What's Behind India's Admiration for Israel?

Indians see Israel as 'the little national that could', but most admire its diverse democracy, says Indian liaison with US Jewry.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Bosom buddies: Prime Minister Netanyahu with India's PM Narendra Modi
Bosom buddies: Prime Minister Netanyahu with India's PM Narendra Modi
Avi Ohayon, GPO

Many Israelis, particularly Israeli Jews, see India as a natural ally. Both countries face radical Muslim enemies, fighting for their continued independence as the only state for their respective Jewish and Hindu peoples. But that is not how Indians view it, and it might be critical for Israelis to understand that as Jerusalem looks to deepen its relationship with New Delhi.

"Indian abstained from voting for Israeli independence in 1947," says Arjun Ramesh Hardas, "because so soon after arguing against the Pakistani argument that Muslims needed a separate state, they could not accept the idea that religion should be the basis for independence."

Mr. Hardas is the American Jewish Committee's representative in India and was formally involved with The Israel Project as part of their now-defunct India desk.

"According to the Two-Nation Theory, Pakistan and India needed to be separate. India did not accept that idea because when you look at these two countries, everything is culturally identical."

Most Indians and Pakistanis speak dialects of the same language - what Indians call Hindi and Pakistanis call Urdu. Major lifecycle events like weddings are very similar. It was only on religion where they differed. This was not the case with Israelis and Arabs in 1947, but that wasn't what Indians perceived.

"Because Israel was seen as 'Jewish' and did not project itself as a secular state, they had trouble accepting the concept of Israel. It was not anti-Israeli."

It is Israel's identity as an open democracy that would have more appeal among Indians, including the majority Hindus. India might have a Hindu majority, but it has sizeable minorities of Muslims, Sikhs and Jains. Christians and Jews, though much smaller, have still found ways to represent themselves in society.

"During the 1971 war (with Pakistan), while Pakistanis were 100% Muslim, India had minorities everywhere. There was a Parsi (Zoroastrian) Chief of Staff, the commander on the eastern front was Sikh, the commander on the western front a Christian, the head of the Air Force was Parsi, we had a Jewish general and the President was a Muslim."

According to Mr. Hardas, Israel's diversity would take it far in expanding its mostly positive reputation in India.

"Send Colonel Hassan of the Golani Brigade to India as a military attache! That would do wonders with Indians."

Colonel Hassan is a Druze officer who was famously injured during Operation Protective Edge, but insisted on returning to the front as soon as doctors cleared him to do so.

What is critical in Mr. Hardas' mind is that Israelis remember that religious identity in India is not something distinctive. There is no history of anti-Semitism in India. Islam and Christianity are considered a part of the fabric there also. What makes Jews religiously distinct from Christians and sometimes Muslims is irrelevant in today's India.

"It is still not a part of Indian thinking. The attention Israel gets is nothing like what it gets in Europe. Jews are part of India, but they aren't central to Indian history. It's like the Amazonians to Europeans."

None of this is to say Indians are not religious, merely that utilizing it for political purposes is not popular there. 

Beyond identity, Israel might not realize that as a country it has projected itself as a strong and proud country. Despite whatever Israelis might feel about Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech last week, it characterizes for Indians "the little country that could."

"Israel is seen as an example here. For one, Indians are impressed by their success against their enemies and that they have absolutely thrashed the hell out of them. That the Prime Minister stood up to the President of the United States is an example of Israel not taking crap from anyone."

"Israel's enemies are absolutely terrified of them."

Ingenuity is also something Israel should continue pushing, implying that Israeli startups are on the right track breaking into the Indian market with new technologies.

"Secondly, Israel built a standard of living through hard work. Indians look at that and say, 'Why can't we do that?!'"

Israel is still seen as the Goliath in the equation with the Palestinians though. Despite a general admiration and even sympathy, Israel needs to emphasize that its wars are defensive against attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah, and not an overreaction to what some people characterized as mere "firecrackers."

"There is this perception that Israel is overreacting, based on this myth that Qassam rockets are 'just firecrackers.' Israel needs to show Indians what one these rockets looks like and hold a press conference. In fact, they should do that everywhere."

There is a relatively clean slate though for Israel, despite how Indians viewed things in the past. According to Mr. Hardas, even in the 1960s when Israel was still widely considered the underdog versus Arab countries, the fact many white Jews were perceived to displacing the "brown" Palestinians counted against them. But those views are increasingly a thing of the past.

"There used to be only state television and virtually one newspaper. Before 1992 when they established ties, there is a lot more media and a lot more debate."

"Today's generation doesn't remember a time there weren't relations in Israel."