As Prime Minister Modi comes to Israel on the 4th of July, 2017, the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, for a stand-alone trip, decoupling the India-Israel relations from Palestine, it is important to understand the depth, history and evolution of the Israel-India relationship. While the visit has many dimensions, the most important aspect is not the joint development of arms, not the prospect of free trade agreement but rather the shared values and historical ties.
Hindus and Jews have shared a history which goes back 2500 years. The first group of Jewish sailors, came to India as traders in around 562 BCE and settled in India. Some say it could have even been earlier during King Solomon’s reign (around 957 BCE, when the first temple was being built). Jews came and settled in India while they were in charge of the flourishing spice trade that existed between India and Europe. Those were the happy times.
Thereafter Jews seeking refuge, escaping the Roman genocide, came down to Cochin right after the second Jewish temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Be it the Bene Israelis (Jews who had settled in the Konkan region of India) or the Jewish community in Cochin or the community of Baghdadi Jews in Kolkata, the Jewish communities in India never had to relinquish their culture and religion. Unlike the pogroms against Jews in Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordon, and nation after nation in the Arab world, not a single attack happened against the Jewish community in India.
The Hindu kings of India treated the Jewish community as equals. In fact, in around 1000 AD, legendary Hindu emperor from Kerala, Kulasekhara Bhaskara Ravi Varman I (962-1019 AD) received Jewish leader Joseph Rabban and presented a set of copper plates granting the community 72 property rights equivalent to the ruling nobles of Malabar region in India. In the plates the rights are mentioned “as long as the World and Moon exist”. The Hindu Kings gave the Jewish community land rights and the community even served in the King’s army. The community representative was also made head of powerful trade bodies and was conferred trade rights called Anjuvannam.
When the Portuguese Catholics arrived in India, the Jewish community for the first time faced attacks in India and discrimination under Portuguese “Inquisition like” rule. While the Hindus in Goa faced extreme brutality as a consequence of Portuguese Inquisition, the Jews also faced severe discrimination and attacks. When the ancient Jewish Synagogue was destroyed by the Portuguese, the Hindu King in Cochin, Raja Rama Varma, moved the Synagogue next to his palace and Hindu temple in 1568 AD to keep a daily eye on this revered building fulfilling the promise made by his Hindu ancestors and living to them in the test of time.
Jews being the ancient indigenous people of Israel and Hindus being the ancient indigenous people of India, South and Southeast Asia respect each other for preserving their ancient faiths. In the words of PM Netanyahu, Israel was the land where the ancestors of the Jewish people lived, it was where David killed Golliath, the Jews resisted the Romans in Masada. No distortion of history could destroy the 4000 yr old sacred bond between the Jewish people and Israel. Jews are thus the indigenous people of Israel. In India and in large parts of South and South East Asia, the glorious history of the courageous Hindus was scripted. It was in India where Vedas were written, Krishna delivered the Bhagavad Gita in the battle of Kurukshetra more than 5000 yrs ago. It was in India that the Greek Juggernaut of Alexander was stopped while the rest of the world fell to him. It was also in India that likes of Shivaji rose to defeat the Mughals and re-establish the Hindu Empire. The unbroken ties of human beliefs, culture and civilization is neatly preserved by the indigenous Hindus in India, South and South East Asia even to this date.
When the Nazis under Hitler started killing the Jews, the Hindus in Gujarat gave shelter to many Jewish orphans. While India had previously sheltered the Zoroastrian community fleeing genocide in Iran, and the Jewish community earlier, the 20th century saw a new demonic rise of a dictator who went on to commit a holocaust of 6 million Jews. At that point in history, when almost every nation refused to help, a Maharaja in Gujarat opened up his home to the Jewish orphans from Poland who had no place to turn to. Though the holocaust was happening in faraway Europe and India was in a colonized state, the symbolic gesture by the Maharajah Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji Jadeja of Balachadi is moving and displays the intrinsic nature of the relationship between the two communities. One of love and affection.
The Hindu and the Jewish community have always cherished the values of education and respect for different thoughts and opinions. A very interesting conversation between Physicist and Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore, Asia’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature, highlights the respect that icons from both communities had for each other. Einstein was also involved in an incident pertaining to Hindu scientist S.N. Bose, whose radical thought on quantum mechanics was rejected by the British academia with India then being in a colonized state. He then wrote a letter to his role model and Guru Einstein seeking help. Einstein used his influence to get the article published as a co-author. It forms the foundation of a pioneering work which is today known as the Bose-Einstein Statistics. The respect Einstein gave to the Hindu scientist S.N. Bose who is credited with pioneering Bosons, a system of particles whose statistics do not prevent it from occupying the same quantum state, is symbolic of the respect for education which Hindus and Jews preserve in the communities. The absolute value for education irrespective for differing opinions as unique individuals is what binds members of both communities for millenniums.
Not only education, but also respect for fundamental human values likes gender equality too make Israel and India role models for the world. While Israel has a large presence of women serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), India also is one of the few countries in the world which allows women in all divisions of the military – Army, Navy and Air Force. Thus a shared reverence for knowledge, scientific thinking, gender equality and co-existence is what defines the relationship.
The recent geopolitics do not totally reflect the potential of this ancient relationship. During the cold war, Israel was closer to United States and India to the Soviet Union. Under Nehruvian policies, India moved closer to the Soviets. Moreover, when in 1953, Israel was invited to open a consulate in Mumbai, full diplomatic relations eluded the two nations for a long time. The reason given by multiple governments was that they did not want to ruin relations with the Arab world by establishing full diplomatic ties with Israel. The relations between the two countries were closeted though government to government contact and cooperation between the intelligence agencies always existed. In fact when RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), India’s premier intelligence agency was set up in 1968, with Rameshwar Nath Kao at its helm, the Govt. of India advised him to develop close ties with Mossad. Since then Mossad has been providing India with vital intelligence from time to time, particularly with regards to the nuclear proliferation being carried out by Pakistan through rogue nations like North Korea threatening the entire neighborhood.
