Islamic invasion. Although quite a few Hindus still view this history as foreign conquest, Islam has become an integral part of India’s civilization and identity. During most of the 20th century, from the 1920s to the 1990s, India’s ruling Congress Party and particularly its early leaders, Gandhi and Nehru, were deeply sensitive to the feelings of India’s large Muslim minority. This domestic concern, more than worries about foreign Arab reactions, was the chief reason India rejected Zionism, the creation of the Jewish state, and relations with Israel for so long. If Arab objections had an influence, it was mostly indirect, routed through the sympathies of India’s Muslims. India was the only very large non-Muslim country to vote with the Arabs in 1947 against the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. India’s leaders were afraid that the partition would set a precedent for the partition of India, which in fact it did. However, Prime Minister Modi’s election has changed one of the most entrenched paradigms of Indian domestic politics. His policy reversal in favor of Israel was facilitated by the absence of any anti-Semitic traditions in India – traditions that increasingly seem to be masked as hostility to Zionism and the de-legitimization of Israel in Europe. In India, anti-Zionism was an expedient political option. It was not based on deep cultural trends, not even among India’s Muslims who, prior to the late 20th century, had good relations with the country’s Jews.

Today, and according to often quoted but never verified statistics, over 15 percent of India’s population (approximately 180 million people) is Muslim, including possibly more than 20 million Shiites. After partition in 1947, the proportion of Muslims in India’s population was estimated to be seven percent. This would indicate that the Muslim population is growing faster than the Hindu majority’s population, but this has been disputed. Exact figures are impossible to come by because the issue is so sensitive. In any event, India has the second largest Muslim population in the world. The position of Indian Muslims and their relationship with India’s Hindu majority affects relations between Muslims and non-Muslims all across South Asia and in the Indian diaspora. During the last 20 years, community relations in India have been relatively peaceful although religious tensions can still easily flare up. Signs for the future are mixed. Most of India’s Muslims consider themselves Indian and want to remain so. They are more interested in their domestic problems than in the Middle East. Furthermore, the spectacle of conflict-ridden, failed Muslim states around them does not inspire them. On the other hand, there is also a Muslim awakening all across India. Fuelled by money from the Gulf states, and by returning expatriates from the Gulf, Wahabi extremism is infiltrating some of India’s Sunni community and some of its clerics. Moderate Muslim clerics warn that this influence has already increased the danger of terrorism in India and beyond. At the same time, Iran’s poisonous influence was visible in a 2012 Iranian attempted assassination of an Israeli diplomat in Delhi. The attack was abetted by at least one Indian Shiite acting on Iranian instructions. Whoever rules India, the country’s Muslims will continue to carry a lot of weight, both domestically and internationally. This is why world Jewry, together with but even more than Israel, should strengthen relations with India’s moderate Muslims and their leadership. It is easier for India’s Muslim leaders to have contacts with World Jewry than with Israel directly. Israel and the Jewish people cannot afford to miss an opportunity to mitigate the potential hostility of such a large Muslim population and its future impact on Indian history.

India and Israel’s dangerous neighborhoods have created a tacit, implicit strategic convergence of interests

Israel, its American supporters, the Indian defense establishment, and a significant part of India’s public see eye-to-eye on a number of issues related to their respective regions. There is a perceived need to contain a common threat. This convergence of interests can be strengthened, but, at least until 2016, it could not be transformed into an open strategic alliance. India has to consider the feelings of its Muslim population and the Arab world. India has so far succeeded in navigating the narrow path running through its conflicting priorities without jeopardizing its relations with either side. Currently, the military relationship between India and Israel is the strongest and most visible link between the two countries, and the most financially rewarding one for Israel. Exact figures are confidential, but there are estimates of Israeli defense product sales of around a billion dollars annually. And the relationship goes beyond the sale of military hardware. Israel has helped India in the past, for example, in confrontations with Pakistan, and Indian experts are convinced that Israel will help India in the future as well. Defense links with India have provided Israel’s military industries with their largest single foreign market. But in addition, they are enhancing Israel’s global geostrategic position because Israel can be seen as a military supporter of Asia’s second-most important power, a factor with which all Muslim countries have to reckon. In addition, military links between India and Israel could become urgent if Pakistan devolves into a failed state, which would entail the very real danger of its nuclear weapons slipping out of control.

Some experts foresee a possible slackening of Israel’s defense links with India due to competition or an Indian reluctance to be too closely associated militarily with Israel. Current opinions about future prospects of Israeli arms sales to India vary. Some predict that these sales are doomed because India, in a few years, could have the capacity to produce domestically all it currently imports from Israel, or because the United States is pursuing the Indian defense market in full force. Others believe that Israel could not be replaced anytime soon. The innovativeness, adaptability, and fast delivery time of its arms manufacturers would be difficult to match. Israel will have to think of appropriate policies to protect the military relationship against efforts to undermine it, from both Indian and foreign Muslim sources hostile to Israel, and from jealous Western competitors. Israel should discuss this problem with the United States at a senior political level and clarify that its links with Asia’s great powers are not motivated by mercantile reasons alone, but even more by long-term geopolitical considerations that the United States might understand and, perhaps, support. At the same time, Israel must make a greater effort to develop non-military links with India, including economic, scientific, and cultural ties. If the relationship between the two countries is to thrive in the long term, it must not be dominated by military considerations alone.

