By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
Israel’s defenders in America should take great pleasure from the success of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to the Jewish state this week.
Eight months ago, after assisting in the passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution that blamed Israel for the impasse with the Palestinians, then Secretary of State John Kerry warned Israel that it faced international isolation over its West Bank settlement policy. Apparently, Modi—the leader of a nation of 1.3 billion people that includes the world’s largest Muslim minority—wasn’t listening.
Though Modi’s embrace of Israel represents an enormous shift in policy terms, one can argue that it’s also the maturation of an emotional bond between Jews and Indians that goes back centuries. Only 5,000 Jews—a microscopic percentage of the population—live in India now, but they have been a consistent presence in that vast country since the original community, the Bene Israel, emerged there in the during the first millennium. The last set of immigrants, Jews from Iraq, began arriving in the 19th century, where they set up a flourishing community. Unlike nearly everywhere else where Jews have lived, in India they were never persecuted, never stigmatized, never exiled, never slaughtered.
India and Israel achieved their independence within a year of each other. India’s alignment with the Soviet bloc kept the two countries apart for half a century, but diplomatic relations were enthusiastically agreed a little more than a year after the crumbling of the USSR. Both countries’ national movements shared a number of similarities, not least their support—rare in anti-colonial struggles—for parliamentary democracy as the model to follow after independence. Both movements were led by individuals—I am thinking in particular of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s prime minister from 1947-64—who were supremely at ease by the country home fireplaces of the British aristocracy, and yet played a decisive role in drawing down the curtain upon the British Empire.
It was that sense of mutual understanding that led Albert Einstein to write to Nehru, in 1947, the following: “May I appeal to you, as the leader of a movement of social and national enfranchisement, to recognize in Zionism a similar movement whose realization will add to the peace and progress of the Orient?” Eighty years later, with Modi’s visit, the affirmative answer to Einstein’s question has finally arrived.
Those who still cling to the belief that Israel—where the majority of the population is of African, Middle Eastern and Asian descent—is some sort of colonial implant might want to reflect on Modi’s visit. Now is an ideal time to remind these folks—especially the “white, privileged” leftists among them—that the country inspiring a host of national liberation struggles, the country co-founding the Non-Aligned Movement, is now partnering with Israel on nothing less than a national mission to secure clean water and an uninterrupted food supply for the rural and urban masses of India alike.
For Israel, alignment with India offers additional security not only in a military sense, but in terms of “shared values”—the same phrase that has dominated elevator pitch summaries of U.S.-Israel relations for decades now. But just because its constant repetition can be tiresome doesn’t mean that statement isn’t true. In the case of India, Israel’s geographic proximity combined with billions of dollars in trade and a shared ambition to sustain democratic societies in the face of severe external threats, creates an immediate commonality of interests based, in turn, on the moral desire to remain free. Yes, Modi is described as authoritarian, as is Netanyahu, but in India as in Israel, visceral critics of the government are protected by the law, instead of being pushed outside it. That is one of many differences between them and places like Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority.
Many years ago, before my first visit to India, I worked for a few months in neighboring Bangladesh—a predominantly Muslim country that won its independence from Muslim Pakistan in 1971 in large part because of India’s humanitarian military intervention, and which has remained secular under India’s continued wise influence. I got to know many fine Muslim and Hindu journalists while there, and I became proud of being the first Jew they had ever met. In particular, I remember one Hindu journalist, who had been a child when Bangladesh survived the genocidal war waged by Pakistan, telling me, “If we had lost, the Pakistanis would have done to my people what the Germans did to yours.”
I mention that story as another illustration of the emotional bond I talked about earlier. In the final analysis—and notwithstanding the disdain of the academic realists—ideas, emotions and shared experiences do matter in international relations. Hopefully, in the coming months and years, Israel and India will use these bonds to flourish together.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.