In all the media coverage surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict – or rather Israel’s relentless attacks on Gaza – what stands out most starkly in India is the overwhelming support among regular folk for Israel and its brutalities against Palestinians. For a while, hashtags like #IndiaSupportsIsrael and #IndiaStandsWithIsrael were ubiquitous on social media, which momentarily reminded me of the #IndiaSupportsCAA hashtag from a year before.
“To save your nation and its people from Radical Islamic terrorism is the fundamental right of every nation,” actress Kangana Ranaut wrote on her Instagram story (after her Twitter handle was blocked) to her over 7.5 million followers. The text’s backdrop showed an image of snipers in hot pursuit beaming lasers on targets. “India stands with Israel. Those who think terrorism should be replied with dharna (protest) and kadi ninda (censure) must learn from Israel,” she said.
Other posters were more virulent. “Gaza should be destroyed,” said one Twitter user; while another put out a cartoon image of an Indian Muslim man wailing, “Pray for Palestine!” as he stood above the corpses of Hazaras, Hindus, Balochs and Uighurs in Pakistan and China respectively. Beneath a video that showed Israeli settlers dancing while the Al Aqsa Mosque burned, somebody wrote, “Jai Sriram. India with Israel. Go ahead and kill jihadis”.
Even if the above posts are brushed aside as the errant outpourings of a hysterical few, that there is a clear and concerted call to rally behind Israel among many Indians is unmistakable.
To be fair, the seeds for the love for Israel have been simmering in the Hindutva groundswell for many years. In 2016, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said, “Israel was attacked by the surrounding Islamic countries on five occasions, but the Israeli people repulsed their aggressions and extended their boundaries due to the strong resolve to save [their] motherland.” But it is only now, legitimised by the rightwing atmosphere in both India and Israel, that vague murmurings have broken through our top-soil and arrived on our computer screens in open rage.
One internet poster attempted to answer why we should support Israel in an ostensibly logical way by spelling out cherry-picked news stories:
“1) In 2008, Israel sent 40 paramedics and forces during the Mumbai attacks. 2) India and Israel have very close cultural ties. Thousands of Israeli tourists visit India every year. 3) Israel was one of the few nations that did not condemn India’s nuclear tests in 1998. 4) After the US gave Pakistan Harpoon missiles, Israel sold India the Barak 1 missile, which can intercept Harpoon missiles. This restored balance between India and Pakistan. 5) In 1971 Israel quietly helped India in the war against Pakistan, supplying arms and weapons.”
What this post missed out on the military front was that in 1999 Israel also helped India in the Kargil war, and in 2001 the IDF also provided humanitarian relief following the Bhuj earthquake. On the economic side, trade between the two countries grew from USD 200 million in 1992 to USD 4.13 billion in 2016. In 2019, concomitant to Netanyahu and Modi’s friendship, Israel’s exports to India rose by 9%.
But in none of the internet comments that I read was there even a hint of appreciation for the most basic history of the Levant. There was no mention, let alone an understanding of the over seven decades-long oppression of Palestinians by a largely occupying force. Nor was there any discussion about how the creation of the State of Israel was accompanied by the exodus of Palestinians from their ancestral homes. Needless to say, there is little knowledge among Indians about the current pulls and pressures of this most recent altercation in which one key factor is the forced eviction of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, a part of East Jerusalem, in order to make way for Jewish settlements deemed illegal under international law.
Few know that after more than fifty years of occupation, Gaza is now an area with more than 5,000 inhabitants per square kilometers that observers widely describe as the world’s largest open-air prison. While Israel has been accused of committing war crimes in Gaza, Hamas, the Islamic Resistant Movement of the region, classified by many countries as a terrorist organisation, has fired rockets from its small blockaded strip of land towards the Jewish state.
So why in this conflict do so many Indian nationalists consistently side with Israel? Where does our Israel adulation stem from? The obvious answer of course is the common and constant perceived threat of “Islamic Terrorism”. But this is only as true as it is easy.
An examination of the underpinnings of both nation states’ nationhoods bares deeper roots of India’s admiration of Israel throwing light on curious connections and machinations that keep the edifice of our national psyche in place.
