World Jewry: India’s Perception of the Jews and Israel
Many people in India know that, according to their narrative, Jews have lived in their country for two thousand years. They are very proud of the fact that Jews have lived there for so long without experiencing indigenous anti-Semitism. It supports their self-perception as an extremely tolerant and welcoming society to foreign religious minorities.
“The fact that Jews lived in India without experiencing persecution is part and parcel of contemporary Hindu identity. This is especially significant for Indians as tensions with Muslims become stronger and friction with Christian missionaries is highlighted in the world press. Indians want to be able to say: ‘We are a tolerant society. Look at our Jews who have lived here so long and so happily.’”
Nathan Katz, a Research Professor of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University, has specialized in the study of Jewish communities in South Asia over the past thirty-five years. He is a pioneer and leading academic in the field of Indo-Judaic studies, as well as a South Asia specialist, holding the Bhagwan Mahavir Professorship in Jain Studies.
“Many Indians are aware that what they’ve learned about Judaism largely originates from Christian missionary schools, or comes from Marxist or Shakespearian anti-Semitism, or worse, from anti-Semitic tracts being promulgated by some Muslim groups. Marxist ideology also has a disproportionate influence on campuses.
“We have to contend with these various anti-Semitic traditions, a big challenge, but these views are not so deeply ingrained in Hindu and Indian culture as they are in European or Middle Eastern societies.
“Most Indians are informed enough to grasp that anti-Semitic claims come from distorted perspectives. They realize that authentic knowledge of Judaism and the Jewish people can only come from direct interaction between Jews and Indians. This is an excellent starting point.
“There is great interest in learning in India. A few years ago I was interviewed on the Patrika news magazine, the most popular show on national television. It was announced in the newspapers that it would be a discussion of India and Judaism in five parts over five nights. The average viewership was 230 million people. That shows almost passionate interest.
“In general, Indian perception of both Jews and Israel is very positive. It is almost affectionate and there is much idealization. One reason is that Indians are very impressed by how the Jews managed – with the great multiplicity of tongues they spoke at the time – to revive and adapt Hebrew. This modernization of a sacred, ancient tongue by Eliezer Ben Yehuda is something they would like to emulate. There is however, no practical way for India to adapt Sanskrit to unite the country linguistically.
“The Indian relationship to Israel is also influenced by the havoc Muslims caused many centuries ago in their country. Even if this happened five or six hundred years ago, Hindus remain very sensitive about it. When they see a mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, there is a deep resonance with their culture. Indians often ask Jews: ‘How can you allow these buildings to remain on this place which is so sacred to you?’
“Their perception was sharpened by terrorism. On November 26, 2008 for instance, Muslim terrorists attacked a number of iconic sites in Mumbai, especially the Taj Hotel and Victoria Railway Station, as well as the Chabad House. One hundred and sixty-eight people were killed and more than 300 wounded.
“Indians also admire Israeli fortitude against the Arab enemy. An important field of Indian-Israeli cooperation is security. Indians are also victims of terror. The Hindi word for violence in Kashmir is ‘intifada.’ Many perceive Palestinian violence as another head of the same jihadist dragon.
”Indians also know that Judaism is a very old religion like Hinduism. Antiquity is valued and admired in their culture. That is another positive knowledge baseline. Respect for Jews who don a skullcap, go to pray and ‘don’t eat certain things’ goes a long way in such a culture.
“Many Indians also know that Jews were slaughtered in the Shoah, although I don’t think they know how many. Perhaps six million doesn’t seem as large to Indians as it does to Jews. It is however, hardly known that several thousand Jews found refuge from the Shoah in India.
“There are some Indian newspapers which follow general leftist ideology. The Hindu in Chennai, despite its name, is one of them. Most papers in Indian languages are however, much friendlier to Israel. Academics at secular universities are often unfriendly toward Israel, yet many secular leftists among Indian intellectuals hold Jewish culture in high esteem.
“Religiously-oriented universities in India usually show a positive attitude toward Israel. I spoke at some of these traditionalist universities and there was passionate interest and tremendous empathy – in many of them Israel is almost idealized.”
Katz concludes: “Muslim-inspired terrorism has caused India’s tiny Jewish population to feel insecure for the first time in their two-millennia old history. India’s oldest synagogue in Kochi has armed soldiers guarding it. Chabad outposts in Delhi, Manali, Goa, Pushkar, Pune and elsewhere must also contend with threats to their security.”