Written for the Beth David Star, August, 2003

India and Israel

Bob Zeidman

Shortly after September 11, 2001, I met an Indian-American friend for lunch. The topic eventually turned to the war in Afghanistan, as it always did in those days. In the back of my mind I wondered if he would be one of those who questioned our War on Terror. Maybe he saw the war in terms of an imperialist America forcing its will on a third world country and eventually coming after his native India. I brought the topic up gingerly, not wanting an angry debate with a good friend. Instead, he was more in favor of this war than me, if that’s possible. After years and years of Muslim extremist attacks in India, he was glad to see America stepping in to try to stop it. As I told him about the constant terrorist attacks in Israel, I realized how little I knew about India – its history and its situation. I decided to learn more. In the process, I discovered many similarities between India and Israel – the history, the cultures, and the fight for survival and acceptance. I think it’s important for Jews, Israelis, and Americans to understand more about India and see it as a growing power and important ally.

Israel and India are both ancient societies. Great cultures can trace their roots to both countries. Israel is home to Judaism, the first monotheistic religion, which created the basis for the moral code of modern civilization as well as the judicial system in America and other countries. Three major religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – trace their roots to Israel. Jewish culture dates back over 3,000 years. India is even older. The ancient Hindu religious text, the Vedas, were written about 3,500 years ago, recording events dating back over 8,000 years. Three of the world’s other major religions trace their roots to India – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Gautam Buddha was born in India in 563 BCE and interestingly, his new religion caught on faster outside his home country than within. Guru Nanak founded the Sikh religion in India around 1500.

From 326 BCE until 712, the arts, mathematics, literature, and science flourished along with Indian civilization. While civilization in Europe was entering the Dark Ages, in India great temples were being built. A thousand years before Copernicus and Galileo, India had astronomers and mathematicians such as Aryabhatta and Varahamihira who made startling, accurate discoveries about the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun. Whereas Galileo was humiliated, Indian scientists were revered and honored. During this period, Jews and Christians fleeing persecution found a home in India. While the Jewish communities were small and few, the Jews were treated well.

In the year 712, Muhammad bin Qasim became the first of many Muslim leaders to invade India. Over the next thousand years, millions of Hindus were killed and great temples and universities were destroyed. Millions of Hindus converted to Islam under threat of death.

In 1600, the British East India Company was founded to handle trade between England and India. Gradually, the company took control of sections of India, collecting taxes and enforcing laws, eventually putting all of India under British rule in 1857. In 1920, Mahatma Gandhi began a peaceful civil disobedience movement in the struggle for independence from Britain. At the same time, the Muslim League, formed to reassert Muslim influence over India and threatened war for an independent Muslim state. In 1946, the Muslim League declared “Direct Action Day” in which over 10,000 Hindus were massacred to force the creation of a separate Muslim state.

In 1947, shortly before Israel gained independence, India gained independence from Britain while being partitioned into two countries and about 500 independent princely states. As a result of this partition about 500,000 people were killed, and many women were abducted or raped. Approximately 11 million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs fled across the border, which to this day remains the single largest episode of migration in history. As with Israel’s independence, Pakistan immediately invaded the independent states of Jammu and Kashmir. The Maharaja of that state agreed to accede to India, and India’s army drove Pakistani invaders out of two-thirds of the state. In 1965, Pakistan again invaded India and India drove Pakistan out. Pakistan attacked India again in 1971 but was defeated one more time. India captured a large area of Pakistan and over 90,000 prisoners of war. Again like Israel, India returned the captured lands and the POWs in return for promises of peace. But peace did not come.

While India is predominantly Hindu, it actually has the second largest Muslim population of any country in the world. Like Israel, India is a democracy giving full rights to its citizens of all religions. India, in fact, has a separate set of laws for its Muslim citizens, allowing them to live under the Sharia laws of the Koran. There has been a movement in recent years to supplant these separate laws with a single, secular set of civil laws – a Uniform Civil Code - that apply equally to all of India’s citizens.

Like Israel, India still must deal with the stigma of “disputed territories” Kashmir and Jammu. The majority of residents of Kashmir are Muslim and Muslim Pakistan still claims it as its own territory. Like Israel, India faces regular deadly attacks from militant Muslim terrorists in Kashmir and throughout India. During the 1990s, Islamist terrorists killed over 70,000 innocent Indian civilians. In the past two years, coinciding with the Intifada in Israel, deadly attacks have been carried out against the Jammu and Kashmir State Assemblies and the Indian Parliament. Hindu pilgrims, many women and children, have been the targets of bloody terrorist attacks.

In the past, India aligned itself with the Soviet Union and for the most part stayed out of world politics. In order not to offend its Arab oil suppliers, and its large Muslim population, India did not officially recognize Israel. In the past decade, however, India has realized that it shares many traits, challenges, and obstacles, with Israel. India has established full diplomatic relations with Israel and is strengthening cooperation between the two nations. Both gained independence from England around the same time. Both are surrounded by enemies that wish to destroy it. Both must deal with terrorist attacks on a regular basis. Both are democracies that recognize individual human rights. Both have successfully turned to high technology as a means of reinvigorating their economies. Both cultures value education and hard work.

A friend from India told me about a book he read as a student. The book details the rise of the Jewish people from the ashes of the Holocaust to the creation of Israel, a strong country of great ideals and economic success. My friend tells me that the state of Israel and the struggle of the Jews are seen as examples of what India and Indians can do too.

I think it is important for us to encourage the cooperation of these two great countries. India can have Israel as a partner and as an example. Israel can use all the support and all the friends it can get, and 1 billion Indian friends can only be good.

Many thanks to Yatindra Bhatnagar for his help with this article. Bob Zeidman writes a regular column about Israel for the Congregation Beth David Star. You can contact him at bob@zeidman.net with your feedback and suggestions. You can also be put on his email list for information about Israel and upcoming rallies, lectures, and other activities.