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Narendra Modi in Israel: PM's stress on a soft cultural approach to reinforce bilateral ties a win-win strategy

There are some interesting takeaways from Narendra Modi's recent interview to Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom. One expected slightly more intrepid responses to tricky questions from a man who has become the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, casting aside one of the most sacrosanct axioms of India's foreign policy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy PIB

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy PIB

But if Modi's action is bold, his words were not. On key issues regarding India's West Asia policy, Modi's answers were unremarkable and cautious. It was almost as if there are two Modis. One is staying put in Delhi while the other is flying to Israel. The words didn't match a prime minister who is audaciously de-hyphenating India's diplomatic relations with Israel and Palestine by not going to Ramallah. It is an interesting paradox that gives us a glimpse into the direction where he wants to guide Indo-Israeli ties.

For instance, to a question from the newspaper on whether India will now take a more pro-Israel stance at the UN, Modi replied: "Our positions at the UN are based on the merit of specific issues and driven by our core values and principles. We remain engaged with all our partners, including Israel, in finding optimal outcomes at the UN and other multilateral fora that reflect our commonly shared priorities and concerns. India is not in favor of singling out any country at the UN." In short, no assurances.

In reply to another question on whether India will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a sensitive issue that addresses Israel's sovereignty, Modi said: "We believe in a two-state solution in which both Israel and a future Palestinian state coexist peacefully. A final-status agreement should respect the sentiments and address demands of all affected parties… India supports all efforts to find an acceptable solution to all the pending issues, including Jerusalem. I assume the question refers to our embassy in Tel Aviv. We will take a decision on that after both sides have come to an agreement on Jerusalem." In short, status quo.

Now put his words into the context of a painstaking outreach programme to the Arab world before his visit to Israel and Modi suddenly emerges as a man not willing to radically overhaul Nehruvian geopolitical approach — as is being assumed — but in favour of a more graduated, incremental deviation. This policy would match Modi's administrative traits in other, diverse fields such as reforms where he has appeared to be more of a constant tinkerer.

If we settle for the assumption that on Israel Modi is likely to be an incrementalist, that brings us again to the paradox mentioned above. How to reconcile Modi's courageous resetting of bilateral ties with his bland statements? It is obvious that he is trying to strike a delicate balance but it isn't clear how he intends to pull it off. Cozying up too much to Israel on geopolitical front might indeed offend countries like Iran no matter how many outreach programs are undertaken.

One likely clue to the paradox emerges from the very interview. The interviewer, Israel Hayom editor Boaz Bismuth who arrived in New Delhi for the assignment, mentions in the report that "throughout the interview, he (Modi) makes a conscious effort to point out the deep ties between the Indian and Israeli peoples. He believes the two nations are soulmates."

This, right here, is the cornerstone of Modi's Israel policy. The prime minister wants to place the burgeoning relationship within the paradigm of an ancient civilisational connect. A radical improvement in bilateral ties is very much on Modi's agenda but in executing the strategy, Modi will rely on a soft cultural approach than a hard geopolitical grand strategy. What better way to do it than to stress on ties that go back a few centuries?

In his piece titled Modi in Israel: A civilizational bond comes of age Shalom Salomon Wald, co-author of the book India, Israel And The Jewish People, writes: "The contacts between the Indian and Jewish civilizations are much older than most people appreciate. Words of Sanskrit origin appeared in the Hebrew Bible 3,000 years ago, while Jewish authors of Roman times, rabbis of the Talmud, which is the Jewish religious law compendium, and Jewish traders and philosophers in the Middle Ages spoke of India."

The link between Hinduism and Judaism is deep and enduring and has been the subject of much research. Professors William Scott Green and Douglas Renfrew Brooks, writing in Sunday Guardian, call them "two foundational religions of the East and the West" and propound that both these non-proselytising faiths have shaped much of human civilization in ways that we are yet to fully explore.

