India, Israel and the myriad connections

Even though Israel was keen to foster ties with the newly independent state of India, the latter was reluctant to openly embrace the Jewish state.

THE DEMOCRATICALLY-ELECTED Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel in 2017, while in 2018 and 2019 Netanyahu visited India (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE DEMOCRATICALLY-ELECTED Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel in 2017, while in 2018 and 2019 Netanyahu visited India
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As we see today, India is a very significant component of Israel’s periphery doctrine. Envisioned by David Ben-Gurion, the first prime Minister of the state of Israel, the periphery doctrine intended to expand Israel’s diplomatic bandwidth. Surrounded by unfriendly Arab states which were fundamentally opposed to the idea of a Jewish state, Israel’s policy-makers and leaders understood the need to nurture alliances beyond its hostile immediate neighborhood. Thus its initial diplomatic efforts were aimed at reaching out to Turkey, pre-revolution Iran and countries in Africa, South America and East Asia.
Even though Israel was keen to foster ties with the newly independent state of India, the latter was reluctant to openly embrace the Jewish state. India’s foreign policy was highly Pakistan-centric in its initial years. The geopolitical landscape and Arab world’s animosity toward Israel required a newly formed India to maintain a safe distance from Tel Aviv.
Thus, even though India had recognized the state of Israel in 1950, it took New Delhi another four decades to formalize and normalize the relation. In 1992, the two states shook hands officially and the ties have only grown stronger ever since. Much is known about what followed thereafter. The economic, political and military ties improved as is evident in data and diplomacy.
However, what is lesser known but equally interesting is that even prior to the 1992 diplomatic embrace, the two states did have connections. Since 1953, Israel had a consulate in Mumbai mainly as a “gateway for people-to-people contact.” The consulate not only acted as the contact point for Indian Jews, but also enabled Jews in the newly formed Islamic republic of Pakistan and other South Asian states to immigrate to the Promised Land.
The Jewish community had a notable presence in India, often categorized as Baghdadi Jews, Bene Israeli Jews, Cochin Jews, Bene Ephraim or Bene Menashe. The famous anthropologist Shalva Weil in her extensive research on Jewish Diasporas in the Indian subcontinent brings out their rich history of existence in India, their journey from India to Israel, and the challenges of socio-cultural amalgamation in the State of Israel. “Once India got independence I think Jews were anxious about their future... I think many of them were quite worried and, after all, they had always believed that Israel was their true Jewish homeland.”
The waves of antisemitism could never reach the Indian shores, and the Jewish community did not experience any antisemitism in India. Thus, despite their physical and spiritual migration to the state of Israel after 1948, the Indian connection did not wither away. Even though there were no diplomatic ties until the 1990s, some Jews chose to stay in India while others who left continued to come back to revisit their modern historical roots.
Many Jews continued to visit India and kept their Indian connection alive. Absence of diplomatic ties could not stop the tourists from venturing into Indian territories; some to explore the natural landscapes while others went for spiritual experiences. As per official sources in 1980s, there were between 2,500-5,000 Israeli tourists visiting Israel annually, and the number touched 10,000 in 1992.
Among all the connections that stayed alive, one such bridge was yoga. Popular yoga pioneers like Rachel Solberg and Orit Sen Gupta received their training under Indian gurus in India long before normalization of ties in the 1990s, and back home they have been instrumental in popularizing the art and science of yoga.
After 1992, it became easier for Indian Jews per se and Israelis in general to keep alive their Indian connection. The older generation, which has memories of being born in pre-independence India, is almost extinct. One such nonagenarian was Sarah Jacob Cohen. She was the oldest living member of Kochi’s Jewish community who passed away in August.
The younger generations now find it easier to visit India, explore their roots, preserve their past and make new memories. Once diplomatically aloof, India and Israel are now very strong allies, with a vibrant past, pleasant present and promising future to cherish!
The writer is a Doctoral Candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. Her areas of interest include middle east politics and economy, Israeli society and economy. 
She writes about India-Israel relations, the Jewish diaspora, Middle eastern society. I also love to read about yoga as a traditional Indian healthcare system.  
View her area of work in Asia middle east project - http://www.mei.org.in/area-of-work/divya-malhotra


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