Tuesday, July 4, 2017

10 Ideas on Jewish-Hindu Relations

Alon Goshen-Gottstein
The visit of PM Modi to Israel celebrates 25 years of diplomatic relations. The visit will focus on agricultural projects as well as other commercial enterprises. The public agenda could in theory have been the same had the PM of China visited. There is, however, another agenda that makes India-Israel relations special. Imagine Modi would have come with ten Hindu religious leaders and ten religious scholars, and those religious voices would have sat down for a conversation with their Jewish counterparts. What would they have spoken about? What perspective on India-Israel relations could they offer that points to the deeper currents that tie the two nations together? What follows is the agenda for this virtual three day encounter, reflecting on the deeper meaning of Israel-India relations, from the perspective of Jewish-Hindu relations.
A preliminary clarification – While Israel does define itself as a Jewish state, India does not define itself as a Hindu state. It has a significant Muslim minority, that is in fact the second largest global Muslim constituency, as well as a sizable Christian community. However, PM Modi and his government do follow a Hindu-oriented agenda. The national (Israel/India) and religious (Jewish/Hindu) identities overlap in ways that justify reflection on the religious dimension, as well as its expressions in state structures.
The following 10 discussion points are broken down into 3 groups, featuring reciprocity, commonality and challenges.
Reciprocity Diplomatic relations are based on reciprocal recognition. Israel and India have recognized each other diplomatically in reciprocal ways and the present visit expresses maturity and flourishing of mutual recognition. What of religious recognition? Can we speak of reciprocity in mutual religious recognition? The following talking points suggest several difficulties in this regard.
1. Reciprocity of recognition as a distinct religion. Jews for the most part are aware of the fact that there is a religious tradition(s) that is particular to India and that is commonly referred to as Hinduism. Jews are accustomed to being recognized as a distinct faith community, following two millennia of living in the shadow of Christianity and Islam. It may therefore come as a surprise to learn that in many ways Judaism is not fully recognized in Indian public consciousness as a distinct religious tradition. There is a long history of Judaism being subsumed as a branch of Christianity, rather than appreciated as a self-standing tradition. The foundational writings of Swami Vivekananda, whom some would consider the founder of modern Hinduism, are a case in point. Major faith leaders in contemporary India, such as Sathya Sai Baba, had a hard time accounting for the distinctiveness of Judaism as a religion, and in many sections of India there is still no recognition of its particular identity. The reasons are primarily historical. Jews were a tiny minority. Most Indians never encountered Jews. At the same time, the Judaism they knew was refracted through New Testament polemics and was therefore subsumed as part of Christianity or as its forerunner. With the improvement in political relations and the high adulation that Israel enjoys in popular Indian culture this is slowly changing. However, the very issue of knowing Judaism’s distinctiveness and recognizing it as such is still one that must be addressed.
2. Reciprocity of interest. Perhaps as an extension of the previous point, one notes a lack of reciprocity in mutual interest. Israelis are fascinated by Indian culture. The roots of this fascination are much older than diplomatic relations. Israeli literature features India as a site for reflection and imagination for the better part of the 20th century. Opening the gates of India through diplomatic relations has led to a flood of Israeli visitors to India. Even if many of them go there for circumstantial reasons, there is a significant attraction to India that finds expression in mass travel. No parallel process exists. Indian travel to Israel is limited to business and study (and for Christians for pilgrimage as well). There is no parallel fascination with Jewish or Israeli culture.
3. Reciprocity of mutual learning. As a consequence of the previous two points we note total lack of reciprocity in academic studies. Indian studies and the study of Hinduism have a place in just about all major Israeli universities. By contrast, there is not a single chair in Judaism in the entire subcontinent. In introducing a book called Karmic Passages, a work that features the academic achievements of Israeli academics on things Indian, then Indian ambassador to Israel, Arun Singh, notes that Israel is probably the only country in the world where academic studies are the follow-up to in-person exposure to Indian culture, experienced by Israelis through their travels. There is no similar tradition of Hindus visiting Israel which would provide feeders for the Academy. Thus, lack of reciprocity extends to academic study, teaching and research. India is important for Israeli intellectual life. The reverse is not true. Let us, then, put on the agenda of the virtual encounter of minds, on the occasion of Modi’s visit, the challenge of increasing reciprocity.
There is an intuition that many feel that the Indian-Israeli/Hindu-Jewish relationship is special in important ways. Seen in the broader context of world religions and world cultures, this would be justified by appeal to commonalities, that tie these cultures together. One scholar of religion, Barbara Holdrege, has suggested several features that make these two communities similar – learning based, emphasizing action over belief (orthopraxy), embodiment in an ethnic community and being non-missionary. For our group’s deliberations, I would like to offer the following three talking points.
