Israel and India's Growing Alliance


Israel and India's Growing Alliance

Milo Comerford

11 Dec 2015

The two allies, one majority Jewish, the other majority Hindu, are seeing a growth in domestic religious extremism. And both are lumped together as 'enemies of Islam' by jihadis.

In Israel, where security rhetoric is dominated by Islamist groups and Palestinian militancy, the killing of a Palestinian infant in an arson attack and an Israeli youth at a gay pride march this summer highlighted the threat Jewish extremism poses.

So-called 'price tag' attacks, perpetrated in purported revenge for the Israeli government's restrictions on settlement activities and often also to express anti-Arab sentiment, have become increasingly prominent on both sides of the Green Line. An attack in June on the Catholic Church of the Multiplication on the Sea of Galilee highlighted the clear religious motivation of such  extremism; the words "false idols will be smashed," taken from a Jewish prayer, were written on the church walls.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, much analysis of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's victory at the polls last year focused on the significance of Hindu nationalist organisations in garnering support for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since then, a number of incidents have shown the  increasing influence of the religious right in India's social and political spheres. At Christmas last year, a campaign of ghar wapsi ('homecoming') was launched to 're-convert' 5,000 Muslims and 1,000 Christians 'back' to Hinduism. The campaign counted with the support of prominent political leaders; a blind eye was turned by many more.

This year, Hindu nationalist violence was brought back into the public eye after a series of mob attacks. These attacks saw Muslim men beaten to death for their supposed slaughter of cows, an animal sacred to India's Hindu majority, and consumption of beef. Pictures of 'vigilante squads' protecting cows followed, alongside stories of members of India's Muslim minority being harrassed.

Although not linked, these incidents in India and Israel demonstrate a wider trend in both countries: The growth of the religious right, and of extremist actors. In India and Israel this growth has, at its heart, an obsession with moral education and a reverence for national symbols, culture and history, according to  Pankaj Mishra.

The two countries also share a relatively similar founding philosophy. Both were founded according to a secular vision within a year of each other, but have become increasingly dominated by religious political actors. Both have seen the conflation and blurring of religion and state by powerful lobbies and sub-state groups, violent and non-violent.

Though now used as an increasingly divisive political tool in these traditionally pluralistic countries, religion played an important role in the founding narratives of both Israel and India. Many politicians in Delhi saw significant parallels after the Second World War between the establishment of the Jewish state and Indians seeking a homeland based on historical precedent.

In the 1940s, a number of Hindu nationalists were prominent supporters of the creation of the State of Israel, including Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a prominent proponent of the right-wing Hindutva ideology, who condemned India's vote against Israel's admission to the United Nations in 1949.  Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar admired Jewish nationalism and believed Palestine was the natural territory of the Jewish people, essential to their aspiration for nationhood. Mahatma Gandhi believed that the Jews had a good case and a prior claim for Israel, but  opposed the creation of  a religious state on mandated terms.

Strategic and ideological bonds between India and Israel may be stronger now than ever.

This affinity continues to this day. According to a  2009 study commissioned by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, India has the greatest level of sympathy towards Israel in the world, with 58% of respondents showing sympathy towards Israel.

India has traditionally supported the Palestinian cause, voting in its favour at the UN. New Delhi also runs an office in the West Bank city of Ramallah to liaise with the Palestinian Authority. This strong connection has sometimes come at the expense of relations with Israel.  The current geopolitical landscape, however, means that the strategic and ideological bonds between the two allies are perhaps stronger now than ever before.

India and Israel's leaders are growing closer, too. When Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election in March 2015, Modi was extremely keen to commend his counterpart, tweeting congratulations in Hebrew. Long-standing plans put Modi down as becoming the first Indian PM to visit Israel. Indeed Netanyahu even sent one of his most trusted aides to New Delhi in September to enquire about the delay in announcing Modi's trip. The two countries work increasingly closely on counter-terrorism and defence, as well as on agriculture, and the water and energy sectors.

The singling out of Israel and India, or more commonly Judaism and Hinduism, in jihadi propaganda, may be at least a partial explanation for this increased mutual defensiveness. The Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba have labelled Hindus and Jews the "enemies of Islam." The group, which has a highly ambivalent relationship with the Pakistani state, was therefore making the leap to framing India and Israel as "enemies of Pakistan." In a pamphlet Why Are We Waging Jihad? the group outlines its goal as the restoration of Islamic rule over all of India. It declared India, alongside Israel and the United States, existential enemies of Islam.

Professor Khurshid Ahmad, the leading ideologue of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist organisation, argues that the US ruling elite, in collusion with "Zionist Israel" and "Hindu India" (what former Pakistani Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani  describes as the Islamist "axis of evil") is determined to deny  Muslims their rightful place in the modern world. Both ISIS and South Asian al-Qaeda franchises make reference to a "Crusader-Zionist-Hindu plot" against Islam in their propaganda.

Societal divisions on religious lines play into the binary narratives of jihadi propagandists. As Israel and India draw ever closer together, in their fight against the real threat of extremism and militancy and in other arenas, their respective governments must be careful to avoid tendencies towards religious majoritarianism.

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