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India, Israel and the Jewish People

Narendra Modi’s Election Victory in 2014: a watershed in Indo-Israeli relations

India, Israel, and the Jewish People: Looking Ahead, Looking Back — 25 Years after Normalization follows the Jewish People Policy Institute’s strategy paper, China and the Jewish People: Old Civilizations in a New Era, which was published in 2004 in English, 2005 in Hebrew, and 2014 in Chinese. That report has been widely read in Israel, the United States and China and has had an ongoing influence on Jewish and Israeli policies in regard to China.

The new book on India, Israel, and the Jewish People appears at a moment when a significant event in one of the two Asian giants has made headlines in the Israeli and Jewish media. In fact a new period in the relations between India and Israel began on May 16, 2014, when Narendra Modi, leader of the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was swept into power. It was a “landmark” victory. Modi, the first Indian prime minister born after independence (1947), is also the first in 30 years to enjoy an absolute parliamentary majority that does not depend on smaller Muslim or left-wing parties. Modi had been considered a friend of Israel before the elections. As soon as he took power, he indicated in word and deed that he planned to change the nature of India’s public stance toward Israel from one of critical reserve to one of friendship. So far (as of 2017), he has kept his word.

Why Israeli and Jewish outreach to India and China started late and, until recently, lagged behind other countries

JPPI’s India and China reports address one of the main geopolitical shifts of our time, namely the shift of global power from West to East – the “Rise of Asia.” This rise is changing the context of all international dynamics. Asia’s growing economic clout is already translating into greater political and military strength. Many Western politicians and commentators have acknowledged the importance of this shift over the last decade. The forthcoming realignments of regional and global power, and particularly the rise of Asia, will affect the future of the Middle East and the State of Israel in major ways, and thus, also the future of the Jewish people. A country’s future position in the evolving international system will depend to no small degree on the speed with which it can anticipate and benefit from the coming changes. This is why many countries are currently turning toward Asia. Jews and Israelis have taken longer to grasp the importance of the ongoing shift for their own future, and even today, Israel’s outreach to Asia still lags behind that of other modern countries. Since the Six-Day War, Israel has regarded America’s support as the only realistic and sufficient external guarantor of its future. A leading Israeli Asia expert added other reasons for Israel’s lagging behind.1 Jews traditionally remember their long past in which the great centers of Asian civilization beyond the wider Middle East played an insignificant role. Moreover, the great Jewish world historians from the 19th to the mid-20th century were nearly all Europeans, by birth and mentality. They were Eurocentric and paid no or very little attention to the Jews of India or China and their old, interesting history. Few Jews resided in Asia, and during the two centuries when much of Asia was occupied or dominated and restrained by Western powers, the continent had little impact on world events, apart from Japan of course. Therefore, Asia had no influence on the main Jewish population centers in America, Europe, and the Muslim world – and this is precisely what is changing now. Of course, China and India’s solidarity with the Arab and Muslim world prior to 1991, and their hostility to Israel, was another reason many Israelis paid little attention to these two countries. Arab pressure has prevented Israel from joining Asian cultural and other forums. This did not enhance the Israeli public’s interest in Asia, nor did it allow Israel to benefit in Asia from such regional forum’s greater goal of building friendship among nations. Although the Asian continent played no significant role in Jewish history, religion, or literature, a few forward-looking Israeli politicians and diplomats and other intermediaries attempted to establish contacts even during the early decades of the Jewish state. Israel’s defense establishment supplied India and China with military equipment long before there were any official relations, and, in general, was looking for new Asian markets. The reasons were primarily economic, but there were also geopolitical considerations. Some members of the defense establishment understood that Asia’s two main powers would play a growing role in world affairs. In 1992, when both China and India established diplomatic relations with Israel, everything changed at the political level.