4. Commonality of foundational teachings. While all religions share in fundamental moral teachings (consider the emblematic golden rule), there are teachings of greater specificity that are shared between some traditions and not others. The teachings of the Kabbalah have particular resonance with teachings of the Hindu tradition in ways that allow them to mutually illuminate each other. The teaching of the kabbalistic sefirot, spiritual energy centers, and the yogic chakras are seen by many as reflecting the same structure and process. The kabbalistic Shekhina, feminine divine creative force and the Hindu Shakti can be similarly viewed as parallel teachings. The list can be expanded further and suggests fruitful areas for comparison, gaining insight and increasing appreciation between the two traditions.
5. The centrality of spirituality. Swami Vivekananda famously contrasted spiritual India with the material West. For many this rings true. One might consider the rush to India as partly justifying this view. Yet it must be reconsidered in the present context. Is Israel/Judaism part of the West? Can it really be presented as materialist? And for that matter, can Modi’s India really be presented as “spiritual”? The shock of the first time visitor to India, who comes with some spiritual expectation and discovers the “real” India, suggests the opposite.
There is a more balanced way of relating to spirituality. Israel and India are ancient cultures for whom the spiritual and religious life are central. This centrality has framed their history and has given birth to other religions that have spread beyond their geographic bounds (notably Christianity and Buddhism). Both continue to aspire to spiritual ideals. And here is the crucial point for our deliberations – both struggle to realize the challenges of spirituality in the face of the challenges of today’s world. Secularization, technology, exposure to external cultures and ideologies, the challenges of transmitting tradition – these challenges are common to both nations and both cultures. If we recognize that the encounter between these nations and cultures is a meeting point of classic spiritual aspirations and contemporary realities, our conversation will proceed along lines that will be mutually beneficial. We can then share survival strategies, educational lessons and the vision that is common to both traditions.
6. The commonality of God. Can we go beyond affirmation of “spirituality” to affirmation of belief in a common God? This is one of the biggest challenges facing these two religious cultures. A decade ago, a representative group of Hindu leaders met with some of the top representatives of the Jewish religion, including the Chief Rabbis of Israel. The Hindu group, and the initiative, were led by Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who was PM Modi’s Guru. Click here to read a blog on this visit.
Swami Dayananda considered one of the great achievements of the Jewish-Hindu religious summits to be the acceptance by all partiers that in fact Jews and Hindus worship the same God. Hindus, stated the common declaration, worship the Supreme Being only and not any lower form, even while the Supreme Being is worshipped through other forms. For Dayananda, this put to rest the charge of idolatry that Hindus felt was levelled against them by Jews (and other monotheists).
The challenge remains. I have devoted a book length study, titled Same God, Other god – Judaism, Hinduism, and the problem of Idolatry to this challenge. I am not convinced the problem has been resolved by an English language declaration that received next to no exposure on the Jewish side. I think a lot more has to be done in order to affirm commonality of belief in God. These efforts involve Jewish theological reflection, research data among Hindu believers, consideration of educational initiatives on the Hindu side, and above all much more sharing and dialogue. Cultures that have been estranged for millennia cannot close gaps in understanding in a matter of years, or even decades. This is one of the most formidable challenges, and one that can and should be addressed, even at the next convening of our imaginary council of the Jewish and Hindu wise, when the PM of Israel pays his reciprocal visit to India.
In addressing reciprocity and commonality we already discussed challenges that relate directly to Hindu-Jewish relations. Let us move on to challenges that Israel/Judaism and India/Hinduism share in common. These common challenges allow for fruitful exchanges and mutual learning.
7. The challenge of personal identity. Identity is a key feature of the Jewish encounter with Hinduism. My The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism – Wisdom, Spirituality, Identity explores this challenge at length. Maintaining Jewish identity is the primary concern of Jewish organizations globally, facing weakening of identity, assimilation and intermarriage. Conversion to another religion has been seen as a threat to Jewish continuity and survival for millennia. Jewish converts to Hinduism similarly challenge the Jewish community in that they are considered a loss to the Jewish community. This is a point to which Hindu leadership has shown very little sensitivity.
On the other hand, in recent years an age-old attitude of acceptance of Hindu conversion to other religions has given way to a more reactive approach that seeks to preserve Hindu identity in the face of missionary efforts. If, as suggested above, Judaism and Hinduism are both non-missionary, today they also share the concern for protecting their identities against missionary efforts. Swami Dayananda (Mudi’s guru) was A prime ideological mover in affirming Hindu opposition to Christian missionary work. ( Some perceived Jewish missionary work with the tribes of bene menashe has even got in the way of Jewish-Hindu relations). Significantly, Dayananda advanced the Jewish-Hindu leadership summits with the express goal of jointly combating missionaries. Concern for individual identity has now emerged as a common concern of both traditions.
