As a frequent visitor, I had become inured to India’s hostile posture toward Israel. The country was a leader of the Cold War-era non-aligned movement, dependent on Arab oil and expatriate income from the Gulf States. It is also home to over 140 million Muslims. Until recently, Indian leaders insisted their national interests obliged them to support the Arab cause.
I recollect a meeting with the late prime minister Indira Gandhi, who bitterly claimed Jews were trying to punish her for opposing Israel. I reminded her that during her childhood years in England, Anglo Jews were among the most passionate supporters of Indian independence. She was not impressed.
I remember too, the spirited exchange I had in 1992 with prime minister Narashima Rao over India’s Middle East policies. Ten days later, he stunned his own Foreign Ministry by upgrading Israel’s diplomatic status from consular to ambassadorial level.
However, during a trip earlier this month, I observed a positive change in Indian attitudes toward Israel in the wake of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s September visit to the subcontinent.
In meetings with government ministers, Hindu political leaders, and academics, the central refrain I heard was that as democracies engaged in a battle against Islamic fundamentalism and global terror, Israelis and Indians must work together.
Defense relations are growing, as exemplified by the recent sale to India of Phalcon early-airborne warning systems and collaboration in counter-terrorist techniques.
No doubt these trends have been strengthened by the emergence of Hindu nationalism and the ascension to power in 1998 of the Hindu Bhatia Janata political party.
Talking with Hindu political activists, I discovered that like religious Jews, Hindus seek to chart a role for themselves within a democratic secular state.
True, the absence of common biblical roots complicates Hindu understanding of Judaism. But unlike Christian and Muslims, Hindus do not see themselves as triumphant over Judaism or allege that their religion makes Judaism obsolete. Like Jews, Hindus are also not a proselytizing faith.
However, there are still powerful Arab influences that occasionally succeed in provoking hostility toward Israel.
For instance, a government minister who was a patron of a ceremony in which I was involved withdrew at the last moment because of “tensions” in the Middle East.
Also, aspects of India’s foreign policy still manifest anti-Israel tendencies. Recently, India failed to join 58 nations abstaining and voted in favor of an obscenely one-sided anti-Israel UN resolution.
FOR THEIR part, Indian officials say they no longer sponsor such anti resolutions, and explain that after 40 years of a focused anti-Israel foreign policy, they need time to adjust to the new circumstances. This is hardly a satisfying explanation in the light of India’s new defense relationship with the Jewish state.
Gratifyingly, there has been an increase in people-to-people contacts. Each year over 20,000 Israelis tour India, including many young people just after army service.
There are about 60,000 former Indian Jews living in Israel, and unlike some other immigrants, they maintain a warm relationship with their former homeland.
Also, Benei Yisrael, who regard themselves as descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, have maintained an uninterrupted Jewish presence in India for nearly 2000 years. Indians take justified pride in the fact that at no time have Jews encountered anti-Semitism or persecution.
The Israeli Embassy in New Delhi has an impressive team headed by Ambassador David Danieli. He is a talented and devoted career diplomat who only recently took up his position. Danieli previously served in a number of Asian posts, including ambassador to Singapore.
In this context, it is incomprehensible how the Foreign Ministry could commit the blunder of closing the Bombay Consulate, ostensibly for economic reasons. I hope that after reviewing the position, the government will reverse its decision.
WORLD JEWRY also has a role to play in fostering ties with India. Indians are fascinated by what they regard as our success in maintaining the loyalty and support of Diaspora Jewry – and they would like to emulate us in relation to their own diaspora.
In fact, a week after my visit, a delegation from AIPAC was scheduled to arrive; the Simon Wiesenthal Center is promoting an exhibition on the Holocaust in major Indian cities; the American Jewish Committee has invested much work in the region, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is considering holding a meeting in New Delhi in the near future.
Strengthening relations with India should be considered one of the primary objectives of our foreign policy. The country is huge and within a generation will probably become the most populous nation in the world.
It is also poised on the verge of a great economic upsurge. That we already enjoy excellent trade and commercial relations and have also established good ties in science, technology and agriculture augurs well for the future.