Is India important? The significance of India’s unity

Today, Israel has begun to turn to Asia. The two Asian countries that have attracted Israelis, in different arenas, are China and India. In the wake of Modi’s victory, India has been in the spotlight. Why India? Is India important? It is not that Israelis do not know or like India. Forty thousand or more of them visit India every year, most of them young backpackers. Most Israelis,who love foreign travel, keep India on their list of countries not to be missed. Facets of Indian culture, for example food or music, can often be found in Israel. One of the best books of Israel’s famous novelist A.B. Yehoshua is set in India, has the Hebrew title Ha-Shiva MeHodu (Return from India) (1994) and was adapted into a successful 2002 film (Open Heart). What then do Israelis see in India? Most see an exotic, colorful, mysterious country – an alluring riddle, a land of contradictions. The young discover a place where they can forget, for a short while, all the tensions of Israel because the country is so different from their own. Some are fascinated by its Eastern spirituality. India also fascinates because it defies common understanding, although it can also horrify visitors. They see unpaved streets, cows blocking traffic, skeletal humans sleeping on the sidewalks, and chaos at the airports. Many, including Israelis, draw hasty conclusions from this about India’s future. They may have heard of India’s software sector, but few know that Lakshmi Mittal founded an Indian steel company, which after its acquisition of Arcelor in 2006 is today the largest high-quality steel-maker in the world. Not so long ago, large-scale steel production was considered a safe indicator of great power status. Others ask why they seldom see “Made in India” imprinted products. India’s growth continues to be much less based on exports than China’s, and most Indian manufacturers have such a giant inland market, they do not have to look abroad. Nevertheless, India is today the world’s third largest pharmaceuticals producer, with around 15 billion dollars worth of pharmaceutical exports in 2014, of which nearly 40 percent went to the United States.2

But these and other specific economic achievements pale in the face of India’s greatest achievement: its enduring national unity under conditions that have preserved enormous and vibrant diversity. In 2012, observers in and outside India lamented the country’s apparent political disarray and economic slowdown. Such analysts of current events take a short-term view. Most people have already forgotten India’s greatest and most unexpected achievement and regard it as normal though it is not: Indians of many different languages, religions, geographic origins, and subcultures have succeeded in building, after centuries of disunity and foreign rule, a functioning nation-state of nearly 1.3 billion inhabitants (2015). An equally impressive achievement is that India has remained, with a short interruption known as “The Emergency” from 1975-77, a basically democratic country. Its democracy and its unity go hand-in-hand. Today, the survival of a unified India and its growing international weight is not in doubt despite remaining problems with Kashmir (where less than one percent of India’s people live), concerns about the delicate balance between Hindus and Muslims, and the danger of a small part of the Muslims distancing themselves from the Indian nation. However, from the day India gained its independence in 1947 until the 1980s, the cohesion of India looked weak and ephemeral. Various parts of India demanded, or toyed with the hope of independence, and many experts predicted their secession. India’s success is unparalleled in modern history.3 The 20th century’s largest multi-ethnic empire, the Soviet Union, collapsed in 1991; the vaunted political unity of the Arab world turned out to be a chimera in the late 1960s; and the modern world’s most extolled unification experiment, that is the European Union, has made no progress since the late 20th century while the European public’s “Euro-scepticism” seems to be growing by the day.

There are both differences and similarities in India and Israel’s efforts to build cohesion and manage diversity. It is worthwhile to reflect on how both countries have coped with their enormous internal problems, and what they could learn from each other.

More than 2,000 years of contacts call for renewing and strengthening the links between the Indian and Jewish civilizations

Today, the links between India and Israel are mainly military, economic, and technological, based on the current material interests of both sides. But some of these links have come under attack by Israel’s enemies in and outside India. In the long term, the Indo-Israeli relationship will have a better chance to thrive and expand if it has a deeper and broader public basis. Thus, the following chapters do not focus only on today’s military and economic links, they take a broader historical view. Old history provides a favorable framework for growing links between the Indian and Jewish civilizations. Relations between the two are among the oldest continuous links between any living civilizations, although these links were often modest and not much in evidence. Biblical sources trace trade and other contacts back to the First Temple period three thousand years ago, and later sources show that relations continued until modern times. Jewish and Israeli endeavors to forge new bonds with India, particularly since 1992 when India and Israel established full diplomatic relations, constitute a new beginning based on old history. Few Jews or Indians know this background. A larger Indian and Jewish audience should be made aware of their past links, which today are mostly known only in limited academic circles.