8. Affirming collective identity. Israel struggles with its identity as a Jewish state. The struggle is ongoing. It seeks to balance ancient ideals and contemporary realities, the laws of old and present-day norms, the promises of old and today’s political realities. On the face of it, India does not seek to affirm an ancient culture through its statehood. And yet, increasingly, over past decades, there has been a rise in the aspirations of “hinduness” (hindutva) of the State. Modi came to power on the platform of a political party that seeks to affirm such identity. While the dynamics, challenges and how they translate into reality are different, there is one common concern that emerges in India and Israel – the place of religious minorities. Both countries are presently struggling with the implications of an affirmation, or a quest, for partial or full identification of the State with a particular religious worldview for religious minorities. Officially, both countries affirm full minority rights. Realities on the ground are more complex, fraught with tension and cause for concern. Here is a fruitful area for dialogue. Recognizing deeper similarities would allow each side to see itself in the mirror of the other and perhaps to draw some significant lessons.
9. Balancing religion and politics. Flowing from the previous point is the thorny issue of relations between religion and politics. Israel does not have Church-State separation; India does formally. Yet, with the rise of Hindu-oriented political parties, the political landscape is increasingly informed by religious concerns (and the religious landscape increasingly informed by political associations). The past week has seen how politics plays out in Israel and the Jewish world in relation to conversion and the status of the Western Wall. In India there are equally problematic expression of legislation by religiously oriented political parties, that have consequences for some parts of society. One of the hot topics in India is very recent legislation limiting the sale of cows, in an attempt to reduce or prevent cow slaughter. This issue has become a bone of contention, cause for riots and even killings. At the root is the challenge of mixing or balancing politics and religions, and how these play out especially in relation to minority religious groups. There is a lot to gain from a discussion across the traditions. Personally, I believe such a conversation can provide correctives to drives that all too often go unchecked when a tradition, or political party, simply follows its own mandate, based on particular religious teachings.
10. Advancing a culture of pluralism and dialogue. Indian spokespersons praise India for being religiously tolerant and consider this an expression of Hindu culture. Yet, reality on the ground is shifting. Moreover, Indian pluralism is often based on lack of meaningful contact beyond daily living. Superficial tolerance often breeds deeper lack of acceptance. Today’s India is experiencing this increasingly. The roots of intergroup intolerance remain unchecked. India has a very little developed culture of interreligious dialogue. I have seen this in my efforts to bring the know-how of dialogue to Indian religious leaders and academics. Even more significantly, it has a very low level of religious literacy in all that concerns other religions. Due to State-Church separation, no religion is taught in the school system and therefore opportunities for educating to a culture of tolerance and acceptance based on real knowledge of the other are almost non-existent.
This paradigm is very different from the paradigm that informs large parts of the Western world, especially the English speaking world, where educational efforts include religious pluralism. Sadly, in this respect Israel is much more like India than it is like parts of the Western world. Ignorance of the religious other is rampant and engagement in constructive encounter and dialogue a low national and educational priority.
A three day visit is probably not enough time for our imaginary group of leaders and scholars to engage all these issues. But it is an occasion for recalling that much more ties Israel to India than agriculture or the sale of military equipment. The relationship holds huge promise, but such promise also requires a spirit of honest exchange and interrogation, that would allow both nations to advance in their respective societal missions through dialogue with the contemporary reality of the other. Let us hope that this imaginary conversation can one day be made real, to the benefit of Jews, Hindus and all members of the states of India and Israel.

An Iranian role in Indo-Israel defense ties

Sourajit Aiyer
With the start of Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Israel, it is opportune to discuss what can influence areas of mutual partnership between Israel and India. Defense is one area, and its future seems partially dependant on Iran. Iran and Israel are longtime foes, however, the standard dogma may need some adjustment at times to ensure a constructive commercial relationship in line with contemporary concerns. The Israelis, known for their pragmatism, may see the reasoning behind Iran’s role in determining the future of Indo-Israeli defense partnership.

 First, there is the Pakistani-Chinese military presence in Pakistan’s port city, Gwadar, which poses a threat to India’s coastline and its assets in southeast Iran. Pakistan was the country where Bin Laden was found in 2011, where, in 1999, an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked to, and where US journalist Daniel Pearl was killed by terrorists in 2002. So far, Pakistan has failed to act decisively on Islamist proxies like Hafiz Saeed, Syed Salahuddin and Masood Azhar, who continue to threaten India.
