Kingdom of Bhutan: Israel’s new friend in the Himalayas?

Tashichho Dzong monastery and fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan. (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Tashichho Dzong monastery and fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan. (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

At first glance, the State of Israel and the Kingdom of Bhutan — two small Asian countries separated by nearly 5,300 kilometers of bone-dry deserts and snow-capped mountains — appear to have little in common besides the fact they occupy the same continent.

Highly urbanized Israel, no bigger than New Jersey, is one of the most wired countries on Earth. Of its nine million inhabitants; 88% have smartphones and 75% are Jews. Immensely popular with tourists, Israel will receive 4.7 million foreigners of all religions this year.

Isolated Bhutan, by contrast, is nearly twice Israel’s size but has barely 800,000 people, all of them Buddhists. Fewer than 200,000 tourists annually visit this Himalayan Shangri-La, which as late as 1980 had just 1,200 phone lines in service. Television came to Bhutan only in 1999.

Despite mutual feelings of admiration, the two countries don’t have diplomatic relations … not yet. But the day that happens, Yeshey Tshogyal — who prefers to see similarities instead of differences — would make an ideal choice as the Forbidden Kingdom’s first ambassador to Israel.

“The people here are very warm and welcoming. They’re also open-minded, at least the ones I’ve met,” the 22-year-old told me in Tel Aviv just before her flight back to New York, where she’s pursuing a double major in psychology and intercultural communications at Baruch College.

Last week, Yeshey wrapped up a two-month internship at the Israel-Asia Center, a nonprofit organization based in Jerusalem.

Traditional Buddhist prayer wheels at Bhutan’s Gantey Monastery. (Yeshey Tshogyal)

Her job there was to help screen applicants for the center’s Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship Program. She also marketed the program to various universities throughout the country, and to Israeli embassies throughout Asia, as well as Asian embassies in Tel Aviv.

“Israelis say what they think. They don’t beat around the bush, and there’s no sugar-coating,” she said. “We’re also like that. And both our countries have very strong cultures based on faith and religion — Buddhism for Bhutan and Judaism for Israel. It’s the glue that helps keep us together.”

Baskin-Robbins and WeChat

Besides her mother tongue of Dzongkha, Yeshey is fluent in English, Hindi and Nepali. She also understands Spanish — having studied it in school — and now a little Hebrew.

In a video produced by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Yeshey extolled the virtues of her native land, which is famous for its pursuit of “Gross National Happiness” — a concept endorsed by the United Nations.

Environmentally conscious Bhutan, where plastic bags and cigarettes are both illegal, also happens to be carbon-negative, absorbing more than 6 million tons of greenhouse gases annually but producing only 1.5 million tons.

Bhutanese student Yeshey Tshogyal has just returned to New York after spending two months in Israel as an intern at the Jerusalem-based Israel-Asia Center.

Bhutan’s major source of revenue is the sale of hydroelectric power to its energy-starved neighbor, India. At present, Bhutan generates about 1,500 megawatts of hydropower, a number likely to exceed 10,000 megawatts by 2020. India is also helping Bhutan build its first railroad link to the outside world.

Progress has been impressive. In 1982, a baby born in Bhutan could expect to live 43 years. For years, it didn’t even have a postal system, and only 10% of its people could read or write.

But that didn’t stop the Buddhist kingdom from issuing outrageous postage stamps prized by philatelists the world over. Aluminum-foil stamps. Three-dimensional stamps. Scratch-and-sniff stamps. Stamps that played the Bhutanese national anthem when played on a 45-rpm turntable.

These days, Bhutan is known more for stunning adventure tourism than for stamps. And revenues from wealthy tourists have helped boost life expectancy to 66 years, and the literacy rate to 75%. Annual per-capita GDP has jumped from $400 in 1988 to about $3,100 today — more than twice the average for South Asia overall.

“We’re a poor country, but we don’t have beggars in the streets. And we don’t have materialistic values. People are not conscious of high-end brands and we don’t have any shopping malls or franchises,” said Yeshey.

Panoramic view of Thimphu, capital of Bhutan, at dusk. (Yeshey Tshogyal)

That means no Starbucks, McDonald’s, 7-Elevens or Wal-Marts — though there is one Baskin-Robbins ice cream outlet in Thimphu.

There’s also the Internet. Both Facebook and WeChat are quite popular among Bhutanese youth, and even farmers now use smartphones to exchange photos, prayers and funny videos.

Why no bilateral relations?

In 2010, Mark Sofer — then Israel’s ambassador to India and Sri Lanka — presented his credentials to Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck during a visit to the Bhutanese capital city of Thimphu.

At that time, Sofer proposed that Israeli specialists would visit Bhutan to help local farmers boost production of milk, citrus and other crops. He also promised to offer scholarships to promising Bhutanese professionals, especially in agriculture and public health.

All that has come to pass. In September 2016, Lyonpo Yeshey Dori, Bhutan’s minister of agriculture and forestry, spent three days in Israel on an official state visit.

