India, Israel and the US
Presumably because I’m Jewish and write about India, I received an invitation to a ‘Jewish-Indian Reception’ held earlier this year at Columbia University in New York.
“Did you know that Jews have lived in India for over 2000 years without any signs of Anti-Semitism?” the invitation began. “Did you know that annual bi-lateral trade between India and Israel reached $2.7 billion this past year? Interested in learning more about the historical, cultural, and political connections and similarities between Jewish and Indian Americans? Join us for a night of great speakers …”
These speakers included the Indian Consul-General, the Israeli Deputy-Consul General and Congressman Gary Ackerman. The event was organised by a pro-Israel student group called LionPAC, with support from the South Asian Law Students Association, among others. It offers a microcosm of the burgeoning India-Israel-US axis, a phenomenon supporters of the Palestinian cause need to be more aware of.
Let’s start with Gary Ackerman, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. A loud voice for Israel on Capitol Hill, Ackerman’s career “highlights”, according to his website, include “authoring legislation that required President Bush to impose sanctions against the Palestinian Authority”. He championed the Israeli military offensive of spring 2002, and denounced the ICJ finding on the wall as “shameful”.
Ackerman is also a Congressional point-man for the “India lobby”. A former chairman of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, he unequivocally backs India on Kashmir, lays all the blame for the conflict there on Pakistan and pushes for increased US-India arms trade and military collaboration.
In 2003, Ackerman helped organise the first-ever joint Capitol Hill forum between AIPAC and AJC, on the one side, and the newly formed US Indian Political Action Committee, on the other. Ackerman stressed the two countries’ common concerns: Israel, he said, was “surrounded by 120 million Muslims” while – India has 120 million Muslims [within]”. Last year, he was the leading Democratic sponsor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address to a joint session of Congress.
Then there’s LionPAC, the main pro-Israel group at Columbia. A couple of years ago LionPAC members played a key role in the documentary film ‘Conduct Unbecoming’, in which it was alleged that Jews and supporters of Israel at Columbia faced systematic intimidation and bias, and which slandered a number of Columbia professors as anti-semites. The ensuing uproar led the university to appoint a committee of investigation, which, in due course, dismissed the film’s allegations and reprimanded the methods used by the film-makers. LionPAC is clearly in need of campus allies and the reception was an attempt to seek friends among just about the only people of colour at Columbia for whom Israel is not anathema – career-minded students of Indian origin.
According to the Columbia Spectator, “Around 200 people, mostly undergraduate and graduate students,” attended the reception. The speakers “highlighted… the similarities between Jewish and Indian values and culture, and the shared efforts by the US, India, and Israel to combat terrorism.”
Note how “values”, “cultures”, states and geo-politics are interwoven here. The existence of coherent “Indian” or “Jewish” value systems or cultures is casually assumed, and in each case casually attached to a state. These two entities are then somehow said to have “similarities” and the whole package is tied up with the help of the USA and the “war on terror”.
Back in the days of the freedom struggle, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress opposed the creation of a ‘Jewish National Home’ in Palestine. Nehru insightfully analysed the relationship between Zionism, Arab Nationalism and British imperialism. Newly-independent India voted against the UN Palestine partition plan in 1947 and the admission of Israel to the UN in 1949. As a leading force in the Non-Aligned Movement, India backed anti-colonial movements in the middle-east and enjoyed close links with Nasser’s Egypt.
Nonetheless, a clandestine relationship with Israel developed, thanks in part to Mossad, which acted as an unofficial – and deniable – diplomatic courier. During the 1971 war with Pakistan, Israel supplied India with mortars and ammunition. In the following years, intelligence collaboration was established, with an exchange of information about Pakistan, which at that time was building alliances with Arab regimes in the Middle East. In the late 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, keen on improving relations with the US, began the process of upgrading ties with Israel. As the Indian press put it at the time, “The road to Washington passes through Tel Aviv.”
Since full diplomatic relations were established in 1992, military and commercial links have grown exponentially. The process escalated under the right-wing BJP-led government of 1998-2004. The BJP is the political wing of the Sangh Parivar, the family of organisations dedicated to the ideology of Hindutva (roughly, ‘Hinduness’): an authoritarian, Hindu supremacist, virulently anti-Muslim movement. Its founders were admirers of Hitler and Mussolini, but it also has a long history of support for Israel and Zionism.
