Randy's Corner Deli Library

15 November 2003

An Island of Hope Across An Ocean of Uncertainty
The Growing Alliance Between Israel and India
By Sima Borkovski

Upon first glance, there seems to be an ocean of difference between India and Israel. The first is a country so vast that it covers an entire subcontinent and encompasses 16 official languages and numerous cultures and religions–a variety that would take a lifetime to explore. The second, a country established explicitly as the homeland for one particular people under one language and culture, is so small that it can hardly be detected when looking at a globe.

India is a country steeped in tradition and in an ancient caste system that is, for the most part, still adhered to religiously. A man is born into his place in society and there is little room for him to escape it should he wish to do so. In her book, "Arranged Marriage" (1995), the Indian-American writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni describes the relations between the sexes in India today. Marriages, she writes, are still arranged, even among those who otherwise fully participate in modern ways of life or who have spent years abroad in the West. The match is made to reflect the wealth and social standing of the two families involved, and the woman is usually expected to become a part of her husband’s family. A divorced woman must give up her possessions and return to her parental home in shame.

Israel, by contrast, is a young country created on the notion of starting over with a new identity for its people, one that would distinguish itself from that of the suffering, victimized shtetl Jew formed over centuries of persecution in the Diaspora. The early settlers who came to Palestine from Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century wanted so much to resemble the land’s native habitants that they dressed like Arabs. Slowly, the image of the "New Jew" took hold: one who possessed physical strength and knew how to work the land and to fight his enemies.

A second look at both countries, however, will reveal commonalties that may run deeper than is at first obvious. Both India and Israel today are modern nation-states that were created out of British imperialism. Though the experience of exile is unique to the Jews, the peoples of India and Israel share a deep connection to their respective countries. The peoples of India have continuously inhabited the subcontinent, while Jewish roots in the Land of Israel hark back thousands of years, the connection to the land having been maintained in the imagination through centuries of prayer and poetry. The traditions that shape Judaism today are as ancient in their origins as those that shape Indian culture. The Ultra-Orthodox are no strangers to arranged marriages and the role of patriarchy.

Since its founding in 1948 the struggle between traditional and secular in Israel has grown. So too, the Israeli farmer has given way to the Thai or Chinese laborer who works the land for him. Yet, agriculture has become an area in which Israel has developed great expertise. And due to years of fighting hostile neighbors, Israel has developed a second area of expertise: national security and defense. It is in these two areas that the modern states of Israel and India have today found common ground and around which they have begun to build an alliance.

Moti Amihai, director of the South Asia department in Israel’s Foreign Ministry describes relations between India and Israel as a success in three key areas: commercial, diplomatic and political. The current blossoming in relations is the result of slow growth and convergence that has taken place over the past 11 years when full diplomatic relations between New Delhi and Jerusalem were first established.

The formation of a "new world order" after the collapse of the Soviet Union made India more open to the values and political agenda of the western world as defined by the U.S., Amihai says. One of the signals of this was India’s new policy of economic liberalization which opened many opportunities for Israel’s business sector. According to Amihai this year’s commercial trade between the two countries totals $1.6 billion. Just last year it was still less than $200 million. An Israeli experimental farm, where various agricultural experiments are being conducted and Indian agriculturists are being introduced to new methods of growing crops and working the land, has been set up in New Delhi. More such farms are planned for the future.

Cultural and intellectual exchanges are also flowering between the two countries. According to Amihai, this year a delegation of four Israeli intellectuals will spend the year on an exchange program in India and next year a group of Indian intellectuals will spend the year on exchange in Israel. The number of Israeli tourists to India has grown to 25,000 per year.

The strongest basis for the alliance between Israel and India is cooperation in military and intelligence matters. After Russia, Israel has become the second-largest supplier of arms to India, which sees Israel as a key ally in fighting terror. Since the division of the British Raj into Pakistan and India, India has been battling terrorism along its northern border with Kashmir. In this, India feels a kinship to Israel’s struggle with Palestinian terrorists. Of late, the rise in radical Islam has loomed as a threat to Indian stability, as it has to the security of Israel. The military alliance does not consist of arms supplies alone, but of an exchange in intelligence and military know-how.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to India on September 2003 was a recent high point in the growing alliance. Sharon’s delegation included three cabinet ministers: Minister of Education, Culture and Sports Limor Livnat, Minister of Justice Yossef "Tommi" Lapid and Minister of Agriculture Israel Katz. These were joined by 30 businesspeople representing various sectors of the business community. Sharon received a royal welcome both from the Indian government as well as the Indian media, which covered the visit in very favorable terms. In his speech at the Indian president’s 340-room Abdul Kadam palace, Sharon expressed the hope that his visit would contribute to the strengthening of Israel’s relations with India, stating that, "we regard India to be one of the most important countries in the world; we share its belief in democracy."

In a tragic irony, Sharon had to cut his visit short by a day and head back to Israel because of another terrorist attack: this time on the Maxim restaurant in Haifa.

If "terror" can be said to be the term governing the developing political ties between Israel and India, then–in odd juxtaposition–it is "tranquility" which governs the draw Israelis feel in travelling to this large, culturally diverse country. Most of the 25,000 yearly tourists want nothing more than to escape the pressures and tension of life in Israel.

According to Nir Kafri, a photographer who has just returned from his second trip to India, Israelis traveling to India can be divided into three groups: The "junkies" who travel in huge groups, picking their destination according to the seasons: northern India in the spring, western India in the winter and so on. They can be spotted by the cheap motorcycles they often ride and their main pursuit is drugs that are illegal and more difficult to obtain in Israel. Kafri says these Israeli tourists resemble swarms of locust taking over a village. And when they arrive it seems as if the entire village has been "taken over." Local shops and restaurants cater to their needs and wishes with such Israeli foods as humus and falafel. Hebrew signs are put up for the duration of their visit and some of the locals have even learned some of the Hebrew language.

Kafri reports that the Indians in these villages don’t seem disturbed by the arrival of these huge groups of Israelis and they haven’t developed hostile feelings toward them, as have local residents in other places, such as Thailand.

The second group of Israelis that Kafri distinguishes are those who come to see the country and experience the culture. They come looking for educational excursions, special sites and interesting people. These Israelis usually travel in ones and twos or threes and avoid large groups. They make use of local means of transportation and try to experience India first-hand in every possible way: by talking to the people, seeing the sites and partaking of the culture.

The third group which, Kafri estimates, probably constitutes the smallest group are made up of what he calls "spiritualists." These are Israelis who hope that India will offer them answers to their spiritual quest. They find refuge in the ashrams and temples that dot the Indian landscape, seeking out instruction in yoga and various forms of meditation. Many of these travelers make a point of going to Daramsalla, a small village in the north of India where the Dalai Lama lives in exile.

Twenty-seven-year-old Noga, who asked that her full name not be used, had some time off after quitting her job and so she decided to visit India. She describes India as a sequence of experiences, all very powerful and sweeping. "Your feelings work overtime when you’re in India" she says. "Every experience is so strong: the tastes, the colors, the smells. There are great amounts of spirituality, especially in Varancy near the Gangas River which is the holiest river in India where dead bodies are burnt and its water is considered holy. When you are so swept up and overwhelmed with stimuli you can truly connect with yourself," she adds. For her, India was a place where the extremes were much more apparent: extreme wealth and abject poverty, great kindness and pure meanness. This, she says, is something one needs to learn and accept with the same tranquility that Indians do.

Noga, who was in India during Sharon’s visit, found that people were very positive about the prime minister’s visit. Describing a sense of common destiny between the two countries, especially in the face of terror, Noga said "We are twin countries; we are like brothers."


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