A shared sense of persecution
Nationalists in both countries are beset by a sense of besiegement by antagonistic Muslim neighbours, within and without. Both nationalist Jews and Hindus, each who consider themselves the primogenitors of their land, harbour feelings of persecution. If Jews look back upon the Holocaust as their darkest and deathliest time which is never to be forgotten, many Hindus view the partition of the subcontinent, which is itself seen as the culmination of centuries of Muslim rule, as their personal rock-bottom.
Just as Jewish Israel is surrounded by Arab states, Hindu majority India is flanked by two Muslim states which, according to the Hindutva worldview, were carved out from a composite and sacred Indic whole. While it’s plain forgotten that it was the British who drew borders along religious lines in both places, for which India, Israel and Palestine continue to suffer enormously, and that prominent RSS leaders have themselves admired the Nazis who killed over six million Jews, as per the contemporary line of thinking it is the ever-present and persistent threat of ‘Islamic Terror’ that is paramount. It always overrides.
Given this mindset, it makes sense why in November 2019, the Indian Consul-General in New York, Sandeep Chakravorty, suggested to a gathering of Kashmiri Hindus that India should follow the Israeli model and build settlements in the Kashmir Valley to secure the return of Hindus.
“It wasn’t a coincidence,” Somdeep Sen argued in his September 2020 article in Foreign Policy, “that the Indian Consul General in New York was speaking to a gathering of Kashmiri Hindus. The return of exiled Hindus to Kashmir has long been central to the Hindu nationalist political agenda. And for the Consul General, Israel serves as a model for the way exiled people might reclaim their homeland. So, referring to the controversial revocation of Article 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution, Chakravorty described the move as an attempt to protect Hindu culture in Kashmir—not unlike the way Jewish people maintained their cultural identity in their years of exile”.
However, from an Indian nationalist perspective, there is another angle, as well. Israel is a tiny state but nonetheless a strong one. It is surrounded by hostile countries but there is still the perception that nobody can really mess with it. Importantly, Israel has the support of many in the west and so its transgressions, whatever they may be, often get overlooked. It is thus a good role model to emulate.
But as many commentators have noted, our allegiance wasn’t always tilted this way. Many Indians before, as even today, were pro-Palestine. Writing in his Harijan weekly in November 1938, Mahatma Gandhi himself said: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense the England belongs to the English and France to the French”.
In fact, India voted alongside Arab states against the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947 arguing that it violated the principles of national self-determination in the UN charter which granted people the right to decide their own destiny.
A shared sense of the uniqueness of their sacred language
Tied to the point that nationalists in both countries believe that they have the original and rightful claim to their land is the shared feeling of a people inheriting an old and sacred language that brings them under one umbrella.
Hebrew, the liturgical tongue of the Jews, was revived and modernised towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century such that its use changed from the sacred language of Judaism to a spoken and written language used for daily life in Israel. This was done to foster ethno-nationalistic feelings certainly, but also out of necessity and practicality as a diversity of Jews had started arriving in Palestine and establishing themselves alongside the existing Jewish community in the region.
In the first Aliyah, or major wave of Zionist migration to Ottoman Palestine between 1881 and 1903, the Jews who came, estimated at 25-35000, were mostly from Eastern Europe and Yemen. In the second Aliyah, which took place between 1904 and 1914, a further approximately 35,000 migrants came mainly from the Russian Empire. It was imperative to have a lingua franca connecting these linguistically disparate but religiously united groups that would comprise the new state of Israel and Hebrew was ideal for the role.
Today Hebrew is Israel’s official language and over 5 million people speak it as their native tongue. Moreover, making Aliyah, ‘the act of going up—i.e. towards the Holy Land of Jerusalem’, one of the most basic tenets of Zionism, was enshrined into law on July 5, 1950. Section 1 of the Law of Return declares: “every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [immigrant].”
