Triangular diplomacy

How the American Jewish Committee’s Indian-Jewish program director Nissim Reuben fosters ties between the US, India and Israel.

February 9, 2012 15:37
Nissim Reuben

Nissim Reuben 521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Successful diplomacy is often achieved through diligent efforts, and “grace” is rarely a term used in describing active participants within the world of international affairs. Yet, to his American Jewish Committee colleagues, Nissim B.

Reuben, the director of the Indian-Jewish American Relations Program, has come to represent “grace” in both his personal and professional life.

Despite his heavy load of responsibilities at AJC fostering the partnership of Jewish communities in India, the US and Israel, he appears, particularly in conversation, as relaxed as a forehand stroke in tennis – Reuben’s favorite sport.

Reuben has been passionate about international affairs since he was a child growing up in Ahmadabad, the largest city in Gujarat, India.

“I remember as a seventh-grader that I loved reading Time magazine and being fascinated by current affairs,” he recalls. He credits journalist Tom Friedman’s 2005 book about globalization, The World Is Flat, which concerns a level playing field in terms of world commerce where all competitors have equal opportunity, as reflecting much of his political and diplomatic worldview.

“If India was a stock, I would buy it,” he quotes Friedman as saying. In a nod to Friedman, Reuben recognizes AJC as the standard-bearer for furthering Jewish concerns on the world stage, quipping, “If AJC were a stock, I would buy it.”

Reuben cites the Bollywood movie star Amitabh Bachchan as a cultural influence on his life. Many of Bachchan’s films feature patriotic songs which helped mold the tri-patriotic fervor Reuben feels for India, the US and Israel, and manifests his global view for “love of country.” India represents the “motherland,” since it is where he was born; the “homeland” connotes the US as it is his place of residence, and the “fatherland,” Israel, is akin to “bnei Yisrael,” or the “sons of Israel.” Reuben feels a personal and professional attachment to all three countries.

THE AJC’S central responsibility is to build “bridges of understanding” and to confront the security needs of the Jewish community in the US and abroad. Its mission is to foster diplomatic ties between America and Israel, and to confront prejudice worldwide.

Reuben has carved a unique niche within the organization, specifically dealing with the Indian-Jewish communities in the US, India and Israel. He “regularly engages with Indian diplomatic missions, learning about the latest trends in these booming relations,” he says.

Jews came to India for more than 2,000 years to trade, as well as to escape persecution. The communities there are both distinctly Indian and fully Jewish, and more than 30 synagogues have been documented in Bombay alone. The Pardesi Synagogue in Cochin is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth.

Reuben’s father served on the AJC board in India, and 11 years ago, his father involved his son with the organization due to an inauspicious moment in India’s history – the January 2001 earthquake. During the relief effort, he met the AJC’s director of government and international affairs Jason Isaacson, who came to survey the damage inflicted by the natural disaster.

“I remember meeting Nissim during the humanitarian relief effort where we helped to restore a damaged school that served a predominantly Muslim population,” says Isaacson. “There we worked very extensively over months and throughout the course of this time, I [came to] admire Nissim.”

In these weeks after the earthquake Reuben played a vital role in the mission success of 300 IDF soldiers who set up a field hospital in Bhuj in Gujarat State. Reuben’s involvement in this effort inspired AJC, and specifically Isaacson, to bring Nissim on board as a Goldman Fellow in 2003.

“I joined AJC as a Goldman Fellow and continued my association part-time through American University’s Curricular Practical Training program,” says Reuben.

“After my graduation I joined AJC as a full-time employee working on Indian-Jewish-American relations and international affairs in July 2005.”

Reuben currently travels around the country on behalf of AJC to create a network of Indian and Jewish American students, and to meet with community leaders, artists, doctors and business professionals.

The growing alliance between India and Israel has been strong for the past two decades since diplomatic ties officially opened in 1992. Diplomatically, Israel considers India second only to the US in terms of economic and political alliance, as Israel’s Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz recently commented.

“Both countries are democracies with very unfriendly neighborhoods that focus on destabilizing or destroying [in Israel’s case] them,” Reuben explains. “India and Israel each gained independence from the British within a year of each other (1947 and 1948), both today have parliamentary democracies,” and both have strategic concerns in combating terrorism.

REUBEN BELIEVES the Indian-American communities look to Jews with particular admiration for their accomplishments in the sciences, business and politics.

“Indian-Americans on both sides of the political spectrum like the Jewish community, and generously give to campaigns to actively engage their current and future representatives. The US has two governors from the Indian-American community, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (Randhawa) who is the daughter of Sikh immigrants from the state of Punjab, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal whose parents came from Punjab.”

Reuben has helped to coordinate two historic AJC cosponsored India-Israel-US friendship receptions on Capitol Hill – in July 2003 and November 2007.

He describes the increased need for continued military and commercial links among the US, India and Israel, which have spurred increased trade.

“Many Israeli companies, such as Magic Software, Israel Aerospace Industries, Rafael, ELTA, Elbit, EL-OP and others have set up large operations in India in partnership with government firms such as Bharat Electronics Ltd., and private-sector firms such as Tata, among others, in order to cater to the vast Indian defense and civilian market which every year becomes lucrative, given India’s stable democracy and growing economy,” he says.

Reuben still feels grateful to Isaacson for noticing his work in Gujarat in 2001, and acknowledges he would not be doing what he so loves “if it were not for him.

And thanks to AJC’s platform, I have been privileged to play a role in these relations through helping bring Indian journalists and academics to Israel.”

According to Isaacson, Reuben’s gifts are “to engage the other – that has been the hallmark of AJC – and through his imagination... he has created an expanded network, and a coalition of Indian Americans and American Jews for a shared sense of combating terrorism, and for exploring the traditions of common values...

which are family, education and other shared sensitivities,” says Isaacson.

“Anyone who has spent time with Indians and Jews [understands that] there is an indefinable partnership and community... there’s a spark there that leads to common understanding and cooperation on a range of endeavors,” says Isaacson.

Reuben travels to India usually once every year or two. He is married to Lavina, whom he met through a traditional arranged marriage in India, and who is also politically involved. She works as media communications officer at the Indian Embassy. They have a son, Benjamin.

Reuben believes the best way for American Jews to engage is to invest in helping facilitate an exchange of experts in technology, particularly in water and agriculture, between India and Israel. Leading Israeli universities like the Technion in Haifa, and Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, are the standard-bearers for this kind of research, and continue to be the wave of the future for investment in technologies.

Clearly optimistic about the great ties between India and the Jewish communities, Reuben believes “relations between India and Israel continue to be booming.

This institution, AJC, has become our home away from home. I have done many programs on India-Israel relations and India’s Jewish heritage in partnership with AJC and local synagogues. I am hoping to do another one at Temple Beth El in Bethesda on February 21, where we will be screening the documentary Salaam- Shalom: The Jews of India, followed by my talk on India’s Jewish heritage and India-Israel relations.”

Reuben’s simple approach to his work is pragmatic and helps to break down the deep complexities while bridging the cultural challenges of international affairs.

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