My second visit to Israel, in May this year, was special. I landed on 13 May, a day before the US embassy in Jerusalem was inaugurated. The euphoria was palpable, and as an Indian in Israel I was sure, nothing could go wrong!
The US decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was not merely a 50-km geographical shift, but a calculative geo-strategic step indicating the United States’ unconditional support for the State of Israel. The US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital meant increased legitimacy to Jewish claims over Jerusalem and consequently, a blow to Palestinian aspirations. As the Jewish people were lost in jubilation, I was fortunate to be in Israel for an academic conference along with two colleagues.
Looking back, Indo-Israel entente was formalised in 1992 when the former decided to loosen its pro-Arab foreign policy stance and include Israel in its foreign policy calculus. Since then,the relationship has only become stronger. The three-day conference in the Southern city of Beersheva ended soon. But my journey continued. My next stop was Jerusalem. For millions of Christians, Jews and Muslims, Jerusalem is not just a place on the map. It is a highly emotive subject occupying a special significance in their memories and minds. For outsiders like me, it is a state mired in perpetual conflict. Nonetheless, the city of Jerusalem has its own charm and the myriad experiences on the streets of Jerusalem were a testimony to the changing geo-political realities which were making headlines in newspapers.
My journey to Jerusalem began on an interesting note. As I boarded my first bus from Beersheva, I noticed a young Jewish school boy (his curly peyot and Kippah clearly revealing his Ultra-Orthodox Jewish identity) being helped by an Arab Muslim girl in a striking red Hijab, at the ticket counter. The two engaged in a brief conversation and parted with a smile. The next moment I noticed the same girl glancing through an Arabic newspaper, whose front page displayed horrifying images from the ongoing conflict in Gaza Strip. The irony was striking. Even though Arabs and Jews in Israel remain divided by the historic conflict over land, the same piece of land is also witness to mundane instances of peaceful co-existence.
As we touched the periphery of Jerusalem, the hangover of US embassy shift could be felt in the air. The graffiti on walls, the posters on buildings, all in unison, showered praises on US President Donald Trump for his love towards Israel. Trump, and not Netanyahu was the Israeli Hero! The mood outside and within the Old city was also reminiscent of the same festive emotions. The Old city is divided into four quarters, namely, Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters. But the moment belonged to the Jews.
The documentary screening outside the Old city, showcasing the Zionist and Jewish sacrifices for statehood; and the evening ceremonial dance by Jews at the Western Wall testified the same. As I was enjoying the celebrations from a distance, I noticed a few Arabs passing-by, wearing tense expressions, evidently upset by the Jewish jollity. There was tension in the air and the cleavages between Arabs and Jews were more pronounced in the Old city than in rest of the country.
But as an Indian in Israel, I felt that we are loved and accepted by both Arabs and Jews. Due to linguistic handicap, I found myself struggling to communicate in public spheres and invariably a pedestrian or co-passenger would happily offer to help, be it Arab or Jewish. The Arab affection towards Indians was blatant as we walked through the narrow lanes of Muslim quarter. They would gaily ask us if we were Indians, quickly followed by their dramatic expressions of love for “Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan”! Bollywood’s soft power (precisely melodies of Hindi cinema) has clearly penetrated in the Arab hearts.
The experience in the Jewish quarter had a different tenor but same warmth. The Jews, on learning about our nationality, would share their detailed travelogues from across India, ranging from mountains of Kasol and Manali to beaches of Goa and Gokarna. Being the beneficiary of both Jewish and Arab hospitality in Israel, I felt that India seems to have effectively walked the Israeli-Arab tightrope by fostering friendship with two enemies.
At the end of my one-week trip, I had seen hope and disillusionment, hatred and joy; all conflicting emotions surviving simultaneously. But there was so much more to be seen and the time just flew by. As I boarded my flight back, I just hoped “Next year in Jerusalem!”