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July 10, 2017 4:56 pm

The Joy of Israel and India, Together at Last

avatar by Ben Cohen / JNS.org

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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu bids farewell to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at Ben-Gurion International Airport last week. Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO via Netanyahu’s Facebook page.

JNS.org – Israel’s defenders in America should take great pleasure from the success of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to the Jewish state last week.

Eight months ago, after assisting in the passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution that blamed Israel for the impasse with the Palestinians, then-Secretary of State John Kerry warned Israel that it faced international isolation over its West Bank settlement policy. Apparently, Modi — the leader of a nation of 1.3 billion people that includes the world’s largest Muslim minority — wasn’t listening.

Though Modi’s embrace of Israel represents an enormous shift in policy terms, one can argue that it’s also the maturation of an emotional bond between Jews and Indians that goes back centuries. Only 5,000 Jews — a microscopic percentage of the population — live in India now, but they have been a consistent presence in that vast country since the original community, the Bene Israel, emerged there during the first millennium. The last set of immigrants, Jews from Iraq, began arriving in the 19th century, where they set up a flourishing community. Unlike nearly everywhere else where Jews have lived, in India they were never persecuted, never stigmatized, never exiled, never slaughtered.

India and Israel achieved their independence within a year of each other. India’s alignment with the Soviet bloc kept the two countries apart for half a century, but diplomatic relations were enthusiastically agreed a little more than a year after the crumbling of the USSR. Both countries’ national movements shared a number of similarities, not least their support — rare in anti-colonial struggles — for parliamentary democracy as the model to follow after independence. Both movements were led by individuals — I am thinking in particular of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s prime minister from 1947-64 — who were supremely at ease by the country home fireplaces of the British aristocracy, and yet played a decisive role in drawing down the curtain upon the British Empire.

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It was that sense of mutual understanding that led Albert Einstein to write to Nehru, in 1947, the following: “May I appeal to you, as the leader of a movement of social and national enfranchisement, to recognize in Zionism a similar movement whose realization will add to the peace and progress of the Orient?” Seventy years later, with Modi’s visit, the affirmative answer to Einstein’s question has finally arrived.

Those who still cling to the belief that Israel — where the majority of the population is of African, Middle Eastern and Asian descent — is some sort of colonial implant might want to reflect on Modi’s visit. Now is an ideal time to remind these folks — especially the “white, privileged” leftists among them — that the country inspiring a host of national liberation struggles, the country co-founding the Non-Aligned Movement, is now partnering with Israel on nothing less than a national mission to secure clean water and an uninterrupted food supply for the rural and urban masses of India alike.

For Israel, alignment with India offers additional security not only in a military sense, but in terms of “shared values” — the same phrase that has dominated elevator pitch summaries of US-Israel relations for decades now. But just because its constant repetition can be tiresome doesn’t mean that statement isn’t true. In the case of India, Israel’s geographic proximity combined with billions of dollars in trade and a shared ambition to sustain democratic societies in the face of severe external threats, creates an immediate commonality of interests based, in turn, on the moral desire to remain free. Yes, Modi is described as authoritarian, as is Netanyahu, but in India as in Israel, visceral critics of the government are protected by the law, instead of being pushed outside it. That is one of many differences between them and places like Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority.

Many years ago, before my first visit to India, I worked for a few months in neighboring Bangladesh — a predominantly Muslim country that won its independence from Muslim Pakistan in 1971 in large part because of India’s humanitarian military intervention, and which has remained secular under India’s continued wise influence. I got to know many fine Muslim and Hindu journalists while there, and I became proud of being the first Jew they had ever met. In particular, I remember one Hindu journalist, who had been a child when Bangladesh survived the genocidal war waged by Pakistan, telling me, “If we had lost, the Pakistanis would have done to my people what the Germans did to yours.”

I mention that story as another illustration of the emotional bond I talked about earlier. In the final analysis — and notwithstanding the disdain of the academic realists — ideas, emotions and shared experiences do matter in international relations. Hopefully, in the coming months and years, Israel and India will use these bonds to flourish together.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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  • arun from India

    1.5 billion Hindus Buddhist and Sikhs worldwide are peaceful
    people that have always felt a connection with the Jewish people and Israel. the ground realities in India and among these groups are such that they can coexist peacefully with everyone else
    As a personal experience even while being in school in New Delhi while growing up we were appalled why India would not collaborate with Israel openly given the similarities between the Hindus, Sikh and Buddhist and people of Jewish faith as in all these groups being
    ancient cultures and all advocating peace. the contention that appears
    in many opinion pieces that congress in India was not a Israel sympathetic is false as can be evidenced from Israeli help to India during the time of congress government . All Congress was trying to do is balance India’s energy needs and the fact some 7 to 8 million Indians works in west Asia who repatriate foreign currency back to
    India. Even when recently India voted against Israel at the UN,
    there were solidarity meetings where the general Indian popular politicians like Subramanian Swami made clear that what the Indian majority thinks is different from to how the Govt voted at the UN With changing dynamics West Asia needs to sell oil to India more than India needs to buy from them what matters most are the shared
    values of Hindus , Buddhist and Sikhs in India whether they be Congress , Lefties or BJP essentially when it come to the last straw, all of these groups superficial ideological differences will disappear and their shared values of peace, prosperity, modern progressive democratic society and intellectual and cultural pursuit will be the only dominant bonds that will bind them together. And history tells us that as well. India should and will welcome people of Israel to their countries for business, pleasure, educational and cultural pursuits and we can only hope that while governments have done their job the people cultural exchange will strengthen it irreversibly. And we know that it will happen because people of Jewish faith have lived and being free to pursue their faith freely and openly and in fact most Indians have a very high positive opinion of the people of Israel

  • Bill Charles

    What a great story. Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, is of Indian descent and a true supporter of Israel. Hopefully she had a hand in this recent meeting and the warmth between the two nations.

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