Among other things, he attended a graduation ceremony for 21 Bhutanese students in an agricultural apprenticeship program run by the Israeli company AgroStudies and Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, known as Mashav. Several hundred Bhutanese have participated in the 11-month course since the first contingent arrived in 2013.

Israeli officials meet in Thimphu with then-Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and other dignitaries during a December 2017 visit to Bhutan. (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Gilad Cohen is deputy director-general of the Asia-Pacific division at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In December 2017, he became the most senior Israeli official ever to visit Bhutan; during his three-day mission, he met Bhutan’s prime minister and other dignitaries.

“We hope to have diplomatic relations with Bhutan. There is no reason not to, because we don’t have any problems between us,” Cohen said. “They have great respect for us and would like to cooperate with us. It’s an amazing place and they were the nation to invent the happiness index. We think we can do a lot together in agriculture, technology, innovation and education.”

Yet bilateral ties remain elusive, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Bhutan now has relations with 52 countries — a list that includes Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica and Cuba. But it maintains no official ties with the United States, and certainly not with China.

In fact, the disputed Bhutan-Chinese border has been closed since the 1959 invasion of Tibet, and tensions with Beijing remain high. So for now, Israel doesn’t seem to be a particularly high priority for the kingdom.

Cohen said the Bhutanese “have their own agenda, but I think it’s time to do it. This is a country we should focus on.”

A traditional Bhutanese house in the village of Punakha. (Yeshey Tshogyal)

Learning from the Bhutanese

Aside from North Korea and the Muslim-majority countries of Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Maldives, Bhutan remains the only Asian nation still lacking relations with Israel.

Tel Aviv businesswoman Galia Albin spent 17 days in Bhutan last year, staying in private homes her entire trip. She said most Bhutanese she spoke with had never heard of Israel or the Jewish people — but that’s no surprise, given that not a single Jew is known to reside in Bhutan.

“When I said ‘Jerusalem,’ it did ring a bell. But remember, they’re Buddhist, not Christian. And they’re very curious,” said Albin, who heads many Israeli philanthropic initiatives on culture and women’s rights. “When they see a Westerner, they ask a lot of questions. There’s an atmosphere of goodness. In Bhutan, people always smile. They’re never bitter and they don’t complain.”

Aside from the obvious goal of establishing embassies in each others’ countries, Albin suggested that Israelis could learn a lot from the Bhutanese — particularly the way they treat elders with deep respect.

“One thing we share with Bhutan is our approach to happiness. This is the wonderful thing that connects Judaism with Buddhism,” she told me. “And like them, we also believe life is a voyage that should be celebrated and lived every day with kindness.”

Bridge leads to Punakha Dzong, one of Bhutan’s most beautiful fortresses. (Yeshey Tshogyal)

Businessman Eli Cohen, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007, has been to Bhutan twice — the first time about 20 years ago for a whole month.

“When I was there, the government limited tourism to 4,000 people a year. Now there’s no limits, but tourists must spend $250 per day,” he said, adding that not all Israelis are young backpackers traveling on the cheap. “Some Israelis have money and wouldn’t mind paying $2,000 for eight days in Bhutan.”

Keep the ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ pure

As much as she hopes for some sort of cultural exchange between Bhutan and Israel, Yeshey — who lived in both Burma and India as a child — worries what might happen if Israelis on $10-a-day budgets overrun her pristine mountain kingdom.

She need only look to nearby Nepal — whose 30 million people struggle with natural disasters, corruption and civil unrest — as an example of a country ruined by mass tourism.

Air pollution in Katmandhu has reached toxic levels, the capital city’s Bagmati River has become an open sewer, and the ever-increasing number of mountaineers attempting to scale Nepal’s Mt. Everest is gradually turning the world’s highest mountain into a garbage dump.

Israeli officials meet in Thimphu with then-Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay during a December 2017 visit to Bhutan. (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

“I do want diplomatic relations with Israel, but our Buddhist monasteries are very sacred,” Yeshey said. “Getting lots of tourists could threaten the sanctity of these places. There’s a reason we limit tourism.”

For the moment, said former ambassador Cohen, agritech holds the strongest potential for bilateral cooperation — even though mountainous Bhutan’s climate is totally different from that of arid Israel.

“Their young people are leaving rural zones and moving to the cities,” he said. “In Israel, we solved that problem because of necessity. We needed to be self-sufficient in agriculture, so we created the technology to do that. Now agriculture is profitable here in Israel and they’re moving back to the farms and kibbutzim.”

Cohen, who’s maintained friendships over the years with members of Bhutan’s royal family, noted the total lack of hostilities between the two countries. Nevertheless, he said the decision to establish formal ties will ultimately be made not in Jerusalem or Thimphu, but in New Delhi.

“The Bhutanese are totally dependent on India,” he said with typical Israeli bluntness. “If India tells them to do it, they’ll do it.”

About the Author
Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017.
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