A better connection with Israel

Issue 16 - Jul 2008

The India-Israel Imperative

Martin Sherman

For those who place store on the symbolic, it will be undoubtedly significant to note the striking similarity between written form of the word for “Indian” and that for “Jew”, which in Hebrew script, are almost identical. Adding the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet to the word for “Indian” will give the word for “Jew” in Hebrew. Indeed even the phonetic articulation in Hebrew of the two words is also very much alike: “Hodi” for Indian; “Ye-Hodi” for Jew.

Of course, the practical significance of these interesting similarities—beyond obvious curiosity value—is unclear. Nevertheless, in the context of the history of Judeo-Indian relations, it is worth noting that India, unlike many countries across the globe, can boast of a past that is almost entirely without any major manifestation of animosity towards the Jews. In fact, the only significant incident of anti-Semitism was the persecution of Jews in Cranganore, on what is now the Kerala coast, in the 16th century…by the Portuguese. As P R Kumaraswamy, a leading analyst of Indo-Israeli relations, puts it: “In light of the absence of anti-Semitism in India, one can argue that the lack of diplomatic relations [until 1992] was an aberration in India’s overall policy toward Jews”.

Indeed, on closer examination there does appear to be a considerable degree of compatibility between both the Jewish and Indian people and their respective national-states—Israel and India.

Both Indians and Jews are ancient peoples, with a long history and illustrious civilizations dating back thousands of years, which still deeply impacts the national mindset and the conduct of many aspects national life today.

Both emerged into an era of post-colonial sovereignty from British rule which left lasting imprints on the two nascent independent societies.

Both maintain a strong commitment to democratic governance and to values of tolerance, pluralism and liberty in domestic political environments might have been expected to be highly conducive to the growth of dictatorship
Both countries have had to contend with external threats to national security, periods of economic hardship, political assassination and ethno-religious rivalries but have never wavered in their belief in, and their commitment to, open pluralist societies—even in these extremely testing conditions.

Both maintain a belief in, and a commitment to, a knowledge-based society, placing great store on learning, science and technological advancement.

Both people have highly successful diaspora (particularly in the United States) who maintain strong affinity with their respective countries of origin, and who strive assertively to enhance the security and other strategic interests of their ethnic homelands, which are in no way discordant with those of their host country.

Much has changed in the international system since the 1990s and much has remained unchanged. Both that which has changed, and that which has not, contribute towards making a compelling case in favour of the establishment of a long-term, multivalent, strategic bond between Israel and India that is both desirable and durable.

The region spanned by Israel and India, aptly described by Paul Sheehan in the Sydney Morning Herald as “an ‘Arc of Instability’…stretching unbroken through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon,” includes many of most implacable epicentres of radical extremism. A similar geo-strategic argument was reflected in the Washington Post where Jim Hoagland identified “Jerusalem and New Delhi [as] end points… in a vast swath of countries from North Africa through the Himalayas that should now be seen as a single strategic region [in which] India and Israel are the most vibrant democracies …who can build and sustain consensus and commitment to ideas and values”.

Nothing, therefore, seems more appropriate or more pressing than that the two nations, who straddle such a highly inhospitable neighbourhood, should cultivate countervailing centres of powers which genuinely and autonomously embrace a similar ethos of social tolerance and political pluralism.

There appears to be a remarkable compatibility between the aspirations of modern India and its leaders on the one hand, and the areas in which Israel has acquired exceptional expertise on the other. This dramatically reflected in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s dictum in praise of martial and the agricultural endeavour (Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan), and the later addendum by Atal Bihari Vajpayee to include scientific and technological endeavour (Jai Vigyan)

Indeed, these three areas—security, agriculture and technology—aptly demarcate major spheres of strategic co-operation for a far-reaching—albeit not exhaustive—”menu” for joint Indo-Israeli enterprise.