The Thawing of Israel's Relationship with India

India once stood out for its frosty attitude toward the Jewish state. But lately there’s been a fascinating turnaround that’s both pragmatic and ideological.

Associate Director, Center for the Future of Liberal Society
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An election campaign banner showing Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Narendra Modi on September 11, 2019, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power has caused consternation in some parts of the Western world. The Biden administration has expressed its concern about several of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, and Britain admonished the new government to respect minorities, implying that it suspects it will do the opposite. While most European countries have been quieter about the new Israeli cabinet, Netanyahu’s unpopularity in the western half of the continent is well known.

India, by contrast, has greeted Netanyahu with equanimity. For a country that once stood out for its frosty attitude toward the Jewish state, this is a remarkable turnaround. That attitude dates back to the 1950s, when India became a founding member of the Nonaligned Movement that claimed neutrality during the cold war. Israelis and Westerners alike noticed, however, that the only sound more deafening than India’s condemnation of Britain and Israel in the 1956 Suez war was its silence as the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising at the same time. The nadir of Indo-Israeli relations came in 1975, when New Delhi voted in favor of the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution in the United Nations General Assembly. Relations have since improved, particularly under India’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and Netanyahu’s hardnosed politics and close personal relationship led many commentators to see the two leaders as foundational members of a nationalist, anti-liberal alignment that in some fevered imaginations includes Vladimir Putin.

These concerns are overblown, to a sometimes absurd degree, but there are important and revealing similarities between Zionism and Hindu nationalism that merit attention. Neither movement sees the world precisely the way that most Americans do, and both will strongly affect American prosperity and security in the years to come. Israel is already one of the closest of US allies, and its significance to American foreign policy is likely to increase as the Middle East becomes more unsettled. Of equal importance is its tech sector, which plays an outsized role in the global economy. India is part of the Quad partnership—along with the US, Japan, and Australia—in the Indo-Pacific, and is among the major powers that can contribute to maintaining stability in Asia and constraining Chinese ambitions. In both Israel and India, moreover, nationalism has emerged as a major political force, and Americans who understand their versions of nationalism will be better prepared for the world around them.

At first glance, the two countries could not be more dissimilar. The most obvious difference is size. India’s population of 1.4 billion is more than three times that of the European Union, while Israel has fewer people than thirteen of the 27 EU members. There are deeper differences, too: they have long histories that rarely intersect, their dominant languages do not share ancestries, and until recently Israel saw itself as allied with the West, while India decisively did not. In a certain sense, the fundamental principles of their civilizations are at odds: Hindu nationalist intellectuals frequently comment on the dissimilarities between “Indic” and “Abrahamic” faiths, and they often find the moral systems of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to be downright puzzling. Even so, some of the most important figures in Hindu nationalism saw in the Jewish people and Zionism something that reflected aspects of India that they wanted for their own country.

When the two countries were both ruled from London, Indian thinkers used the Jewish people to illustrate their idea of a Hindu nation and its right to independence from British colonial governance. For instance, Judaism’s role as both an ethnic and religious identity struck a chord with V.D. Savarkar (1883-1966), the intellectual who popularized the term Hindutva (Hinduness). Savarkar argued that what bound the Hindu nation was a holy land, common ancestry, and a shared culture, and that “no people in the world can more justly claim to get recognized as a racial unit than the Hindus and perhaps the Jews.” He also observed that “the ideal conditions” for knitting together a nation are “found in the case of those people who inhabit a land they adore,” and identified three places where these conditions applied: India, Arabia, and Mandatory Palestine.

Early leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), one of the most influential Hindu nationalist organizations, saw Western support for Zionism as an affirmation of their own principles. M.S. Golwalkar, the second leader of the RSS, saw the Jews of the 1930s as an example of why national groups needed territories of their own. As he put it, “with them live their religion, culture, and language. They are all still the same old Jews.” They are, however, “a people in name and are not a nation; . . . all they wanted was their natural territory to complete their Nationality.” To him, “the reconstruction of the Hebrew Nation in Palestine is just an affirmation of the fact that Country, Race, Religion, Culture, and Language must exist unavoidably together to form a full Nation idea,” one that he wanted to see implemented in India.

Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, an RSS member who after independence led the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a precursor to today’s ruling BJP, downplayed Golwalkar’s emphasis on race but kept an interest in Israel. In a series of speeches published in Integral Humanism, a book the BJP adopted as its ruling philosophy, Upadhyaya noted that, unlike other ancient civilizations, “Israeli Jews lived for centuries with other peoples scattered far and wide, yet they did not get annihilated in the societies in which they lived.” He argued that Israel demonstrated “that the source of national feeling is not in staying on a particular piece of land, but is in something else.” Unlike Savarkar and Golwalkar, who emphasized common ancestry, Upadhyaya claimed “when a group of persons lives with a goal, an ideal, a mission, and looks upon a particular piece of land as motherland, this group constitutes a nation.”

Upadhyaya’s search for India’s mission points to another resonance between Jewish and Hindu nationalism. The former BJP National General Secretary Ram Madhav, an admirer of Upadhyaya, describes this mission as dharma. In The Hindutva Paradigm, Madhav writes “in Deen Dayal’s opinion, [dharma] formed the basis for India’s national identity.” Although the term is often translated as “religion,” Madhav states that “Dharma doesn’t prescribe any one particular way of worship, nor does it prescribe any one single God.” Rather, it “propounds a value system that binds society together, and gives it a direction and life mission.” To Madhav, Indian social institutions fulfill their potential when they help Indians conform to dharma.

Madhav does not believe that the centrality of dharma was unique: other nations strive to follow a value system that they find within their own tradition. Like his predecessors, Madhav sees Israel as strikingly similar to India in this regard. To make his point, he quotes Shimon Peres’s claim in his book No Room for Small Dreams that “the Jewish people have lived by the guiding principle of tikkun olam, the ambition to improve the whole world, not just ourselves.” Peres saw “this simple set of values” is “the basis of our identity.” While many Jews would reject Peres’s assertions about tikkun olam, what matters for our purposes is that the term resonates with Madhav, who writes, “the choice of words shouldn’t be missed—‘set of values,’ ‘identity.’ . . . It is those words that constitute a distinct worldview, on the lines similar to Dharma.”

The similarities go beyond national ideology. Since gaining independence—less than year apart—the two countries have moved along parallel political trajectories, even if Israel, being smaller and nimbler, has generally travelled a few years ahead of India on this path. For the first few decades after the British withdrew, both were governed by a secular elite enamored of socialism and central planning. Jawaharlal Nehru was a more determined advocate of secularism than David Ben-Gurion, who allowed Judaism to play some role in Israel, but neither man was particularly religious. On economics, both would have fit more comfortably into the British Labor party or German Social Democrats than into the American Democratic party.

Over time, parts of their societies that felt ignored or disrespected by these elites rallied behind a more religious and socially conservative nationalist party that also adopted some pro-business, free-market policies. The Hindu nationalists won a governing majority in March 1977, two months before the Likud won its first plurality and formed a government, but they did so by merging with other parties that had opposed the two-year state of emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter. Whereas Menachem Begin drove his government’s agenda, the Hindu nationalists left the big-tent Janata Party in frustration after a few years, and the BJP did not form a stable majority of its own until 1998. In the ensuing decades, the left in Israel and India diminished, and ceased to be the natural ruling party of either country. The Likud has scrambled to regain power, and it is an open question how the BJP will fare electorally when Modi retires, but the right dominates the politics of both countries.

Despite these political similarities, it took many years before shared secured concerns began to drive New Delhi and Jerusalem together. Nehru recognized Israel’s independence in 1950, but the two countries only exchanged ambassadors in 1992. The first major Indian political figure to visit Israel was the BJP cofounder L.K. Advani, who brought several senior security officials from the Home Ministry with him on his June 2000 trip. After Jaswant Singh, his counterpart in the Foreign Ministry, followed Advani later than year, the two countries established a joint counterterrorism commission. Since then, the defense relationship has flourished: Israel has provided India with advanced capabilities for monitoring the border with Pakistan and other high-tech equipment, and soldiers carrying Tavor rifles—designed in Israel and made in India—are far from uncommon around government buildings in New Delhi.

