Published in the Canadian Jewish News
On March 31, a brief news item, “Indian-Jewish ‘lost tribe’ make matzah for Passover,” appeared in The Times of Israel.
It described the activity of the “Bnei Menashe” community of Churachandpur, in a remote part of northeastern India, to bake matzah at a centre run by Shavei Israel, “a non-profit that seeks to connect ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ Jews to the Jewish state.”
In the last four years, Shavei Israel has brought 1,200 Indian Jews to Israel. Its director, Michael Freund, said: “We hope that after 27 centuries of exile, the remaining 7,000 Bnei Menashe still in India will be able to celebrate Passover next year in Jerusalem.”
The Bnei Menashe trace their lineage to the tribe of Manasseh, one of the Ten Lost Tribes exiled 2,700 years ago, by invading Assyrians, from what was then Israel (north of Judah).
The reminder in the story of the special connection between this community and present-day Israel comes at an equally special moment in the broader emerging relations between India and Israel. It’s a relationship that, while developing slowly over two decades, has recently blossomed and holds immense potential for rapid growth.
Almost two years ago, in the context of talking about Israel’s “pivot” to Asia, The Economist noted an unexpected anomaly: During a pro-forma UN Human Rights Council vote (in July, 2015) condemning Israel over the 2014 Gaza war, India was one of just five countries that abstained, while 41 voted for the condemnation, with the U.S. being the sole contra voice.
The Economist cited an unnamed, surprised Israeli diplomat: “For the first time in a major anti-Israel vote, India didn’t vote with the Arabs.”
While for years before, Israel and India, along with China and other Asian countries, had expanded trade – including high-value Israeli high-tech and arms sales – it was only when Narendra Modi emerged as India’s new, business-minded Prime Minister that attitudes toward the Jewish state began to shift.
One change meant that India, a traditional leader in the “Non-Aligned Movement” that automatically backed Arab anti-Israel diplomatic measures, at the UN and its bodies, could no longer be counted upon to do so. Just the opposite.
Yet India’s new and surprising warmth toward Israel – Modi may visit Israel this summer, the first visit to the Jewish state by an Indian head of government – isn’t the only surprise.
As India’s prominent Hindustan Times noted in a story by editor-in-chief Bobby Ghosh, what’s also surprising is that, in response to this proposed visit, “no Arab State has voiced any displeasure, not publicly, and not even through diplomatic back channels.” Ghosh calls this “nothing short of astonishing.”
Ghosh argues that major Arab states, especially Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, are looking to Israel as a counter to Shia Iran’s increasingly threatening incursions into the region – in addition to its nuclear program – and so are disinclined to protest India’s desire to build stronger ties with Israel. If anything, Ghosh suggests, Arab states may now be looking to Modi to convey messages to Israel.
The Saudis feel an existential threat from Iran’s designs on extensive oil reserves in Saudi eastern provinces, home to its 15% restive minority Shia population. The same concern has impelled Saudi Arabia’s participation in a war in Yemen against Iranian-backed, nominally Shia, Houthi rebels.
The full range of reasons for the deepening relationship between India and Israel is too extensive to be enumerated here, but it’s important to mention that given ongoing threats from Pakistan, especially over Kashmir, India looks to Israel for military and counter-terrorism expertise; with 1.3 billion people and an expanding, educated middle class, democratic India is a natural trading partner with democratic Israel in high-tech sectors, even if lagging Israel-China trade in this area; and India respects Israel’s agricultural, water, biomedical, and digital banking expertise.
The bottom line is that, according to Indian business leaders, Israel-India trade, currently about $5 billion per year, couldexpand to $30-40 billion.