India is a country of strategic importance to Israel. It is the world’s largest democracy and the second largest country on the planet. For this reason, building up Indian-Israeli relations is of utmost strategic importance, especially if one considers that both India and Israel share many of the same concerns regarding the radical Islamist threat and Hindus like Jews were also persecuted in the Muslim world.
On top of that, both countries share many of the same strategic interests and possess the same values. After all, both Hinduism and Judaism are ancient faiths, whose people govern democratic nations.
Nevertheless, if you ask the average Israeli in the street, they do not understand the history of the Indian-Israeli relationship or why it is important to know something about India today.
As Sivan Gamliel, an Israeli communications specialist that lives in Bat Yam, explained: “I have never been to India, so I don’t know what to say. I think that we don’t have a problem there. We are in a good relationship with them. But I don’t even know who Mahatma Gandhi is. I think most young Israelis don’t know anything about India. Most of the Israelis go to India in order to travel. They are not interested in the history.”
While most Israelis do support the diplomatic relationship with India, the general ignorance about India that permeates Israeli society does create a negative perception towards the country among some Israelis. Lea Suissa, a resident of Netanya, proclaimed that while she loves Indian movies and supports a good diplomatic relationship with India, believing that Indians are good people that support Israel, she still “will never go there and will never eat there. I believe the place is dirty. Furthermore, it disturbs me that if a woman is pregnant with a daughter there, they force her to kill the baby. It very much disturbs me.”
According to the Population Research Institute, since 1990, around 15.8 million girl babies in India have been killed during sex-selective abortions and other forms of pre-natal sex selection. Nearly 550,500 girls are selectively aborted every year over there. However, there is no legislation in India that forces women to abort female babies. Rather, it is a cultural practice implemented by a segment of the population. Nevertheless, the fact that it is a cultural practice and not a government-mandated law similar to China’s one-child policy does not change what Lea thinks about India: “They think that sons help the family and not the girls.”
Of course, not everyone in Israel has a negative perception of India. In fact, most Israelis do strongly support the diplomatic relationship with India, even though they are ignorant about the history of the country. Janette Engen, who also lives in Nahariyya, declared: “I’m happy that we have strong relations with India. Most of the Israelis are happy to have good contact with big countries. It is absolutely good. It is good for Israel. We sell things to them. There are many people that live there. I don’t care what Gandhi said in the past. Gandhi is dead for many years. It is good for Israel to have a relationship with other countries. We should have contact with everyone we can.”
Furthermore, Engen stated that if Gandhi was not as anti-Israel as people claimed that he was, then there is even more of a reason for strong Indian-Israeli relations today for past Indian foreign policy was based on a false premise.
According to Lev Aran, a journalist who writes for the Hebrew weekly Makor Rishon, the root of the Israeli peoples’ ambivalent attitude towards India began when former Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi stated: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same way that England belongs to the English and France to the French. It is unjust and inhumane to impose the Jews on the Arabs.” For the few Israelis that know something about India, this statement forever rooted in their minds that for decades, India was not a pro-Israel country. This phrase by Gandhi influenced Indian foreign policy until 1992, when Israel and India had their rapprochement, thus reversing decades where India promoted an anti-Israel foreign policy.
Aran claims that the Indian perception of Gandhi stood behind Indian foreign policy all of these years: “This cynical policy in India was portrayed as an idealistic policy that preserved the vision of its founding father. India was the only democracy that voted against Israel in November 1947. The leaders of India were comfortable justifying their animosity towards young Israel by preserving Gandhi’s legacy, which said that Palestine belonged to the Arabs.” However, what if Gandhi only reluctantly made that anti-Israel statement and in fact had a more positive perception of the Zionist movement, which was covered up?
