The fruition of bonds of hoary civilisational past
by Sandhya Jain on 11 Jul 2017 12 Comments
Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated his maiden visit to Israel with a lead article written jointly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and published simultaneously in India and Israel that reflected the efforts of both to make the trip memorable. “Hand In Hand Into The Future” (July 4) commemorates the establishment of full diplomatic relations 25 years ago and celebrates India as the only nation where Jewish refugees were welcomed and never persecuted. This is also the ‘return visit’ India owes Israel after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit in 2003.


The article set the tone for the visit in a sense that a similar exercise with US President Barack Obama did not, if only because Netanyahu did not lecture Modi on ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’, values the West is now revising in the face of growing terrorist incidents in its front lawns, not to mention the rising incidents of rape and molestation by those to whom it opened its doors.  


India will always be grateful for the affection and respect showered upon Prime Minister Modi, with Prime Minister Netanyahu accompanying him at almost all his engagements, “as befits the leader of the world’s largest democracy”, as he so engagingly put it. Such attention is normally reserved for American Presidents. Astonishingly, in the G20 that followed, Donald Trump left the front row during the ceremonial photograph and stood with Modi in the second row!


Some writers have dwelt excessively upon Modi de-hyphenating the Israel visit from Ramallah (Palestine). But the real achievement is the skill with which India has negotiated the regional cauldron to further its interests with Iran, the Gulf kingdoms, and Israel. The visit to Tel Aviv was preceded by visits to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Iran; while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was received in New Delhi. Previously, the Syrian deputy prime minister was also received in India.


More fundamentally, a civilisational bond forged in the hoary past has reached natural fruition. Judaism is at least a thousand years older than Christianity, and words of Sanskrit origin are said to have appeared in the Hebrew Bible 3,000 years ago. Also, Jewish authors of the Roman era, rabbis of the Talmud (religious law), Jewish traders and philosophers in the Middle Ages all spoke of India. It is possible that the Jews who arrived in Kerala after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 70 A.D., like Parsis many centuries later, knew the route to India.


The Prime Minister gifted Netanyahu replicas of two sets of copper plates, likely inscribed in the 9-10th century. The first describes the grant of hereditary royal privileges and prerogatives by Cheraman Perumal (possibly Bhaskara Ravi Varma) to Jewish leader Joseph Rabban. Jewish tradition claims Joseph Rabban was later anointed Prince of Shingli, a place in or equated with Cranganore, where Jews enjoyed religious and cultural autonomy for centuries before moving to Cochin and other places in Malabar. Shingli was revered as a “second Jerusalem”, and Jews would place a handful of earth from Shingli in each coffin after migrating.


The second set is perhaps the earliest documentation of the history of Jewish trade with India, and records the grant of land and tax privileges by the local Hindu ruler to a church. Prime Minister Netanyahu reciprocated with a photo of Indian soldiers leading a British military column to liberate Jerusalem. More gratifyingly, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem has recreated a replica of Cochin’s Kadavumbagam synagogue, built in the 16th century. The visit revealed that some eminent Mumbai Jews are descendants of Baghdadi Jews, which suggests further streams of migration, about which little is known. Perhaps Indian Jews need to record their Indian story, as Parsis have done. Currently, Whatsapp groups are reviving memories of Nawanagar ruler, Jam Saheb Digvijaysinghji, caring for 600 Polish Jewish children escaping Hitler’s heel. In all, approximately 20,000 Polish Jews took refuge in India during the War.


The visit includes cooperation in agriculture, culture, tourism, business (especially startups) and military and strategic affairs. Israel has avoided public mention of Iran, which periodically threatens its existence, but is a major trade and investment partner of India. Despite not supporting Tel Aviv on regime change in Syria, New Delhi has shown sensitivity to some of its legitimate concerns, shifting voting patterns at the United Nations and abstaining from resolutions on the Palestinian issue. In July 2014, India abstained in the vote on the UN report condemning Israel for Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza strip.


Israel’s generous military support at critical times has been appreciated by Gen. V.P. Malik. During the war with China in 1962, she provided 81 mm and 120 mm mortars and pack howitzer artillery guns, with ammunition. In the 1971 war for Bangladesh, Israel reportedly delayed sending back Pakistani F-86 Sabre aircraft sent to it for maintenance. And during the Kargil war, Israel speeded up delivery of the previously ordered UAV Searcher-1, sent UAV teams to train Indian crews, along with ammunition and satellite pictures; all while the war was still on.


Today, Israel is one of India’s most important weapons suppliers, after Russia and the US. Early this year, the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries announced a US$2 billion deal to supply air and missile defence systems to India; other deals are in the pipeline. The defence ties will involve co-development and co-production projects.


As the world’s best “start-up nation”, Israeli involvement could help with much needed technology and knowhow on water (managing, recycling, and desalinating water), agriculture and food security. There are already 15 fully operational joint Centers of Excellence under the Indo-Israeli Agricultural Project. Israel also has much to offer in health, environment, education, communications, cybernetics, space and security. Cyber security now transcends military security with the spread of banking, e-commerce, virus attacks, money laundering, and the need to protect sensitive digital data.


A highlight of the visit is the creation of a $40 million Innovation Fund to promote cooperation in hi-tech between the two countries. Israel has several military technology projects based on the “Make in India” programme, which include development of drones; thermal imager-based systems; air surveillance aerostats; strategic electronics and medium UAVs. Israeli scientists have used India’s excellent space technology to launch a nano satellite. Some of our big industrial houses have also begun to invest in Israel, though much more can be done in this field. All in all, this relationship could be a very giving one on both sides. 

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