Any plans India has for overland connectivity into Central Asia for trade and economic linkages cannot bear fruit with a transit route through Pakistan. The only other option for that is transit through Iran, hence a need for India to act fast on its project to build a port in the southeastern Iranian city of Chabahar. But the Iran-Pakistan border is already heated up, following the recent killing of ten Iranian border guards by Sunni militants from Pakistani soil. Such attacks can hit Indian assets in Chabahar too. With China taking over Pakistan’s Gwadar port, the fear in India is that Gwadar will become a Chinese Naval base intimidating India from close quarters.
Given these imperatives, India might explore establishing some form of a defense presence in Chabahar, 70 km west of Gwadar. Whether Iran will allow Indian defense presence on its soil remains debatable, especially as the Chinese are now actively wooing the Iranians to extend its massive Belt and Road Initiative, sometimes called the New Silk Road. Nevertheless, the Indian defense presence in Iran (and/or extending into Afghanistan) may help protect the Indian assets being constructed there. Thus, Chabahar has tactical importance for the Indian defense to keep a counter-pressure on Pakistan/China from the other side. This would mean a significant opportunity for Israel to meet India’s increased requirement. Israel had already filled the supply-gap after the Glenn Amendment adopted after India’s 1998 nuclear tests restricted arms sales from US/Europe, which had filled the gap in the 1990s following the USSR’s collapse. According to the SIPRI, Indo-Israeli defense trade averaged about $1 billion a year during the last five years, and Israel ranks as one of India’s largest defense suppliers today. But the military threat from Gwadar poses a strong rationale to take the Indo-Israeli defense cooperation to the next level, and one way for it can be through Iran!
Second, the borders along Jammu and Kashmir face an ongoing threat from Pakistan-based terrorists and its army, and Indo-Israeli partnership has worked well so far in technologies related to border-control, radars, identifying insurgents hiding in caves, etc. However, the increasingly assertive Chinese military presence adds a further dimension. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor project, part of which runs through disputed Kashmir soil, has meant increased military deployment along its line to counter threats from insurgents; the Chinese military to control East Turkestan insurgents in Xinjiang and the Pakistani military to control Taliban insurgents in KPK, etc. This military deployment could also be used to intimidate India, especially as the Chinese become increasingly assertive in expanding its geopolitical influence along the high-seas and contentious borders.
The realistic chances of China opting for an armed conflict with India along its own borders may be less, since it would lead to collateral damage on its own soil, not to mention an opportunity for Xinjiang insurgents to take some advantage with the Chinese military preoccupied elsewhere. However, this threat to India continues, and its need for defense supply will continue. China has nothing to lose by engaging in an armed conflict from its naval base in Gwadar, backed by its ever-increasing military presence along the Indian Ocean. The collateral damage would be on Pakistani soil, and it would not impact Xinjiang significantly. This brings the discussion back to Chabahar. Thus, Chabahar has strategic importance for the Indian defense to keep a counter-pressure on Pakistan/China from the other side.
Why would Iran allow Indian defense presence on its soil? President Rouhani announced plans for job-creation in his first term. But this was yet to show full results, and the Opposition raised voice on this during the recent campaigns. This agenda is now top-most for Rouhani in his new term. Development of the Chabahar port and free-trade zone, Afghanistan Corridor and the International North–South Transport Corridor can be a game-changer in job-creation, which can help Rouhani win significant political dividends from voters. China has approached Iran, given India’s delays on the Chabahar project. However, most BRI projects have been seen to employ significant Chinese labour, as per anecdotes in the book “China’s Silent Army” in which two journalists travelled several countries to see Chinese outbound projects up-close. That may not address the job-creation challenge Iran faces. Conversely, India is not known to employ significant Indian labour in its outbound projects. If Indian defense presence can help it close the Chabahar and Corridor projects fast using Iranian labour, there exists an opportunity for Rouhani to earn political mileage by addressing a key socio-economic challenge.
In the end, Israel seeing eye-to-eye with Iran is unlikely given their past and the recent Saudi-Qatar rift. However, Israel is actively looking to further its relations with India. In that context, whatever benefits India may in turn benefit Israel, even if indirectly through Iran. The Pak-Sino military threat remains a huge overhang, and the role of Chabahar as a potential strategic and tactical base for Indian defense can be a game-changer in the future course of Indo-Pak relations, and in the future course of Indo-Israeli defense partnership. During PM Modi’s visit to Israel, it may just be opportune to bring Chabahar into the agenda!

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