According to Aran, while Gandhi was not supportive of international or British legal documents in favor of supporting the Zionist movement, he apparently was receptive to arguments that the Jewish people have an historic attachment to the Land of Israel: “One of the reasons that Mahatma Gandhi suspected the Zionist Movement was the Balfour Declaration. To some extent, the Balfour Declaration became a victim of its own success. As far as Gandhi was concerned, if we are a native community in Palestine, why do we need In the 1930’s, Gandhi succeeded in seeing the Jews as an ancient nation that returned to its homeland. In 1946, Gandhi said in a meeting with British MP Sydney Silverman: ‘The Jews had an earlier claim to Israel compared to the Arabs. After all, they were there before.’
international legitimacy? In the 1930’s, Gandhi succeeded in seeing the Jews as an ancient nation that returned to its homeland. In 1946, Gandhi said in a meeting with British MP Sydney Silverman: ‘The Jews had an earlier claim to Israel compared to the Arabs. After all, they were there before.’”
“Gandhi’s personal secretary hid documents that shed light on the relationship between Gandhi and the State of Israel,” he added. “The attempt to gain legitimacy by a document produced by an occupying power led to Gandhi’s hostility and deafness to Zionist claims. It is an irony of history that the arguments that helped Gandhi to change his mind about Zionism were related to the history of the Jews in the Land of Israel, not the formal arguments Israeli diplomats make to this day. It is interesting that opposition to the Balfour Declaration also comes from the Zionist establishment itself.”
However, Zionist leaders utilizing Eurocentric arguments while presenting their cause to Gandhi was not the only issue at play. Shimon Lev, a researcher in the field of Indian studies, told Makor Rishon, “The Zionist Movement looked at India with orientalist eyes. It did not send to India professional diplomats as it sent to other countries but intellectuals since India unlike the other countries is spiritual. This decision brought about a disaster. Immanuel Olsvanger was a Sanskrit researcher, a lover of India and a Zionist activist but he derided Gandhi and called him a ‘little sheep’ in his diary. Gandhi had already moved in a positive way towards Zionism and the attempt to push him to a corner created a negative document that overshadows everything that was before and after.”
Nevertheless, despite everything, Aran claims that Gandhi was reluctant to speak out against the Zionist Movement and the only reason he did not respond to Martin Buber’s letter to him after his anti-Zionist diatribe is most probably because it was never delivered to him.
In light of this new research conducted by Lev Aran for Makor Rishon, Israelis should rethink their ambivalent attitude towards India and start to care about building up a positive relationship with the country. After all, Hindu students in Bangladesh are forced to study religion from Muslim teachers, just as Jewish children in Iran are compelled to study in schools with Muslim principals. Shipan Kumer Basu, President of the World Hindu Struggle Committee, proclaimed: “The main purpose is to spread Islam among Hindu children in the name of having Muslim teachers give religious lessons to Hindu students.” The same can be said about having Muslim principals leading Jewish schools in Iran.
However, Israel and India are united by far more than their shared history of persecution in the Muslim world. Just as the Jewish people struggle for international recognition of their claim to the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, Gush Etzion and the Jordan Valley, India seeks for the new status of the Kashmir region as a pivotal part of India to be recognized. Like the State of Israel, the Indians are facing an uphill battle in this regard.
Furthermore, the Indian Supreme Court recently ruled that the Ram Temple, a Hindu holy site that was in 1528 taken over by Muslims who transformed the holy site into a mosque, has been legally returned to the Hindu people. As Basu noted, “Indian Hindus believe that Ayodhya is the holy birth place of Ramachandra. But the Muslim emperors occupied it for a long time, applying their muscles and power.” While the Ram Temple was restored to the Hindu people, Basu stressed that there are still many other Hindu temples in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan that are still in the hands of radical Muslims.
Nevertheless, for the Jewish people, this historic ruling can on the Ram Temple can serve as a precedent for numerous Jewish holy sites that were transformed into mosques or which the Palestinian Arabs are trying to transform into mosques. The State of Israel can use the Ram Temple case in order to now have these places recognized as Jewish holy sites. These Jewish holy places include but are not limited to Joseph’s Tomb, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, parts of the Temple Mount, etc. As Basu noted, “All of these holy places should be recovered from radical Islamist hands.”
Given this, it would behoove Israelis to start caring about what happens in India and to work towards building up Indian-Israeli relations. Both India and Israel will be stronger if we stand united in favor of our common interests. Thus, we should support India as they assert their rights and they should help the Jewish state in obtaining its rights. We should not permit a fake perception of history to stand in the way of cooperation in today’s world.
Israelis should open up their mind to the world around them and start to pay attention to what is happening in India.