Blowing an opportunity with India

Negative chatter works against building unity with a country that has a common history and shared fate.

Freed hostages Mumbai 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Freed hostages Mumbai 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Like many others with India connections, for much of the last few days I have been bolted to my computer screen, trying to follow and absorb every development in the horrible attack on Mumbai. These are places and institutions very much known to me: The Oberoi Trident is where my students and I stay during my annual study trip to India; and ever since my first trip to India in the mid-'90s, when I stayed in the grubby Salvation Army Red Shield Hostel just across from the far more luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the Colaba area has remained a mainstay for me whenever I visit my favorite Indian city. The attack on the Chabad House also hit home. Although I had never visited the new Chabad outpost, several years ago, while spending a summer conducting research in Mumbai, I became friendly with the two Chabad emissaries at the time, Reb Shlomo and Reb Shlomo, who had just started to set up shop there. The new Chabad House at Nariman House was the legacy of their initial work. So watching the violence unfold from the safe perch of my couch in Tel Aviv felt very personal. Here in Israel, the coverage of the attacks has been extensive. Israelis always pay close attention to terror attacks by Islamic militant groups around the world, and especially so when Jews and Israelis are specifically targeted. But unfortunately, in typical Israeli fashion, much of the commentary in the media, informally on the street and occasionally in the government has been critical: The operation took too long, it wasn't professional and, of course, "why didn't they just let us come in and take care of it." The recent statements by the head of the Zaka team that flew to Mumbai have also added fuel to the fire, causing many headaches for the Foreign Ministry which recognizes the delicacy of Indian sensibilities. SOME OF this criticism is perhaps warranted. Indeed, India is a developing country with many resource challenges and skill deficits. And in the end, six Israelis are dead. But all the negative chatter in Israel will only lead to a wasted opportunity for building up support and unity with a country that in a number of ways has a common history and shared fate. Despite having both gained independence from British rule and establishing a state in 1948, relations between the two countries have been a work in progress. Although India's relationship with its Jews has never been problematic in the religiously heterogeneous and largely tolerant country, there has long been skepticism of the Zionist project and the Israeli state's often misguided approach to the Palestinian issue. Indeed, India and Israel only established diplomatic ties in 1992, a delay due largely to India's traditional ties to the Soviet block and to its post-colonial sympathies with the Palestinian cause. Today, the main opposition to Israel-India relations emanates from the still relevant and influential Left parties, as well as many of the country's intellectuals, who often view Israel's political existence in a colonial frame. But the relationship between the two countries over the last decade has rapidly strengthened. Every year tens of thousands of Israelis travel to the country. Many go with the primary goal of decompressing after their military service. Some, including current Defense Minister Ehud Barak, go as more traditional tourists (one of the travel agents I work with in India told me that he once served as Barak's personal guide). A growing number go for business - and business is booming. In addition to the stream of tourists, trade between the two countries has rapidly increased, making India the third largest export destination in Asia for Israel. Non-military trade in 2008 between the two countries has been estimated at $3.3 billion, and defense related trade at about $1.5 billion. India is currently Israel's biggest buyer of arms and weapons systems, and Israel is set to replace Russia as India's second largest supplier. There are also numerous links in the hi-tech sector, as well as the low-tech sector such as industrial dairy cow technologies and deep-sea aquaculture. In the meantime, Israeli military officials recently visited India and Kashmir, looking to provide training to Indian forces on counterterrorism techniques. SOME INDIAN and Israeli officials think that this attack was intended, in part, to disrupt the growing economic and military ties between the two countries. But it is unfortunate that some Israelis have chosen to criticize and attack India, rattling the old cages of mistrust instead of creating and building on a sense of shared fate and mutual interest. The message now should be one of solidarity, rather than one that provides fire for those who view Israel as no more than a colonial outpost with imperialist intentions, or for those protecting national pride from outside critics. Israel has much to gain from building economic, political, and cultural ties with India, which is fast growing into one of the world's most important economies and political actors. There is no need to take this opportunity to miss an opportunity. The writer is an assistant professor at Rutgers Business School in New Jersey and a visiting professor at Tel Aviv University's Buchmann School of Law during 2008-9. He writes about transnational labor and economic regulation, and frequently visits and conducts research in India.