Time for a quiet revolution in Bangladesh-Israeli relations

If the government is not ready or willing to build relations with the Jewish state, private citizens and civil organizations certainly are.

Bangladesh (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On the first page of my passport is a line that troubles me, as it troubles many young Bangladeshis I know. It says: “This passport is valid for all countries in the world, except for Israel.”
Young people here have learned about the world from the Internet as much as from state-controlled media. Our perceptions of Israel are changing. Many of us do not see the benefit of Bangladesh barring its citizens from traveling there. We know that many Muslim countries do not have diplomatic ties with Israel, yet they do not have any such prohibition in their passports. Other Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, do have diplomatic relations with Israel. The youth of Bangladesh are tired of boycotts and isolation; we consider them a basic infringement on our freedom.
For many years, the mainstream media has demonized Israel, so that the public saw only negative images of the country, its people and its policies. Thanks to the Internet and international institutions, the information gap that left us in the dark is slowly, but surely diminishing.
In recent times, Bangladesh has gone through a transition from quasi-military rule to civil administration with a secular form of politics. Under the civil government, people have begun to embrace freedom of expression. Many changes have taken place in agriculture, trade and education. There have also been changes in foreign policy, especially concerning our giant neighbors China and India.
But when it comes to Israel, it seems as if the government is still following policies set during the time when Pakistan ruled Bangladesh – it was once East Pakistan – and continued during the years when it had great influence over our government. That is no longer the case. Why then the strict ban on Israel?
Part of the reason lies in the fact that a huge number of Bangladeshis work as unskilled laborers in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia in particular. These laborers – mostly the rural poor – are one of the main sources of foreign remittance for Bangladesh.
The government may fear that any change in our relationship with Israel might bring Saudi reprisal. The unemployment rate, as in many parts of the world, is already high due to the global economic meltdown. If a Saudi reaction took the form of deportations of laborers, there would be violent protests.
Saudi Arabia also remains a stable source of energy. It is widely believed that these are the factors preventing change when it comes to establishing a formal relationship with Israel.
UNDER THESE circumstances, the development of contacts, friendships and cooperation between citizens and civil organizations seems to be the most effective way to begin building a ties.
On the Israeli side, there is no impediment: Israel was one of the first governments to recognize Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971, in the aftermath of its bloody war of independence. The foreign minister at the time, Khandker Mushtaque Ahmed, was a conservative who issued a letter on behalf of the government saying this recognition was not acceptable.
Israel, by all indications, is open to establishing relations with Bangladesh, its people and its government. Even Islamic pilgrims are welcome in Israel.
A government spokesperson recently said: “We have no conflict with Bangladesh. We want dialogue. We want people-to-people relations. We welcome the religious-minded people of Bangladesh to visit the holy land of Jerusalem.”
Ruth Kahanoff, deputy director-general, Asia Pacific, of the Foreign Ministry, said in a recent interview: “We have great admiration for the development and achievements of modern Bangladesh – its economic development, democracy and the impressive status of its women. We are impressed at the development made by Bangladesh under the leadership of two very capable women – Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and leader of the opposition Begum Khaleda Zia.”
There is no reason for Bangladesh and Israel to remain strangers. If the government is not willing or ready, change will come from below – especially from the younger generation.
The writer lives in Bangladesh.