Article Library / India, Israel and the Jewish People

India, Israel and the Jewish People

India’s rapidly growing urban middle class is Western-oriented and no longer interested in the Nehruvian foreign policy ideals of the past

India’s economic and technological development has spawned the growth of a mostly urban, professional middle class. This middle class is estimated to number approximately 300 million people, of a total population of 1.3 billion, a rural population of around 700 million (up to 600 million of whom have no indoor plumbing) and approximately 180 million Muslims (but here there are statistical overlaps because millions of Muslims belong also to the urban middle class). What distinguishes this middle class is that its great majority has no interest in the old Nehruvian doctrines advocating non-alignment to great powers of the West, but did align India to the Third World, particularly its Muslim nations as well as the Soviet Union. This was an ideological cause of India’s erstwhile hostility to Israel. Of course, this ideology still survives in India’s left-leaning intellectual elites and some older members of the Congress Party, but they are only a small part of the upper middle class. Some of India’s young novelists describe the mentality of this rising class of young urban professionals. They are contemptuous of India’s past politicians, they are turned towards Western civilization but do not admire the United States, and they have little interest in foreign policy, particularly not in the Third World issues which were so important for the Congress Party. It is the overwhelming pro-BJP vote of this middle class in the parliamentary elections of May 2014, which brought Narendra Modi to power. Here lies one of Israel’s great opportunities because this middle class is likely to judge Israel by its own merits and by what it can contribute to India and not by Israel’s image as seen through the Palestinian lens. An opinion poll conducted by Israel in 2011 among almost 5000 Indian adults was telling: 35 percent of the respondents supported Israel, 18 percent the Palestinians, and 47 percent attributed the absence of peace between the two parties to the Palestinian “culture of hate,” 30% to Israel’s settlement activities.9

These data do not show what the majority of Indians believe – most of them have never heard of Israel – and the validity of such polls is temporally limited. However, this poll sampled relatively well-informed Indians: a third were classified as “upper class,” a third as “middle class,” and a third as “lower middle class and skilled workers.” These are exactly the classes that, a few years later, voted for Modi. In India, Israel achieved a better score than it likely would have in most Western countries, save those of the United States and Canada. Much of Israel’s information outreach should be tailored to the ideas and expectations of India’s middle class, and emphasize Israel’s past and projected contributions to India.

World Jewry must continue to interact with India in many ways

The Jewish people, in the United States and elsewhere, played an essential role in trying to convince India of the right of the Jews to return to their ancient homeland. Since 1948, world Jewry has been instrumental in arguing for enhanced Indo-Israeli relations. For several decades, these efforts failed politically but still left some impression on Indian minds. Already in the 1920s and 30s, Herman Kallenbach, Gandhi’s best Jewish friend from their early days in South Africa, tried to convince Gandhi that the Zionist cause was just and merited his support. In 1947, Albert Einstein tried to convince India’s Prime Minister Nehru to vote in favor of the UN partition plan. Both failed. India’s Congress Party leaders had struggled to prevent the partition of India at all costs, and thus, could not afford to alienate India’s Muslims. From the 1950s to the 1990s American Jewish organizations lobbied on Israel’s behalf, sometimes even employing pressure tactics. Their support was essential. In 1992, when formal diplomatic relations were finally established, India was in part motivated by its desire for financial and political support from the United States. Even today, when India has an Israel-friendly government, the support, often subtle, of Jewish organizations remains very helpful.

World Jewry could be a force multiplier for Israel in many fields beyond politics and diplomacy. Forging links with Indian diasporic communities has already been mentioned, but it bears repeating. Jewish communities across the world, as well as Jewish personalities who have achieved prominence in the arts and letters, in the movie industry, in science and technology, in business, or in politics and who are known in India could play a role. Increasing cultural links with India would greatly benefit from the participation of Jews all over the world, not least because Israel’s government budget for cultural policy is dismally small. There are more Jewish Indologists in academia, more India experts in the international media, more collectors of Indian art, more devotees of Indian spirituality, dance, music, food etc. in the Diaspora than in Israel, and their help in building bridges is key. Another sector in which world Jewry and its links with India have been useful, is the Indo-Israeli economic and trade relationship. As mentioned earlier, a sensitive issue for which the Diaspora’s involvement is critical is the support for India’s moderate Muslim organizations that accept Israel’s existence. Again, another target would be Holocaust education and the fight against Holocaust denial. Of all major non-Muslim countries, including China, probably none is more ignorant of the Holocaust than India. Certainly, Holocaust denial can be found in some Muslim sectors, particularly among India’s Shiites. Hitler’s Mein Kampf sells briskly in India. The main reason is not entrenched anti-Semitism, but rather sheer unawareness of the reality of the Shoah on one hand, and interest in the alleged common origin of the “Indo-Aryan” peoples propagated by the Nazis on the other. Encouraging better Holocaust education is the responsibility of the entire Jewish people, not only of Israel.

