India-Israel cultural connect is much older than their official diplomatic relations. Diplomatic ties between the two states are just 25 years old but cultural bond between the two people are much deeper and stronger. Politico-strategically speaking, India and Israel as a state unit have almost been strangers to each other for more than four decades but developed strategic partnership within the period of 25 years since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992. People of India admire Israel and Israelis like Indians.
It is true that structural configuration plays a vital role in determining and shaping the bilateral relations but experiences derived from ‘deep history and culture’ is no less important a factor in this regard. India-Israel relations are no exception to that proposition. People of both the countries share historical experiences of the past and perceive common threat at present. The empathy between the two people derived not only shared experiences of having being invaded by foreign powers in the past but also because of being victims of terrorism at present. Hinduism and Judaism also share a lot in common. Both the religions did not inherit any missionary zeal for religious conversions. Both the religions believe that ‘there is one supreme being’. Both are ancient civilizations, centres of culture and faith and vibrant democracies in their respective regions.
India-Israel relations are unique in the sense that they not only have strong and reliable hard power linkages but also deep rooted soft power connecting points. Both the countries have developed strong ties in the hard power component related to technology, military, economic and agriculture arenas. Soft power issues related to history, culture, values, cinema, tourism and Diaspora also provide a good connect between both of them. These soft power linkages generate a trust surplus and give an imperceptible thrust to emerging strategic partnership between both the countries.
Nonetheless, healthy and cordial cultural connect between the people of both the countries have been more than a thousand years long and deep rooted. There are many instances in history which connect people of India and Israel in a positive and optimistic manner. Dr. Shalom Solomon Wald, an India expert in Israel, stated in this regard that there “is a long history of contacts between Indian and Jewish civilizations from Biblical and Talmudic to modern times, which inspired Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion”.
First and the most important connecting point between the two people is arrival of Jewish groups in India. Experiences of Jewish people in India have been very positive and encouraging compared to other places while they were in exile. After the destruction of their first and particularly second temples, Jewish people were forced to disperse around the world. They had to live in exile for more than two thousand years in the continent of Asia, Africa and Europe. During their exile a number of Jewish people arrived and settled in India also and lived in different parts of the country. During this period of exile, Jewish people received cordial treatment from Indian people and lived comfortably in India without any social or religious discrimination. During their long stay in India, Jewish people, living side by side with their Indian counterparts, successfully maintained their Jewish identity. Bene Israel were settled in Maharashtra while Kochini Jews was living in Kerala and Baghdadis stayed in West Bengal. Recently discovered Bnei Menashe and Bene Ephraim Jews were living in India’s north east region and Andhra Pradesh respectively.
Jewish people living in India did not face any discrimination or intolerance. Jewish Diaspora elsewhere in the world had to face difficult situation and discrimination in most of the places in the world. Indian Jews in Israel take pride in the fact that there was no anti-Semitism in India. This positive experience of Jews in India played an important role in building trust between the two people. India Today quoted Ezra Moses, Honorary Secretary of India Jewish Federation as saying that “Jews lived in India for thousands of Years and we never faced persecution by the locals…and that is why we always call ourselves Indian first…and we think of India as our motherland and Israel as our fatherland, promised to us by our lord almighty”. Writing in the Forbes magazine Gary Weiss said that “in India, from the beginning, Jewish communities have not only been free of discrimination but have dominated the commercial life of every place where they have settled-something that has fed traditional European anti-Semitism.” Commenting on India’s cordial treatment of Jewish people Gary Weiss further said ‘that is really a bit astonishing’ and ‘there is ample reason to be both condescending-and proud’.
Looking at the historiography of Jewish Diaspora, it can be said that India has been an exceptional country as far as discrimination against Jews is concerned. This is reflective of the strength of India’s vibrant cultural. Nobel laureate and former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was an ardent admirer of India, once said that “for us India is first of all a culture. Then it is for us the greatest democracy on earth”. Appreciative of India’s faith in pluralism and co-existence, Peres commented that “rest of the world could take pride in the history of pluralism and tolerance in India”.
Another important connecting point in history between the two people is the Battle of Haifa that took place in 1918. Role of Indian soldiers in liberating Haifa in 1918 is still alive in Indian and Israeli memories. Israel was part of the Ottoman Empire that time. During the World War I, Indian soldiers were fighting as a part of British army (allied power) against central powers. Indian soldiers played a vital role in liberating the port city of Haifa. 15th (Imperial Service) Cavalry Brigade of British army was comprised of three regiments namely Jodhpur regiment, Mysore regiment and Hyderabad regiment of Indian Princely States. Soldiers of Jodhpur regiment and Mysore regiment fought bravely against central powers and finally succeeded in liberating Haifa on September 23, 1918. Indian regiments, armed with spears and swords, riding on horses bravely faced the Ottoman forces which were armed with machine gun and artillery and manage to successfully oust them from Haifa.
In the memory of the Indian soldiers, a cemetery was built in Jaffa Street in the port city of Haifa in Israel. Indian army commemorate the Haifa day in India every year on 23rd September. Israel also celebrates Haifa day on the same date. Haifa day was first celebrated in Israel in 2010. Haifa city council decided in 2012 that the contribution of Indian soldiers in liberation of city would be taught in history text books in schools. Haifa Historical Society conducted research and documented the role of Indian soldiers in liberating Haifa.