The two nationalist movements collaborate effectively in part because they share an enemy: radical Islamic terrorism. Both countries became independent as Britain relinquished most of its imperial possessions following World War II, and both experienced a violent partition as the British left. Each nationalist movement has a fraught relationship with a Muslim neighbor that came into existence because of that partition, and both of these neighbors have harbored and aided terrorists. Hindu nationalists and Zionists also have a complicated relationship with the Muslim population within their borders. Despite this, the BJP has typically had a handful of Muslim parliamentarians, although the terms of their last three expired this summer. Zionists have historically been warier of the Muslim parties in Israel, many of which are anti-Zionist. Yet Begin urged the government to cease martial law over Israeli Arabs, Netanyahu courted Israeli Arab voters last year, and Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett included the Arab and Islamist Ra’am in their coalition during their time in government.

Both groups also have mixed feelings about European-style liberalism. Theodor Herzl’s main message to the Jews of Europe was that liberalism would not save them. Even though liberals like the Dreyfusards in France were stalwart advocates of Jewish rights, he warned, they were not powerful enough to hold out against the new generation of European politicians like Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna. Jews needed a state of their own to defend themselves.

Other Zionist thinkers, like Ze’ev Jabotinsky, sharpened this point after Herzl’s death, but events proved to be the most persuasive vindicator of Herzl’s argument. Since Israeli independence, the lesson that many Israelis have learned is that their neighborhood is violent and unstable, their neighbors are often untrustworthy, and Herzl was correct about the necessity of a Jewish state in a dangerous world. Israel has treated its non-Jewish minorities far better than most of its neighbors treated their Jewish populations, and it is a generally tolerant and free society, but most Israelis realize that these achievements must be guarded with a ring of steel—or, in Jabotinsky’s famous phrase, an Iron Wall. European criticisms about the situation of Palestinians or African refugees strike most Israelis as products of deluded fantasies.

Liberalism does not look much better in some parts of India. Indians got their most direct dose of European-style liberalism through the British empire, which they see as an alien conqueror that attempted to overthrow their way of life and selectively imposed its own values in a hypocritical and self-interested manner. The centrality of race to Savarkar’s and Golwalkar’s thinking is discomforting to modern readers, but it is remarkably similar to their British contemporaries’ discussion of “Anglo-Saxon” and “Asiatic” races. Swapan Dasgupta, one of the most articulate intellectuals on the Hindu right, notes that Golwalkar’s definition of race includes “Savarkar’s emphasis on civilization and history,” and is thus “different from the genetic orientation of the Nazi preoccupation with the Aryan race.”

When thinking about their own histories, both Israelis and Indians take great pride in the fact that their respective nations achieved independence after centuries of domination by foreigners. The Jewish claim is obvious, since there have been few and scattered examples of Jewish self-rule since Bar Kokhba’s defeat in 135 CE. Although British domination of India only began in the 18th century, Hindu nationalists assert that Indians lost their sovereignty when Muslim invaders arrived in the 9th century. Hence Modi’s lament that “the slave mentality of 1,200 years is troubling us,” a sentiment not unlike an earlier generation of Zionists’ emphasis on “negating the Diaspora” and its attendant modes of thinking. Madhav—who sees the history of foreign rule as going back even further, to such invaders as the Greeks under Alexander the Great—strikes a note familiar to Jews when he writes that the “state was under alien control. Yet, the nation didn’t cease to exist. The soul of this nation existed elsewhere.”

The role of the state in national life is one of the most important differences between Hindu nationalism and Zionism. Madhav argues that India’s soul existed “in its religions, culture, pilgrimages, social institutions, and many other entities.” Indeed, “the state as a political institution was seen as dispensable,” partly because the Mahabharata, a canonical Hindu epic, describes periods where a stateless India still acted according to dharma. For many Hindu nationalists, a society that governs itself with minimal interference from the state is an ideal toward which they strive. Zionism, by contrast, is very state-centric. Although some Zionist leaders like Jabotinsky favored the more limited state of English classical liberalism, Herzl pointedly named his most famous book Der Judenstaat and David Ben-Gurion’s concept of mamlakhtiyut (loosely, “statehood-ness”) remains a major part of Israeli political thinking. The need for a strong national defense has reinforced the importance of the state in Israeli life.

