A Prayer, Chant and Protest Song: Faith Communities Must Resist Their Extremists

I am a Hindu American living in New York City, and my husband Stephan Shaw is a Jewish American. We are active in Jewish Voice for Peace and Hindus for Human Rights. Here's why this is necessary.

It has been 23 days since the Hamas attack that took at least 1300 Jewish lives, and since then, more than 8,000 Palestinian lives have been taken by Israeli bombs. Half of them are children. The United States, along with many world powers, have given Israel their blessing to “defend” themselves against Hamas by bombing Palestinian civilians indiscriminately.

In fact, the blessing of the US has come in the form of over $ 3.3 billion a year ($ 370 billion dollars since 1948). The US is now proposing to send $ 14.3 billion more in military aid.

I am a Hindu American living in New York City, and my husband Stephan Shaw is a Jewish American. We are active in Jewish Voice for Peace and Hindus for Human Rights, both activating faith communities to take on their respective extremists. While we see an increasing alignment of white nationalism in the United States, Zionism in Israel, and Hindutva in the Indian context, my husband and I are part of  inclusive movements of people working together in diverse coalitions for justice for all. 

During the past 24 hours, more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli bombs, a form of collective punishment that is illegal under international law. This weekend, on top of the denial of food, medicine and water to Gaza, power and internet were shut down, and the bombing of Gaza has continued in the pitch dark. Furthermore, the Israeli ground offensive has begun. But this weekend, we have also had massive protests all around the world calling for a ceasefire, including in cities around India.

On the night of Friday, October 27, Stephan and I participated in a civil disobedience action in New York City calling for a ceasefire, apparently the city’s largest since the Iraq war. Several thousand people, mostly Jews, took over the Grand Concourse in Grand Central Station, and many more protested outside when the doors were locked. Though we have been activists our whole lives, for the first time we decided that the carnage underway in Gaza, funded by our tax dollars, and with no end in sight, required us to do more. We decided to partake in an action of civil disobedience and be among the several hundred that got arrested that night. It was seven hours of discomfort, but the pain of tight zip-tie handcuffs behind our backs, not being able to stretch, not being able to use the bathroom, the knowledge that there would be court dates afterwards and possible trouble with international travel, none of this seemed significant in the face of 10,000 Israelis and Palestinians dead and the death-count rising. 

The action was organised by Jewish Voice for Peace with support from IfNotNow and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, all progressive and anti-apartheid Jewish organisations. It was profound and overwhelming to be a lone Hindu in the midst of thousands of Jews expressing their pain for the atrocities being committed in their name. 

Also read: ‘Not in Our Name’: The Jews Who Refuse to Be Bystanders to Historic Injustice

No person of conscience or faith can accept the carpet bombing of children, babies, innocent civilians. No person of conscience can accept communal punishment. My husband and I unequivocally condemn the Hamas terrorist attack that occurred on October 7th and refuse to respond to an atrocity with another atrocity even larger.

One of the chants that echoed through Grand Central Station was, “Never again for anyone, never again is now.”  This, for us, is the most basic lesson of the Holocaust that many Jews seem to have forgotten.

My pain as a Hindu has been that Hinduism has been hijacked by Hindu supremacists, led by the likes of Narendra Modi and Adityanath. They are entrenching the Hindu community in India and abroad with a false sense of victimhood and danger from our Muslim siblings, and increasing Islamophobic sentiment. Under the current regime, India is being transformed into a Hindu rashtra (nation) where Muslims and other religious minorities are neither welcome nor safe. Protesting with thousands of Jews calling for a ceasefire in Gaza made me dream of a day when thousands – or even hundreds – of Hindus will gather to say ‘not in my name’ to violence committed by Hindu supremacists.

Throughout the protest, I held India in my heart. I am dismayed that India, a country which was always a refuge against anti-semitism for the Jewish people, while also being (at least in rhetoric) pro-Palestine when it came to the West Asian conflict, has shifted so drastically under Modi. In fact, in the aftermath of its own partition bloodbath, India neither voted for the partition of Palestine in 1947 to create the nation of Israel, nor for Israel to be a part of the United Nations in 1949. 

Also read: India Refuses to Back Landslide UN General Assembly Call for Humanitarian Truce in Gaza

Azad Essa details in his book Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between Israel and India, how this shift towards being an ally of Israel occurred gradually since even before Indian independence, but has become much more extreme during the Modi regime.  Though the Indian population remains largely sympathetic to the Palestinian fight for self-determination, the diplomatic relationship has been reshaped by the weapons trade and ideology.

India is now the largest purchaser of Israeli weapons and military technology, which is expected to reach 130 billion dollars over the next five years.  Further, Hindutva (Hindu supremacy) finds itself in ideological alignment with Zionism: Israel is an ethnocratic state that has eroded minority rights and maintains a dual legal system that is effectively an apartheid regime. And Hindutva proponents are actively seeking to make something similar of India. The Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens are about eroding the rights of Muslims and seek to displace the majority of Muslims the way Israel has rendered six million Palestinians stateless.

Israel has become a model for what Modi seeks.

Following the successful playbook of labelling any criticism of Israel anti-semitic, proponents of Hindutva have begun labelling critics anti-Hindu, dismissing any criticism as morally off-limits. As an interfaith couple, we are saddened by both groups’ near-identical opposition to interfaith marriage. Israel has a new law banning “political” miscegenation, and India attacks Hindu-Muslim love as “love jihad.”

Also read: Israel-Palestine Conflict: Why Has India Forsaken Its Role as a Voice of Moderation?

In the wake of the Hamas attack, and as the Israeli bombing of Gaza began, Narendra Modi said explicitly, “India stands firmly with Israel.” India has now cracked down on pro-Palestinian protests while allowing pro-Israeli rallies.  This however has not stopped  brave Indians from protesting to save Gaza from obliteration. 

A significant part of the dangerous misinformation fuelling the conflict and polarising communities is coming from India, And most recently, India abstained on a United Resolution that called for an immediate humanitarian truce in Israel’s war on Gaza. 

As the mostly Jewish protesters in Grand Central Station sang together for peace, I approached a person sitting near me, and she let me use her phone to make a tiny video of myself speaking as a Hindu. She introduced herself to me and said, “I’m Nerisha, I’m a Hindu too!” Nerisha had not known about Hindus for Human Rights, and is now a new member. She is excited to have found a space where religious and secular Hindus come together to create – to manifest – the most compassionate version of our religious and cultural traditions, and to oppose all forms of hatred and bigotry.

Since the Zionist project of eliminating Muslims from Israel and Palestine, and the Hindutva project of eliminating Muslims from India, are joined at the hip in their evil endeavors, the Jewish and Indian diasporas must be united in our resistance to both.

Aparna Gopalan’s recent article in Jewish Currents, The Hindu Nationalists Using the Pro-Israel Playbook, gives a sweeping and comprehensive picture not only of how the far right Jewish and Hindu diaspora organizations and ideologies support and amplify each other, but also how the progressive resistance from within the Jewish and Hindu faith communities are beginning to partner and find common cause.

There was one chant at the protest which I found impossible to sing because I choked up with tears every time I heard it: “Your people are my people; your divine, my divine.”

Hindus believe in an equal and identical presence of the Divine in everyone, no matter the religion, caste or race. Hindus must come together in tidal waves of love resisting the hatred and violence of Hindutva, just like our Jewish siblings worldwide who are currently resisting the genocide being perpetrated in their name.

Sunita Viswanath is a human rights advocate based in the United States.