Likewise, in India, the desire to revive Sanskrit has been expressed many times. But “the demand which has periodically surfaced over the past century for instituting Sanskrit as the national language”, writes Sumathi Ramaswamy in her article ‘Sanskrit for the Nation‘, “has been couched in exactly the opposite terms [to Europe where the modern vernacular spoken by the majority of citizens became the national language]….Sanskrit deserves this status in the view of its advocates precisely because it is nobody’s mother tongue.”A stance that is remarkably similar to the status of Hebrew among Jews in the late 19th century.
She references an 1879 essay entitled “Should we call ourselves Aryan?”, in which A. Mittra wrote: “Is it not a painful, a shameful necessity that compels me, at the present moment to advocate the cause of Aryan learning in a foreign language? Should not Sanskrit rather than English be the universal medium of communication in the Aryan land?’
Fascinatingly, there is even a 167-page Sanskrit book titled Bhuvamanita Bhagavadbhasa, published in 2004, about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda himself, the chief driver behind the resurrection of Hebrew from a moribund sacred language into a modern one.
About this book, Eric Gurevitch writes in his EPW article in July 2017, “[It] invites the reader at the outset to draw several comparisons: between Hebrew and Sanskrit, India and Israel, Hindus and Jews. As an account about the “revival” of one language, namely Hebrew, popularly conceived of as ancient, sacred, liturgical, and recently “revived,” told in another language, namely Sanskrit, which is popularly conceived of as ancient, sacred, liturgical, dead and needing to be “revived,” Bhuvamanita Bhagavadbhasa itself serves as an image of the world it describes. It thus links the community that it hopes will change how Sanskrit is used in India to a community from a different nationalist moment. “There are many similar parts in the path of revival of Hebrew and Sanskrit,” the author Vishwasa wrote. “These parts become evident with the careful reading of this little story.””
A shared sense of being the original sons of the soil
A natural corollary to the above feelings of sharedness with Israel among Hindutva nationalists brings me to arguably the most important one: the overarching sense that India is the natural homeland for Hindus in much the same way Israel is the historical home of the Jews. It is exactly this sentiment which found legal expression in the passing of the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), 2019. Just as Israel’s Law of Return gave teeth to Israel’s Zionist basis so should Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) find its feet and force in India goes the Hindutva theory.
As Somdeep Sen argued in his September 2020 article on Foreign Policy, “It is no surprise then that StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy organisation that publishes pamphlets in Hindi and the Israeli Consul General for South India Dana Kursh, reacted to India passing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by saying: “India as a sovereign nation has the right in enacting the CAA … India’s sovereignty is to be respected and she knows how to protect her people.” India, for its part, displayed the extent of its alliance with Israel when in June 2019 it voted against granting Palestinians consultative status in the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council. Responding to the vote—a historic shift in India’s usual, pro-Palestine voting record at the U.N.— Netanyahu tweeted, “Thank you @NarendraModi, thank you India, for your support and for standing with Israel at the UN.”
It is a painful irony that if on the one hand it has been contended that Hindu nationalists are transforming India into an Israel-style ethnostate, the CAA which excludes Muslims refugees from acquiring Indian citizenship is itself, as has been noted, deeply reminiscent of the Nuremberg Laws whereby the Nazis revoked Reich citizenship for Jews.
The other smaller irony is that for all our admiration of Israel, when Netanyahu thanked 25 countries who supported Israel in this latest round of attacks India was conspicuously absent. Still, perhaps it is a hark back to our history of solidarity with oppressed peoples, a Nehruvian idea, that led India to support the ‘just Palestine cause’ at the UN recently.
One internet poster reminded the others that India’s support for Palestine extends as far back as October 1937, before Indian independence, when the Indian National Congress passed a resolution declaring its support for the Palestinian national movement. But her lone voice was drowned out by the others.
Yet amid the din of rabble-rousers crying hoarse for Israel to crush the terrorists, a cartoon image caught my eye. It showed a man dying in hospital. Too sick to move and only able to breath with the support of oxygen, he nevertheless held up a placard saying #IndiastandswithIsrael.
It is a poignant lesson of our times that hate somehow finds oxygen even when our lungs can’t.
Siddharth Kapila is a lawyer-turned-writer presently working on a travel memoir on Hindu pilgrimage sites.