I have had a confused perspective on Jews and Israel, like many Indians. As a child, I read about Anne Frank and the gas chambers. As a teenager, I was impressed by how Israelis tamed the desert and also by their stunning military victories.
But when I was a student, I encountered some Palestinians. I began to view Israel as a European power in Asia; Israel appeared to be a white imperial state. In grad school, I used to harangue a poor Israeli classmate on how badly Israel treated its second-class citizens. Sorry, Iddo!
I changed my mind again when I read Samuel Huntington on the clash of civilizations. I realized that Israel was, like India, a small, vulnerable island surrounded by a pullulating ocean of enemies who loathe it with an implacable religious hatred.
One fact unites the two nations at a visceral level: that great principle, survival. Both nations are victims of terrorism: Israel’s victimhood is at least recognized; India’s victimhood, going back to Arab invasions in the 7th century and on a much larger scale (perhaps 100 million massacred), is always swept under the carpet.
Survival is a principal necessity: Maslow’s hierarchy and self-actualization all come later. Israel and India have an excellent reason to ally to contain and deflect terrorist violence; but, caught up in the inane Non-Aligned Movement, India rejected Israel’s overtures, much to its disadvantage. For instance, Israel offered long ago to wipe out Pakistan’s Kahuta nuclear complex. India merely needed to provide logistics and refueling for warplanes, but didn’t.
That’s the macro front. On the micro front, Jewish-Americans have shown over the past 60 years how a small but well-organized minority can have an enormous impact on American foreign policy. Indian-Americans watch with envy—their own wealth has not (yet) translated into corresponding clout in Washington, DC.
But Jewish influence did not come overnight: within living memory, hotels had signs that said, “No blacks and Jews.” Immigrant Jews have come to dominate key sectors of the economy and professions, and that has led to policy clout. Indians in the U.S. should follow the trail blazed by Jews before them.
On a cultural level, too, many Jews have habits that Indians relate to: they value education, they have a sense of community, a sense of history, and a realization that great wrongs may have been done to them, but they can yet again become a great people. There are significant differences, too—Jews being Abrahamic people of the desert, while Hindu Indians at least are Indic people of the forest, with diametrically opposite world-views—but that is fine if you believe in the tried and tested dictum of permanent interests, not permanent allies. Trust, but verify.
Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Mumbai, India.
No, such a move would be myopic
Most Capitol Hill events sponsored by the India lobby are a cross between the tragic and the comedic. There’s the humor contained in the veneer of serious business: members of Congress deliver reliable platitudes about the importance of U.S.-India relations, receive flower garlands, and indulge in Indian food.
The tragedy? The Congressmen in question are likely to receive hefty sums for their campaign coffers from Indian-American supporters, who ask for little more than a photo shoot. Yet the tragedy isn’t that the India lobby isn’t asking for anything. It’s that this charade continues when there’s nothing of particular importance to ask for.
The usual work of an ethnic lobby involves pushing a domestic agenda or promoting a bi-lateral partnership. Indian-Americans represent a diverse, diffuse population of two million, who occupy a spectrum of views on everything from crime to outsourcing, which no single agenda could hold.
India and America have grown closer through the wise counsel of diplomats and the recognition of shared values. This is a product of leadership—not lobbying.
So what is a lobby to do when its work is either already being done or doesn’t need doing? Some in the India lobby have turned to powerful Israeli-American organizations for help, but this is a desperate and misguided move.
The conventional wisdom holds that India and Israel have a natural and persistent interest in working together because they both face threats from terrorism and neighboring Muslim nations. This is a gross oversimplification, which ignores, among other things, the experience of 140 million Muslims living in India. But even if this view has some truth on the macro level, the way it translates on the micro level is in the form of anti-Muslim fear-mongering—hardly a noble goal for the India lobby, which is only beginning to make its impression felt and which counts Indian-American Muslims among its constituency.
The partnership between the India and Israel lobbies is mismatched. The Israel lobby occupies a distinct space in American politics born of a unique historical experience. Domestic discrimination against Jewish-Americans was cause enough to organize and seek representation, but equally important was the diplomatic ambivalence on the part of U.S. toward Israel. Recall that both the Departments of War and State under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were skittish about American involvement in Israeli affairs, and that even the highly respected Secretary of State, George Marshall, advised against the recognition of Israel.
These issues were urgent and important, and the plain truth is that the work of the India lobby will probably never reach the same level of historical gravity as that of the Israel lobby. But this shouldn’t be cause for concern: in fact, it’s a positive statement on the experience of Indians in America and on the health of American democracy.
Jimmy Soni is a Mitchell Scholar at the University College Cork, Ireland.