The Hindutva activists, however, were more open when it came to embracing Israel. . The leader who coined the word Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (called Veer Savarkar) supported the creation of Israel on both moral and political grounds, and condemned India’s vote at the UN against Israel. RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) came openly in support of Israel in 1948 as the Jews returned back to their homeland and had to stand up against the Arab colonizers. David Ben Gurion and his efforts to free Israel thus received strong support from Hindutva activists. Again it was the quest of shared values that united the Hindus and the Jews.
When Indian P.M. Narshimha Rao decided to liberalize the Indian economy and unleash the ancient potential of India, the Indian foreign policy underwent a drastic change. Recognizing the 2500 year old ties between the Hindus and the Jews, full diplomatic ties between India – Israel were established in 1992 under his patronage. Hindutva icon Dr. Subramanian Swamy, played a major role in that transformation as well.
Today the ties between India and Israel are just not historical but also economic. The economic partnership of $9 billion annually is not a one way traffic, not a buyer seller defense relationship, but one of collaboration and appreciation. The recent $2.5 billion dollar defense deal where a system jointly developed by Israel Aerospace Industries and the Defense Research and Development Organization, India’s primary state military research and development agency, called Medium Range Surface to Air Defense Missile (MR-SAM) system, known in Israel as the Barak 8 is being acquired by the Indian Army and Navy, is a testimony to that thriving relationship. Not just military, in pharmaceuticals, Indian companies like Sun Pharmaceutical are heavily invested in Israeli firms like Taro Pharma. Hindu Jewish co-operation in the diamond sector, which started with Hindu entrepreneurs working closely with their Jewish counterparts in Antwrep, Belgium has now extended even to India adding enormous value to the industry. Israeli diamond companies like Serene Technology is also invested heavily in the Indian Diamond sector. While Indian farmers see value in Israeli Technologies and water solutions, the buzzing startup sector in Israel is being heavily invested by Indian corporate, with the Tatas setting up an Internet of Things incubator in Israel and Indian Software Giant Infosys acquiring Israeli firm Cloudyn for $ 4 million and Panaya for $200 million. The software giant from India intends to invest close to $500 million in the near term in the Israeli startup space.
Israeli Technology Venture Capitalists like Jonathan Medved (often known as the Bill Gates of Israel), CEO of OurCrowd, the largest crowdfunding platform in the world, has been visiting India often to invest in Indian startups. In his interview he showers glowing praise on the Indian entrepreneurs and their talents. He has already made his first investment in India and is looking for more investments in Cyber Security, Medical Devices and Robotics. He sees great similarity between Indian and Israeli culture in terms of belief in ancient traditions, family values, reverence for education and a desire to solve some of the toughest problems of our times. This he sees different from the American Silicon Valley culture where everything traditional is unwanted. The common belief that the future is enriched by the traditions of the past is what he sees defining the India-Israel relations. Not only he finds commonality between the Indian “Jugaad” and the Jewish “Chutzpa”, he sees great potential if talented Indian entrepreneurs go global.
This respect for each other defies the isolationism that is often talked about Israel in the foreign press. In 2014 at the height of the Gaza conflict, when the foreign media went all out to paint Israel as being isolated internationally, an organization in India, Hindu Samhati, led by a charismatic Hindu Monk, Tapan Ghosh organized the largest pro-Israel rally in the world with 20,000 people. In sharp contrast to the leftist ideology in India, which sees the India Israel relations from a Arab-Palestinian prism, across the spectrum of organizations working in the template of Hindutva ideology, there is a sense of family ties with Israel based on shared cherished values. The appreciation for Israel and the achievement of the Jewish people is highlighted in speeches of some of the most respected Hindu leadership in India. In an address RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat praised Israel for her commitment to achieve self independence and be a strong nation.
Even in US, Hindu Jewish groups regularly meet to promote Unity. Hindu Activist Prasad Yalamanchi and Jewish Activist Peggy Sapiro had recently organized one in Chicago with Hindutva icon Dr. Swamy being the chief guest. Jewish activists like Zemira Eli-Nathan strongly promote Hindu Jewish unity in the social media. Similar enthusiasm is shared among the Hindus as well. Noted Hindu activist in US, Satya Dosapati and Somanjana Chatterjee, shared the same viewpoints of growing bonhomie between Hindus and Jews is US. Utsav Chakrabarti, a Washington DC based observer of Strategic Affairs and Geopolitics , sees the spectacular growth in India-Israel ties, and the wide array of partnerships between these two democracies, as one of the defining geo-political relationship of the 21st century.
Many Hindu Gurus also have helped to promote the Hindu –Jewish partnership. Guruji Sri Sri Ravi Shankar heaped praises on the Jewish community. Hindu Guru Swami Dayanad Swaraswati also emphasized the need for strong partnership as seen through the Jerusalem resolution which came out as a result of a conference between Hindu Gurus and Jewish Rabiis in Jerusalem.
When anti-Israel resolutions were repeatedly brought in the UN, there was a clamor by the Hindutva supporters in the social media, urging the Government of India to support Israel. When finally the Indian Government did abstain in one such resolution, reversing decades of foreign policy, there was a sense of jubilation. This jubilation is a confirmation that it is not just a 25 years of diplomatic relations which India and Israel are celebrating but rather a 2500 year old shared history of trust as family. Only the sky can be the limit for such a relationship.
The author, Souptik Mukherjee, PhD is a scholar based in United States.