In their words: "Hinduism and Judaism both create an architecture that permits diverse, complex ideas and values, but this commitment to foundational principles invites further comparison. Some scholars think that the foundational role of Hinduism and Judaism accounts for their largely non-missionary character. Both religions travel principally with people, rather than beliefs, with customs and practices, rather than dogmas or evangelists."

Other studies such as Barbara A Holdrege's Transcending the Textuality of Scripture, which compares Vedas with Torah and interprets scriptures more as living symbolisms than dead texts, points to a subterranean, multi-layered connect between Hinduism and Judaism. Some studies have noted that there are remarkable semantic similarities between Sanskrit and Hebrew.

Sadly, these areas have not received any government attention at least from the Indian side as we remain largely oblivious of the bond between two ancient civilisations. This has prompted some scholars to advocate making Jewish studies a necessary part of our higher studies curriculum.

In his piece for Swarajyamag titled High Time Jewish Studies Got Introduced In Indian Academia, Navras Jaat Aafreedi, assistant professor of history in Kolkata's Presidency University, writes: "India is yet to reciprocate the introduction of Indian Studies in Israel with the launch of Jewish Studies… in its academia. Although Indian Studies thrive at Israeli institutions of higher education, Jewish Studies are largely non-existent in India." He proposes that "a whole MA programme in Jewish Studies be established at an Indian institution, and offered as an alternative to Arab culture and Islamic studies", noting that Jewish studies are offered in courses around the world including in some Muslim nations.

A look at the prime minister's itinerary confirms the impression that rekindling the cultural connect, encouraging people-to-people ties and focusing on improved trade relations will be high on his agenda.

In a Facebook post ahead of the visit, Modi wrote about meeting "leading Indian and Israeli CEOs and startups to discuss our shared priority of expanding business and investment collaboration on the ground”, engaging with a "cross-section of Israeli society" and "interacting with the large vibrant Indian diaspora in Israel that represents an enduring link between our two peoples."

His itinerary also includes visiting the Israel Museum on Wednesday where totems such as "reconstruction of the Kadavumbagam synagogue from the town of Cochin" are on display — a 16th-century wooden structure that has an exquisitely carved and painted ceiling directly influenced by the decorations of mosques and Hindu temples,” according to a report in The Times of Israel.

His carefully calibrated programme also includes attending a community event that features a cultural programme and performances by Bollywood stars, meeting diamond merchants from Surat. He is also slated to meet members of the Jewish Indian community who are understandably looking forward to it.

"There's a lot of excitement," Elazar Ashtivker, owner of an Indian restaurant in the city of Ramla, south of Tel Aviv told news agency AFP. "Everyone has signed up and everyone is going. If you looked for Indians in Israel on the 5th you won't find any. They'll all be at the convention centre."

None of Modi's programmes are as significant as his proposed meeting with Moshe Holtzberg who lost his parents as a toddler during the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks. It symbolises at once the threat both countries face from Islamist terrorism and opens up yet another channel of linkage — one which is decidedly recent but no less significant. Sandra Samuels, the Indian nanny who saved the toddler from certain death during the attacks, has been given honorary Israeli citizenship and she is regularly in touch with Moshe.

His grandparents, according to a report in The Hindu, were overwhelmed when Prime Minister's Office requested a meeting and has decided to hold Moshe's 'bar mitzvah' at 13 (which has some similarities to 'sacred thread' ceremony in Hinduism) in Mumbai where they will invite the prime minister. “I could not believe my ears when I got a call from the Indian envoy saying that PM Modi wants to meet us. My immediate thoughts were that we have not been forgotten and that Indians share our pain,” grandfather Rabbi Shimon was quoted, as saying in the report.

If terrorism provides a visceral connection between India and Israel, cultural and spiritual connect provides a more enduring one. Stressing on these commonalities is the most non-invasive, least controversial approach that entails no major changes in our foreign policy and yet intensifies the bond between two nations who go back a few millennia.

Updated Date: Jul 04, 2017 19:03 PM

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