Highlighting the role Indian soldiers in the liberation of Haifa, then Israeli Ambassador to India Alon Ushpiz was quoted by Bangalore Mirror as saying on Haifa Day that “the heroism, tenacity and cavalry skills of the Mysore and Jodhpur Lancer that took control of the city from the Turks on September 23, 1918, proved to be a decisive factor in the victory over Ottoman Empire. The historical battle of Haifa paved the way to the victory of British Army and 30 years later-to the creation of State of Israel”. On the occasion of Haifa Day in Israel, then Indian Ambassador to Israel, Jaideep Sarkar pointed out that “the sacrifice of Indian soldiers in Haifa was one among many historical connections between India and Israel”.
Teen Murti Chowk and Teen Murti Marg (Three Statues Road) in Delhi were named in the memory of Indian soldiers’ sacrifices in Haifa in 1918. Three statues in that crossing represent the three regiments of Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad. In May 2017, New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) has renamed Teen Murti Marg and Teen Turti Chowk as Teen Murti Haifa Marg and Teen Murti Haifa Chowk respectively. Haifa city council of Israel is planning to celebrate the centenary event in 2018.
Mahatma Gandhi was very strongly connected with the Jewish community in South Africa when he lived there. Gandhi came in contact with some prominent Jews and they became close friends. Sonja Schlesin, a Russian Jew, was his secretary. Henry Polak was a very close friend of Gandhi. Hermann Kallenbach met Gandhi in 1904 and became his close friend. Kallenbach helped him establish a farm house in South Africa. Girja Kumar wrote in Hindustan Times that “it is no exaggeration to say that Gandhi’s Jewish supporters in South Africa helped lay the foundation of the phenomenon that would become the Mahatma”.
Even after independence, Indian state never ever discriminated against the Jewish people as its constitution is based on the principles of equality and procedure established by law. Though India did not have diplomatic relations with Israel, it did not prohibit Jewish people from immigrating to Israel. It is noticeable here that during the peak of cold war the Soviet Union did not allow Jewish people to leave the country. As per the 2001 Census figure, the numbers of Jewish people in India was 4650 and out of this 2466 were living in Maharashtra. Maharashtra government has provided minority status to the remaining Jewish people in June 21, 2017 just two weeks before PM Modi’s scheduled visit to Israel. Number of Jewish people in India is dwindling due to their aliya to Israel.
Indian Jews made aliya to Israel after the emergence of State of Israel on May 14, 1948. Most of the Indian Jews moved to Israel in 1950s and 1960s. Indian Jews choose to make aliya to State of Israel not because of push factors but due to pull forces. Jewish people left India with good memories. Indian society has been very cordial to the Jewish people and there was not a single instance of anti-Semitism in the Indian society. Due to aliya at present there are approximately 80000 Indian Jews in Israel.
Majority of Indian Jews in Israel are Bene Israelis while the numbers of Cochini Jews, Baghdadi Jews and Bnei Menashe are smaller. The Indian Jewish groups in Israel jointly organize National Convention every year. Bene Israel also have a quarterly magazine named Maiboli in Marathi language. Indian Diaspora in Israel is still maintaining their cultural roots. They consider Israel as their fatherland but India as motherland. Maina Chawla Singh, a scholar and wife of one of India’s former ambassador to Israel, Arun Singh, recalling her time in Israel said that Indian Israelis often told her that “we are not Mizrakhi Jews, but Indian Jews, and while you can take a Jew out of India, you cannot take India out of Jew.” Indian Diaspora in Israel is a big soft power connecting point between India and Israel.
There is an 800 year old Indian Hospice in the Old City of Jerusalem which is related to Baba Farid of Chisti order of Sufi tradition. Baba Farid went to Jerusalem in around 1200 AD. This Hospice is ‘a symbol of India’s heritage and presence’ in the ancient city of Jerusalem.
Many Israelis visit India as tourists. Every year more than 40000 Israelis visit India. For the young Israelis India is not only the favorable destination but also a safer place to enjoy. Israel’s tourism industry is looking towards east for attracting Asian tourists. Promotion of tourism between the two states could be a key point during PM Modi’s visit to Israel in July 2017.
Cultural connect between the two people is not confined to their respective country but also visible in remote Atlantic zone signifying political and strategic implications also. Indian Americans and American Jews living in United States are cooperating with each other on many issues in a constructive way. According to a report in The New York Times, “Indian-Americans… are turning to American Jews as role models and partners in areas like establishing community centers, advocating on civil right issues and lobbying Congress”. American Jewish Committee (AJC) has played a big role in bringing Indian American and American Jews in closer contact. Both the communities are working together on issues related to immigration and hate crimes legislation. AJC’s Jason Isaacson said that Indian and Jews are ‘natural friends and allies’.
These soft power linkages and cultural connect reflect the high level of trust that exists between the people of India and Israel. These historical and cultural links between the two people provide a kind of positive symbolism which represents the cementing force and centripetal power between the two old civilizations. Historical contacts and cultural connect between the two people has developed a trust surplus between the two people. That trust surplus also plays an important role in shaping the relations in a positive direction. However, there is a robust need to increase cooperation in the cultural field and promote soft power linkages in present circumstances. During his historic visit to Israel in July 2017, PM Modi will pay homage to Indian soldiers in the Indian cemetery in Haifa and will also address Indian Diaspora at an event in Tel Aviv. This visit shall give an impetus to the promotion of soft power linkages between the two countries.