India is the largest civilization on earth and a potential gateway to other Asian nations

India is important not only because of its own weight, but also because of its broader external influence. Israel and the Jewish people should also regard India as a source of “leverage” in other countries. Indian civilization stretches widely beyond the Republic of India. The markers of a civilization include language and script, religion, art and architecture, music, dress, food, mythologies, family structures, patterns of thought, physical appearance and more. Seen from this angle, Indian civilization includes: part of Pakistan; Bangladesh; Sri Lanka; Nepal; Bali and other parts of Indonesia; the large Indian minorities in Malaysia, Myanmar, South Africa and some countries in eastern Africa, the Caribbean, the smaller but very influential Indian minorities in North America and the United Kingdom; Indian workers in the Gulf; and even Buddhist countries such as Thailand or Myanmar, which remember that Buddha was Indian and keep close relations with India. Taken together, this amounts to approximately two billion people. What happens in and to India resonates through half of the world. Bollywood movies are celebrated by fans widely beyond India proper, including in the Muslim world, particularly the Gulf countries. When in 2001 Taliban fanatics destroyed two giant statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, India’s loud public protests were heard and supported in many other parts of this large civilization. There have been few Jewish links with this wider civilization, and Israel’s political, economic, and cultural relations with this part of the world are still quite limited. Currently, Israel has diplomatic and modest economic relations with most countries belonging to this broadly defined Indian civilization, except for Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. Trade relations are growing with Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, but Israel and the Jewish people require more links with countries under this wider, economically growing civilizational umbrella. Their presence in the international arena is likely to increase in the future. The overwhelming majority of all living Hindus and Buddhists, and almost two thirds of all Muslims live in this Indian-influenced world. Myanmar (Burma), which is emerging from decades of isolation, is an interesting case that has recently attracted a lot of attention. This is a strongly Buddhist country with many economic and other links with India. At least 10 percent of its population of more than 60 million is Indian and speaks Indian languages. Links with India, particularly if they are limited to military and economic relations, will not always encourage similar links with other Asian countries because India’s own relations with some of its neighbors – not only Pakistan – have sometimes been tense. However, broader, more public links with India, especially in the cultural sphere, will be noted in countries shaped by Indian civilization and could incentivize their own ties to Israel. Greater efforts should be made to make Israel’s and the Jewish people’s old and new relations with India better known, particularly in Asia.

India’s considerable “soft power” across the world could help Israel, but Israel and the Jewish world must develop their own, still limited “soft power” in India

If Israel and the Jewish people had a higher profile in India, India’s own soft power across the world could become a significant asset for Israel. India’s people, its colors, culture, religions, music and food and its recent history, particularly the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, are known and well liked in much of the world, particularly in North America and Europe. The famous “Magic of India,” as British authors called it, still holds. Being seen as a friend of India could carry weight in foreign chancelleries and perhaps also in public opinion. The blockbuster, Slumdog Millionaire, was one of the world’s most popular films of 2008. It features an orphan growing up in a Mumbai slum who becomes a millionaire through his intellectual brilliance. The horrific (and according to Indian human rights experts, perfectly realistic) scenes of police torture and other grave human rights violations depicted in this movie have not dented India’s popularity in the West. This is the effect of India’s soft power. But Jewish and Israeli soft power in India lags far behind the soft power India has in the Jewish world. In Israel, India is broadly popular as Israeli tourism and other signs attest. In contrast, Jewish and Israeli soft power in India has until recently been limited except for a minority of leaders and intellectuals and among some of the Hindu public. To this day, a striking number of Indians do not know what the words “Jews,” “Judaism” and “Israel” mean, and if they have heard of Israel, many associate it only with war and terrorism. Very few Indians know the facts and understand the significance of the Holocaust. Equally few are aware that Jewish communities lived happily in their country for more than a thousand years, and that Indian Jews look like Indians, speak Indian languages, and remember India fondly wherever they live today. It would take, among many other steps, a broader and more sustained Jewish-Israeli cultural outreach to India to increase Jewish-Israeli “soft power” there.