Zionists and Hindu nationalists also perceive very differently the root causes of their disputes with their Muslim neighbors. For some Hindu nationalists, the problem is rooted in Islam’s theology. Golwalkar stated in 1971 that “Indianization does not mean converting all people to Hinduism. . . . Rather we believe that a single religious system for the entire human society is not suitable.” Instead, he believed that “the God of Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism is the same and we are all His devotees. Give people true knowledge of Islam.” The RSS-affiliated journalist S. Gurumurthy has since argued that “the real problem of Hinduism lies in the theology of Islam and of Christianity. The problem is not the Muslims or Christians; not even the organized Church or the Mosque.” As he sees it, proselytizing faiths cause conflict because of “their fundamental religious belief that negates other faiths the right to exist.”

The implication of these arguments is that there cannot be peace unless Muslims agree that Hinduism and Islam are equally valid religions, or rather that a core tenet of Hinduism is correct and one of Islam’s is untrue. Judaism, with its rejection of proselytism, would by this standard be unproblematic to either Golwalkar or Gurumurthy. But Gurumurthy makes a much harder request of Muslims than any the Zionists have, even the more hardnosed ones like Jabotinsky or the followers of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. Ironically, although many Hindus claim that their religion embraces diversity better than the Abrahamic faiths do, in practice Zionists are often more tolerant of religious differences.

That being said, there is an important faction of Hindu nationalists pulling the group in a more humanistic direction. Dasgupta laments that “for decades, Hindu nationalism has had to confront charges of fascism on account of Golwalkar’s ironclad definition of nationhood that delineated the nation into two classes: Hindu citizens with rights and others who had no entitlements and lived under sufferance.” As he notes, this definition “went against the grain of nearly everything India stood for. Never mind the sections targeted, such an idea would be completely repugnant to the bulk of Hindus.” Hindu nationalist parties had to disassociate themselves from Golwalkar, but “this was not a terribly daunting project,” since “cultural nationalism” fit better into the RSS ideology than religious exclusion. The RSS disowned Golwalkar’s book on that topic in 2006, and the current RSS leader, Mohan Bhagwat, omitted Golwalkar from his 2018 lecture series about RSS ideology.

More immediately, both countries have complex internal politics and are threatened by dangerous neighbors: many countries have failed to protect their citizen’s liberties in much less challenging environments. Israel and India have proved doomsayers wrong time and again, and they have the tools to do so in the decades to come.

Although both democracies value their relationship with the United States, neither Israel nor India is a good fit for the NATO style of alliance that Americans often perceive as the gold standard. Unlike the Europeans, Israel does not wish for American forces to defend its territory, and India does not want to offer binding security guarantees to other countries. Even so, India is a key partner in the Quad, Israel is a central pillar of the Middle East’s security architecture, and the two countries have joined the United Arab Emirates and the United States to form the I2U2 group for deeper economic collaboration.

As this broadening cooperation demonstrates, Zionism and Hindu nationalism are helpful forces for Washington. Both movements have a complicated relationship with liberalism, one of the fundamental forces in American politics, but neither’s objections prevent them from working with the United States to accomplish shared goals. In both ideological and practical terms, they have far more in common with America than with authoritarian states like Russia, China, and Iran. That is not to say that there will always be smooth sailing in the future: some of the greatest accomplishments of the US-Israel partnership have followed some of the bitterest disagreements, and this pattern may very well continue into the future. Both movements have their excesses that will at times dismay and even outrage Americans, but they fundamentally accept a partnership that benefits the US. Alienating either group would be tragically counterproductive.

Since the end of the cold war, it has been fashionable for a certain type of American intellectual to describe the Arab-Israeli conflict as a vestige of a dark and receding past. In reality, the close bond with Israel has acquainted Americans with some of the forces that will shape the decades to come.

Read in Mosaic.