It may not have had the electricity of Princess Diana’s famous pose in front of the Taj Mahal. But this week’s photograph of Benjamin Netanyahu, along with his wife Sara, in front of India’s most famous monument also carried its own symbolism. It was the high point of the Israeli PM’s five day visit to India, taking in Delhi, Gujarat and Mumbai. This followed hot on the heels of the much vaunted visit by India’s PM, Narendra Modi, to Israel last July.
Bibi’s visit this week is the latest evidence of the strength of the India-Israel relationship. Diplomats, in grand parlance, like to talk about golden ages, but for once the reality seems to match the hype. Last year marked the 25th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between the countries (before that India tended to prioritise good relations with Arab states).
Despite obvious differences in land mass and population, India and Israel have a lot in common. They are almost an identical age (India is a year older) and were born escaping the imperial clutches of Britain. Both have vibrant political systems. India is the world’s largest democracy and Israel is the biggest democracy in the Middle East. Both have open, innovative economies and are home to ancient cultures which value education, family and community.
Jews thrived in India for hundreds of years. They were only ever a small community, peaking at a population of 30,000, mainly in Mumbai, Kolkata and Cochin. Whereas Jewish communities experienced persecution and pogroms elsewhere, particularly in Europe, the Jews of India were granted freedom of religion and made to feel welcome.
I recall my grandmother, who spent half her life in Kolkata, saying that they never experienced any anti-Semitism in India. Even though she died ten years ago, I thought of her this week. She was proud of her Indian heritage and loved Israel too. She would have been delighted at the blossoming relations between the two countries.
- Zaki Cooper is on the Advisory Council of the Indian Jewish Association.