Israeli tourism to India could strengthen India-Israel links or degrade Israel’s image there. Indian tourism to Israel has enormous, largely untapped, potential

India is one of the most popular tourist destinations for young Israelis. An estimated half million Israelis have visited India since the opening of diplomatic relations 20 years ago. India attracts Israelis for many reasons. Its proximity to Israel and the fact that it is relatively inexpensive are among them. But there are less material reasons as well: the allure of India’s perceived spirituality and exoticism, and the wish to forget for a time Israel’s tensions. The India trip has become a “rite of passage” for young Israelis who have just finished their military service. Whether Israeli tourism has improved Israel’s image in India and strengthened links and people-to-people contacts is an open question. Many Israelis travel in groups and have little meaningful interaction with the local population. They most certainly could play a greater role in fostering people-to-people contacts; unfortunately, the behavior of some young Israelis in India has left a negative impression on some Indians. Israel and India should reflect together on how to contend with this issue.

Indian tourism to Israel is a more recent phenomenon. It is growing but still small – around 40,000 annually, at least half of them Christian pilgrims. The potential of Indian tourism to Israel is immense. In time it could have a positive effect on the relationship between the two countries. Israel could become a regular, attractive tourist destination for some of India’s growing middle class, its Christians – their number was informally estimated to be approximately 25 million in 2011, its businesspeople, and some of its intellectuals. Cheaper flights are essential, and so is a revision of the often intrusive and humiliating border checks to which Indians are subjected upon entering Israel.

Indian Jews, whether they are Israeli, Indian, or reside elsewhere, could help building bridges between India and Israel

Jews lived peacefully in India for hundreds of years – mainly in the Konkan Belt near Mumbay, and in Kerala in the south. By Indian standards, their numbers were minuscule yet they were respected and quite a few of them held senior positions in the Indian military, the civil administration, the arts and letters, the film industry and the professions in the 20th century. Before 1948, India’s Jews did not publicly call for the creation of a Jewish state. They were too few to become entangled in India’s bitter and often violent domestic struggles. But when Israel was created, and apart from approximately 4,000 who remain in India, nearly all left, mostly to Israel where Indian Jews and their offspring number today approximately 80,000. Many of them maintain emotional attachments to both Israel and India: “Israel is my fatherland, but India is my motherland,” was and still is a traditional saying among Indian Jews. Hundreds of them still turn up at the receptions the Indian ambassador to Israel hosts for Indian Israelis to celebrate India’s Republic Day as well as its Independence Day. However, in Israel, Indian Jews, with some notable exceptions, are mostly absent from the higher ranks of government, the military, and academia. The reasons are complex and have been discussed by various experts.10 Nevertheless, Indian Jews, including community leaders and businessmen who have remained in India, have helped strengthening links between India and Israel in various sectors, but more could be done. In 2015, the Indian Embassy in Israel publicly called upon Indian Israelis to help building stronger bonds between the two nations. This was novel; few foreign embassies in Israel, if any, are known to have issued similar calls to their former nationals.

There are many weighty reasons why the Jewish people and Israel must pay greater attention to India. And by Israel, we do not mean only the Israeli government, but also the economic elite, public opinion shapers, the media, academia where India-studies are under-represented, non-governmental organizations, and last but not least, Jewish and Israeli philanthropists: pecunia nervus bellorum, “money is the bowstring of warfare” as a famous Latin proverb has it, and which, of course, applies to much more than warfare.