Far apart geographically, Jews and Hindus are closer than ever in shared history
By Fionn Grunspan
When India’s Narendra Modi on the final day of his historic visit to Israel in 2017 frolicked in the waves with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a visit to a Mobile Desalination Unit, it emblazoned to the world a visual affirmation of the relationship between the two countries having literally turned a tide.
If the Mediterranean water for the two leaders was warm, relations between Jerusalem and New Delhi had not always been similarly so.
Although Israel and India gained their independence from the United Kingdom within months of each other, they soon found themselves heading in different directions – India as a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement maintaining close relations to the Arab world and the Soviet Union, and Israel linking its future to closer ties with the United States and Western Europe. This lasted for nearly four decades until 1992 when India and Israel established full diplomatic relations and since, then bilateral relationship between the two countries has blossomed.
A major obstacle to building this warm relationship was India’s legitimate fear that close relations with the Jewish State might radicalize its Muslim citizens – numbering more than 100 million – and harm its relations with the Arab world.
Other than that, Hindus have never been a threat to the Jews, unless, as someone jokingly commented on social media:
“Well, not unless you count competing for contracts in hi-tech.”
The Dawning of Relations
The relationship between the State of Israel and India goes back many millennia to abound 1,500 BCE when trade began between the two ancient kingdoms.
Excavations at Tel Megiddo in northern Israel have revealed evidence of such trade proving the presence of turmeric, banana, sesame, all originating from south Asia. Further analysis suggests that the authors of the Old Testament were talking about India, when referencing the trade of animals such as monkeys and peacocks.
During Roman rule of Judea, expensive garments worn in the Temple are believed to have been imported from India via Alexandra.
Parallel Fight for Freedom
Jews lived in India among Hindus free of persecution and India periodically provided a refuge to Jews as they fled from persecution, genocide, and slavery. In the early-20th Century, both India and Israel, both under British rule, would fight for independence.
In 1919, British forces carried out the Jallianwala-Bagh Massacre where over 1000 peacefully protesting Indians were killed in Amritsar, India. Also known as the Amritsar Massacre
it caused fury among Indians, leading to the launch by Mahatma Gandhi of the Non-Cooperation Movement, where Indians demanded independence.
During the same period, the fight for independence by Jews in the British mandate was heating up as antisemitism across Europe and in the Arab world spiralled. While Britain had recognised Israel as the homeland for Jews in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, it nevertheless blockaded and imposed limits on Jews entering Palestine, including during the Holocaust.
Jewish resistance took shape in the creation of defence groups such as HaShomer, Nili, Palmach and Haganah to resist attacks from the Arabs; as well as to fight for Independence.
While Britain imposed a brutal blockade on Jews fleeing Nazi persecution to Palestine, a half a world away, colonial Britain continued to commit further massacres in India, such as in 1930 at Qissa-Khwani now in Pakistan. As both India and the emerging Jewish state both fought for independence from Britain, the birth pains of both were agonising, resulting in painful partitions.
Similarities in their shared history of shaking off the shackles of colonialism, it reached a crescendo in 1948 when both India and Israel gained independence from Britain. They would each – in different ways – have to confront the new independent state of Pakistan that went to war against India and supported the Arab invasions of the newly established State of Israel.
After independence, India would remain overtly cold to Israel with a hard-line ‘non-aligned’ and pro-Arab policy, as India refused to engage with Israel until the early 1990s. Pakistan would again support further invasions and attacks on Israel in 1967 and 1973, while in 1971, Israel supported India in the Indo-Pakistani War. It proved a breakthrough in the countries relations. Even though India did not have diplomatic ties with Israel in 1971, New Delhi secretly sought and received arms from Tel Aviv as it prepared to go to war with Pakistan, according to Srinath Raghavan’s book “1971”.
Although Israel was in middle of an arms shortage, Prime Minister, Golda Meir stepped in to divert arms meant for Iran to India. She sent a note to her Indian counterpart, Indira Gandhi through Shlomo Zabuldowicz, the director of the firm handling the secret transfers, with a request for diplomatic ties in return for arms. The diplomatic ties, however, would only be established twenty-one years later in 1992.
Destiny & Détente
After decades of pro-Arab policy, India formally established relations with Israel when it opened an embassy in Tel Aviv in January 1992. Relations continued to warm and in 1999, Israel supported India in the deadly Kargil War, in which Pakistan invaded India. India soon became Israel’s largest buyer of arms and would increase trade to Israel, as the relations continued to warm. India would become a much sought-after travel destination for Jews and Israelis, especially after IDF service, for relaxation and cultural exploration.
India and Israeli relations would continue to warm, strongly supported by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who welcomed Israel’s promotion of exchange student programmes.
The Golden Age
In the 2019 British Election, British-Hindus had defended British-Jews, voting against antisemitism in an election, which around half of British-Jews indicated they would consider emigrating if Jeremy Corbyn would win. In 2021, Israeli Prime Minster Bennett and Indian Prime Minster Modi, stated they were close friends on Twitter and wanted to build relations between India and Israel, for future generations.
“Narendra, I want to thank you for your historic role in shaping the ties between our countries. Together, we can bring India-Israel relations to a whole new level and build a better & brighter future for our nations.”
Currently the Indian and Israeli Governments are negotiating for closer security agreements, as Israel faces aggression from the Iranian Regime and India confronts an insurgency in northern India.
On Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, the following appears:
“While Israel and India established diplomatic ties in 1992, the Jewish and Indian people share a rich and deep relationship which dates back to ancient times. Jews were one of the first foreign groups in recorded history to arrive and settle in India and became an integral part of Indian society. Today, India boasts a vibrant Jewish community, which numbers close to 7,000, while Israel is home to 85,000 Jews of Indian origin. The warm ties between the Indian and Jewish people continue to enhance and influence the Indo-Israeli relationship today.”
While India today is Israel’s third largest trading partner in Asia and seventh largest globally with bilateral trade having expanded from being mostly dominated by diamonds and chemicals to areas such as electronic machinery and high-tech products, communications systems and medical equipment, the Indian export most emotionally appreciated in Israel, has been Zubin Mehta.
Fondly referred to in Israel as the “Maestro”, in 1969 this illustrious conductor of Western classical music began his long tenure with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), serving as music adviser before becoming music director in 1977. Four years later the orchestra named him Music Director for life, and he held the post until retiring in 2019.
Two years after India and Israel established full diplomatic relations in 1992, the IPO performed in India for the first time, and since then, has toured there periodically. Every few years it performs in Bombay. “Music has this transformative ability to bring people together,” says the Maestro.
When asked “why is Israel so important to you?”, Mehta replied:
“My association with Israel started even before 1969. I first went there in 1961 and immediately formed a bond with the people. This was later solidified through regular visits. Besides, it is also the only real democracy in the area, that values freedom of expression.”
And to the question “how was it during the years when India and Israel didn’t have diplomatic relations??, Mehta replied:
“It was very frustrating for me personally. So as soon as relations were resumed, I got the IPO (in 1994) on an India tour. And they came and performed absolutely free of charge. There is a lot of respect and interest for India in Israel.”
With the Indo-Israeli relationship continuing to reach new heights with growing ties between Israel and India, we can expect this trend to only strengthen into the future.
About the writer:
Fionn Grunspan is a sign language translator previously working for a number of charities. Since being a community teacher and activist within his Jewish community from his mid-twenties, Grunspan today, through his “Clubhouse Page”, promotes news and information about the Jewish world, focusing on Israel.
While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves. LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).