India is older than written history. The roots of Indian languages, religious literature and rituals, art and patterns of behavior go back three and four thousand years. Indian civilization, Hinduism and other old Indian religions endured while Indian states, kingdoms, and empires were rising and falling. Few others have such a long history. China is one case, and the Jewish people and Judaism is another. During all these three thousand years, there has never been a conflict between India and Jews in or outside India, although Jewish history was conflict-ridden from its beginnings. Do civilizational similarities create affinities that influence national interests and government policies? Samuel Huntington wrote that “global politics is the politics of civilizations” – this was his prediction for the 21st century.4

Many geopolitical thinkers dismiss this proposition as pure romanticism, but Israel’s founding fathers did not, and apparently India’s Prime Minister Modi does not either.

India in the foresight of Israel’s founding fathers and the interest in civilizational affinities

Interestingly enough, the visionaries who created the State of Israel – “geopoliticians” of living history if there ever were any – had ideas about India that differed from those of current geopolitical strategists. India was very important to them, although not primarily as an economic or military partner as it is today. They saw India as one of Asia’s great civilizations and wanted to link up with it at a unique, historic turning point when the Jewish people was returning to Asia after a long exile. Already in the 1930s, Moshe Shertok, head of the political department of the Jewish Agency and later, as Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister and later prime minister, was deeply concerned about India’s perception of Zionism. He wrote in 1936: “Our political future as a nation returning to its home in Asia must ultimately depend in a large measure on the amount of goodwill and solidarity which we shall succeed in evoking on the part of the great Asiatic civilizations.”5 Note the term “ultimately.” Among Israel’s founders, few sought peace and accommodation with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world more persistently than Sharett, but even he sensed that Israel’s long-term survival depended “ultimately” on wider geopolitical factors as well.

David Ben-Gurion, who would become the main founding father of Israel, predicted the rise of Asia long before others in the West, applauded India’s struggle for independence, and recommended in 1931 Asia’s “ancient cultural and spiritual treasures that maybe one day may enlighten all humanity.” For many years before the creation of Israel in 1948 he was more interested in India than in China, but after 1948 he exhorted Israel and the Jewish people to reach out to both civilizations because (written in 1963) “the two Asian states – China and India – would become the greatest powers in the world.”6 A small number of diplomats participated in their leaders’ quest for recognition by Asia, particularly David Ha-Cohen who became in 1953 Israel’s first envoy to Burma. Were Sharett and Ben-Gurion only romantics or also visionaries?

It is easy to find Indians who are interested in Jewish-Israeli culture and religion and would like to find similarities with their own traditions. For a long time their interest did not translate into Indian government policy, which in relation to Israel was exclusively pragmatic, driven by geopolitical considerations. This has changed. Prime Minister Modi is the first acting Indian statesman since independence who has publicly demonstrated an affinity for the Jewish people beyond India’s geopolitical needs, for example when he congratulated the Jewish people in Hebrew on the occasion of the Hanukah holiday in 2014. It is no coincidence that Modi was a life-long adherent of one of India’s best known spiritual teachers, his guru Swami Dayananda Saraswati. Swami Dayananda was the Indian driving force behind the first important Jewish-Hindu encounter in Delhi in 2007 where religious leaders of both sides agreed on common principles. Modi was surely aware of this meeting.7

One should add that Indian representatives do not hesitate to use “romantic,” civilizational arguments in other contexts. For example, when defending their country’s bonds of friendship with Iran, they emphasize that these bonds transcend pragmatic geopolitical needs and respect for India’s Shiites; these bonds, so they claim, result from the deep influence that Iran has had on Indian civilization.