In many respects, Hindutva and Zionism are natural bedfellows. Both depict the entities they claim to represent as simultaneously national and religious. Both claim to be the sole authentic spokespersons for these entities (Hindu and Jewish). Both share an ambivalent (to say the least) historic relationship with British colonialism. Both appeal to an affluent diaspora. And, most importantly at the moment, both share a designated enemy (‘Muslim terrorism’).
During the Kargil War of 1999 (in which India and Pakistani troops clashed in Kashmir), Israel supplied India, at 24 hours notice, with high altitude surveillance vehicles and laser-guided systems. In the wake of 9/11, the alliance was deepened, with Hindutva and Zionist world-views dovetailing snugly with the US war on terror. In May 2003, India’s then National Security Adviser Brajesh Misra spelled out the strategy in an address to the American Jewish Congress, in which he pleaded for a “Tel Aviv-New Delhi-Washington” axis. A few months later, Ariel Sharon arrived in India as an hounoured guest.
When a Congress-led coalition replaced the BJP after the 2004 elections, its left supporters urged it to abandon the previous government’s foreign policy, notably the embrace of Israel and the USA. They have been ignored. The government has signed deals with the US for military purchases, joint military exercises and most recently, in the course of Bush’s state visit, nuclear collaboration. In February, India abandoned Iran at the IAEA, voting with the US to refer the country – usually considered one of India’s major strategic allies – to the Security Council.
At the same time, the link with Israel has been consolidated. In the course of 2005, India’s Ministers of Science and Technology, Commerce and Industry, and Agriculture and Food all visited Israel, holding high-level meetings with political and business leaders. In February 2006, Israel’s National Security Council Chairman Giora Eiland was welcomed in Delhi.
Israel is now the second largest supplier of arms to India (after Russia). It provides India with missile radar, border monitoring equipment, night vision devices, the new Phalcon reconnaissance aircraft, among other items. India, in turn, is the biggest purchaser of high-tech Israeli weapons and accounts for almost half of Israel’s arms exports. In addition, several thousand Indian soldiers have received “anti-insurgency training” in Israel.
In a speech at Tel Aviv University in March, the Indian Ambassador described India and Israel as “heirs to great and ancient civilizations” which “emerged from foreign domination as independent nations around the middle of the last century” and whose “historical interaction… is vividly embodied in the presence of Judaism in India for over 1600 years.”
While the ambassador was speaking in Tel Aviv, the Jewish-Indian reception was being held in New York, knitting together the same alliance and using the same themes. The Indian presence in the USA is highly diverse (many are Muslims), but an affluent, suburban constituency within it identifies with the Indian right and more broadly with Indian elite aspirations for economic and military status. Many see American Jews as the “model minority” and seek to emulate their political clout. A number have openly declared their intention of constructing a lobby similar to the Israel lobby. The attraction has been reciprocal. The American Jewish Committee is soon to open an office in New Delhi.
It’s ironic that Indian Jews should find themselves used as a lynch-pin in this marriage of convenience. Of course, India’s population is so diverse, its diaspora so far flung, that it can claim some kind of relationship with almost anyone anywhere. India’s small Jewish communities were themselves highly diverse – in language, ritual, origin – but today they number merely 6000 (out of a population of one billion). During the 50s and 60s, most Indian Jews went to Israel, many to the US. The motives were mainly economic. The niche they had occupied collapsed after independence.
Although there’s no history of anti-semitism in India, it’s striking that one of the country’s best-selling books is Mein Kampf, openly available at bookshops, stationers and street stalls. One young man pursuing a degree in business administration explained that the book was popular because it was “an excellent management text”. Ironically, the aspirant bourgeoisie buying Mein Kampf is precisely that section of Indian society most keen on the alliance with Israel. The mentality is summed up by a catchphrase currently favoured by India’s foreign policy-makers: “Non-alignment is for losers.”
Manmohan Singh described India’s deal with the US and its vote against Iran as acts of “enlightened self-interest”. The same excuse is applied to the link with Israel. The reality is that India’s betrayal of the Palestinians, however profitable for a few, is not remotely in the interest of the vast Indian majority. It certainly diminishes India’s status and influence in the developing world. What price favor in Washington?