Heartburn over Hugs and Hummus

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Indo-Israeli relations have been all hugs and hummus of late, a point that neither Jerusalem nor Delhi seem to be tired of reiterating. Narendra Modi’s trip to Israel without even a perfunctory drop-in at Ramallah has been portrayed as historic by most observers, although there have been some doubts about how much of a departure this really is from India’s previous policy given the three-day visit by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas just a couple of weeks earlier.

Whether there really is a shift in Indian policy or not, the perception certainly exists that there has been one and this has caused much heartburn among the ossified grand daddies of entrenched interests. The crux of a string of critiques that have appeared in the Indian press is that the Modi government has made the morally odious choice of abandoning Palestine and in doing so descended into the realm of ordinary states, and that this desertion is but another manifestation of the prime minister’s anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism that has found resonance in Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s equally anti-Islamic Zionism.

In Foreign Affairs, Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch and Manjari Chatterjee Miller argue that “India’s and Israel’s historic perceptions of colonial ideology and religious nationalism are at the root of their longstanding divergence.” According to them, India’s experience as a colony and of bloody Partition created in Indian leaders an aversion to colonialism and religious nationalism; Jewish ambitions in the Levant was, therefore, anathema to them on both counts.

Although Hirsch and Miller are correct in how the Congress leadership viewed Israel and this view did shape Indian policy towards the Jewish state for decades, their article does not grapple with the fact that this was a highly ignorant and erroneous held by Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. To denounce Zionism as a “child of British imperialism” as Nehru did is laughable, and Gandhi admitted to some of his interlocutors sent by the Jewish Agency to inform and persuade the Indian leader of their worthiness of their cause that he did not know enough about Jewish history. Gandhi thought that Israel was being created “under the shadow of the British gun,” a sentiment difficult to arrive at despite the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917. His simplification of “Palestine for the Arabs” also indicates a severe lack of understanding of the convoluted history of the Levant.

Today, whatever else may motivate the Bharatiya Janata Party’s course correction, it also reflects an acknowledgement of these mistaken views. Old dilemmata over identity will not, contrary to what the article argues, hinder relations but more mundane aspects of economics, regulations, and logistics take time to be streamlined. Additionally, the focus on non-defence matters was a deliberate move by both governments to highlight the civilisation-to-civilisation connections being fostered rather than a purely transactional one – which has been blooming on the sidelines, too.

A churlish piece by Manini Chatterjee in The Telegraph betrays ignorance of Israeli culture as well as any deep engagement with European history or political philosophy. Playing on the tired trope of ethnonationalism, Chatterjee wants to draw attention to the “fusion of religious and cultural identity with a ‘holy’ geographical entity common to both Hindutva and Zionism.” This has, in fact, spared the world of the limitless expansion of more universalist (imperialist) creeds. Chatterjee also takes a swipe at MS Golwalkar for his racial weltanshauung. However, it bears note that Golwalker’s understanding of race was substantially different from the European definition and that Zionism did grow as a response to the liberal European project that sought to dilute and destroy Jewish identity. Instead, Chatterjee prefers to further the myth – as the Dreyfus Affair proved – of civic nationalism.

Rajeesh Kumar’s plea that foreign policy be based on principles rather than on interests (though he sees the two as coterminous) in Outlook is naive at best. His attempt to rescue Nehruvian thinking on Israel, however, is an exceptional attempt at fiction writing. His claim that “India’s support to the Palestinian cause was not determined by the policy of appeasing the Muslim minority population at home” falls flat simply by virtue of Nehru’s own words to the effect that he did not wish to vex Indian Muslims so soon after Partition by cosying up to the Jewish state. Kumar does not explain how Indian policy was pragmatic and not idealistic as he claims but goes on to make another incredulous argument that Israel must be seen as India’s junior partner because of its desire to help the South Asian nation despite being rebuked so often. While Kumar’s point raises an interesting point for further research into Israeli attitudes and thinking towards India, the casting of the receiver of aid as the senior partner is bewildering.

There is no denying of the benefits of better relations with Israel for Kumar, though he warns that this should not mean that India should give Tel Aviv (?) a blank cheque. Kumar’s solution is to extract benefits from Israel via trade and scientific cooperation yet continue to condemn it as has been India’s hypocritical custom in the past. Given Indo-Israeli history, Kumar’s suggestion might work but it will not foster warmer relations.

Finally, he appeals to dharma as a guiding principle of Indian culture and policy. That dharma is not constant but depends on place, time, and situation is entirely lost on Kumar. In a specific circumstance, Krishna advises the Pandavas to go to war even against their own kith and kin. Additionally, Kumar’s appeal to ethics, while noble, has served no purpose in the past. India’s bid to join the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation as a country with one of the highest Muslim populations was rejected and Arab states have historically sided with Pakistan politically as well as economically and militarily in its conflict with India.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi tries to resurrect the flawed Indian historical understanding of yesteryear in his article in The Wire. Amusingly, he states that “India’s position has been appreciated, respected by all for its honesty and integrity,” probably referring to only Arab states and the coterie of non-aligned irrelevants. He clings to the old custom of Indian prime ministers abstaining from visiting Israel on principle without addressing the errors of the past or the changes since in the geopolitical climate. Ignoring his preposterous claims of a Palestinian genocide in 1948 for the moment, Gandhi fails to explain why Palestine ought to matter more to Delhi than its own interests. In his selective history, he omits the Egyptian wall along its border with Gaza or the Jordanian action against Palestinians during Black September, not to mention the occupation of “Palestine” by Jordan and Egypt prior to the stunning Israeli victory in the Six-Day War in 1967.

Modi’s visit, according Gandhi, gives legitimacy to the “occupation and brutal suppression” of Palestinians by Israel. This conveniently overlooks the Indian statement of support for the Palestinian cause just two weeks ahead of Modi’s trip to Israel. Gandhi goes on to argue that India’s policy now is “wholly political, ideological,” implying, one only assumes from the tone, what his cohort has expressed more explicitly about the BJP being anti-Muslim. This ever-ready, lazy label may have some superficial truth to it but ignores a strong undercurrent of historical grievances and political minoritarian discrimination that has now run its fuse.

It is not so much that the caviling is premised on faulty understandings of Hindutva, Zionism, and the Palestinian Question – sometimes by Gandhi or Nehru – but its ornery nature that makes any genuine debate moot. Nehru’s fundamental failure was that he, as a modern Liberal, approached society – India – as tabula rasa upon which he could put down his doodles. Communities, however, do not work like that – they are a brown field project with all its attendant baggage. More importantly, the debate never moves forward because opponents of Israel in India never tire of repeating their worn out and fallacious mantras rather than responding to a counter that has been put forward decades ago. In this climate, there is no argument – only an attempt to overpower the public sphere by sheer volume.