India has a large and influential diaspora all over the world with which the Jewish people and Israel should establish links and alliances

The Indian diaspora, too, could provide a measure of leverage if Israel and the Jewish people would make a greater effort to befriend the Indians. The Indian diaspora comprises more than 30 million people. This includes Indians in Western countries, southern and eastern Africa, the Caribbean, Asian countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka) and the Arab Gulf states. It is the second largest diaspora after the Chinese, and already more influential than the latter. Many of the largest Indian diaspora communities can be found in geopolitically important countries (US: 3 million, UK: 1.2 million, Canada: 1 million, South Africa: 1.2 million), and these are precisely the countries where the political influence and socio-economic status of the Indians are rising swiftly, and where there are also large Jewish communities. In these countries the Indian diaspora has much in common with the Jewish diaspora because both achieved wealth and influence in a relatively short period. In addition, there are many well-known cultural affinities between Indians and Jews that could even carry over into India itself: family values, high regard for education, and an entrepreneurial mindset. However, what distinguishes the Indian from the Jewish diaspora is that many Indians are connected to their state of origin, their particular language, and their religion more than to the Republic of India. India’s diaspora is becoming a global political factor in its own right, similar to the Jewish diaspora. Indian policy makers have already held up the Jewish diaspora as a model for Indians to follow. In the United States (and more recently in the United Kingdom) Jewish and Indian leaders have begun to create links, explore common interests, and, occasionally, help each other politically in domestic and foreign policy issues. American Jewish leaders have called this an “investment in the future.” The experience has shown that diaspora Indians, apart from a minority of radical Muslims and leftists, have a positive attitude toward Jews and Israel. A global mechanism for dialogue and cooperation involving India, Israel, and the Indian and Jewish diasporas would be an innovative and promising policy venture. The initiative should come from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and diaspora Jews.

There is considerable synergy between Israel’s scientific and technological sector and India’s enormous markets and development needs

Israel, which depends on foreign trade, must take a long-term view and turn to Asia more briskly than is currently the case. Civilian trade between India and Israel is on the upswing. India is one of Israel’s most rapidly expanding trade partners, and its trade balance with India is positive (with China: negative). But close to $5 billion dollars annually is only a fraction of the potential revenues from Indian markets. Experts assert that trade could reach at least 10 if not 15 billion dollars in the not too distant future if the obstacles to the long-delayed Indo-Israeli Free Trade Agreement can be overcome.

Cooperation, trade, investments and joint ventures in science and technology should form the backbone of Israel’s continuing ties with India. India is or could become an ideal market, testing ground, and scale-up partner for Israel’s cutting edge civilian technologies. In addition to the military sphere, Israeli water, agricultural, energy, clean environment, and public health technologies could assist India in addressing some of its most pressing needs. India’s development challenges present Israel with extraordinary opportunities that must not be missed. In a win-win virtuous cycle, India could boost Israel’s technological competitiveness while benefiting from transfer of Israeli expertise. Still, entry into the Indian market remains difficult for small and medium Israeli businesses. There are major challenges to the expansion of links, not the least of which is growing foreign competition, in particular from larger and better resourced U.S. and European companies. In addition, dissimilarities of business culture as well as the hurdles of Indian bureaucracy and corruption are formidable impediments. Israel has to find ways to address these challenges and develop government-supported mechanisms to facilitate and enrich Indo-Israeli-Jewish science, technological and industrial links. Prime Minister Modi’s government has given top priority to India’s economic modernization and appreciates Israel as a valuable contributor to that process. If Israel disappoints these expectations, its relations with India will not keep growing as they have since 2014. Israel’s politicians and trade officials must redouble efforts to facilitate trade relations, prepare Israel’s exporters for the Indian market, and Israel’s market for Indian imports. India’s industrial conglomerates, which have a presence in many parts of the world, have as of mid-2016 not made any major industrial investment in Israel. However, several have sent representatives to Israel and have shown interest in its investment prospects.

Among other actions, Israel should increase its public outreach to the Indian people and its economic and political elites, emphasizing Israel’s current and potential technological contributions to India’s development. Many Indians are aware of the military relationship between the two countries, but fewer know about Israel’s civilian technologies. A greater public information effort focused on Israel’s innovative technological potential could improve Israel’s image, particularly among the growing urban middle class.

While Indo-Israeli relations are currently on the upswing, these relations are dynamic: if Israel and the Jewish people fail to cultivate them or fail to watch out for negative developments, relations could stop improving

Prior to Modi’s election victory in 2014 there were more Indians and Israelis with a pessimistic view about future relations. They emphasized the allegedly over-proportional growth of India’s Muslim population, the increasing radicalization of some of them as mentioned above, and, until 2014, the need of political parties to compete for the Muslim vote. To this could be added a possible slackening of the military relationship between India and Israel, also mentioned above. Beyond the military issue, another worrying sign is the new outbreak of anti-Semitism and de-legitimization of Israel in the West, and the perceived danger that it could infiltrate India’s Western-oriented elite opinion shapers, intellectuals, and political classes as well. In 2012 and later, for example, anti-Israeli boycott calls could be heard in Indian universities, intellectual and artist circles, and anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic hate was openly expressed in a few Muslim circles and gatherings. It seems currently unthinkable that India would ever return to its sharp anti-Israeli policies of the 1960s and 1970s, but this does not mean that minority expressions of hostility should be ignored. Israel and Jewish organizations, particularly in the United States, should follow such expressions and work against them when possible.

It is also important for Israel and the Jewish people to forge close relations with the Hindu BJP party, which came to power in 2014, as well as all who oppose foreign-inspired Muslim extremism and welcome stronger relations with Israel in order to counterbalance this extremism. This being said, Israel must continue to keep away from the more violent, extremist Hindu groups.