Thousands of Indians from all over Israel crowded enthusiastically into a Tel Aviv convention center on Wednesday evening to attend a rock concert-meets-political rally, complete with pop music and speeches from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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Complete with strobe lights and huge screens, the hanger-like space resembled a rock concert, as Bollywood singer Sukhwinder Singh performed energetically and warmed the crowd up with rhythmic calls of “India and Israel!” between numbers. Dozens of posters hung on the walls (most in English and a few in Hebrew) welcoming Modi, calling him “The Creator of Modern India,” and carrying logos for the “25 years of growing partnership” between India and Israel.
The event was one of the public highlights of Modi’s three-day visit to Israel, the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister, and was organized by the Indian Embassy, which had chartered buses to bring in Indian citizens from all over Israel.
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During Modi's visit, Israel and India have signed a series of agreements to cooperate in fields such as space, agriculture, technology and water conservation. They have also signed agreements regarding defense, shared intelligence and anti-terrorism activity, although these have been played down in both the style and the public content of the visit, which has emphasized shared cultural values, and people-to-people ties.
Dozens of people gathered in small groups in the plaza outside the hall despite the Tel Aviv heat, waving flags and dancing traditional dances. “Jai (Glory to) India! Jai to Israel,” many called out spontaneously.
A bit breathless from dancing, Joseph Sofer, 43, who moved to Israel from Mumbai five years ago and now works in a public relations firm in Tel Aviv, explained that Modi, who took office three years ago, has arranged these types of events on almost all of his official visits. “There were thousands of people in Madison Square Garden when he visited New York,” Sofer said.
“Modi knows that there are millions of Indian-born people who live outside of India, some for good, some for a few years. He knows that the Indian Diaspora is important, both diplomatically and economically.”
According to the Indian Embassy, there are an estimated 80,000 Jews of Indian-origin living in Israel. Although diplomatic relations between the two countries were established 25 years ago, and have been based on extensive sales of weapons, scientific exchanges, and economic trade, publicly, the relationship has remained cold. “I always felt like Israel was more like a mistress to India than a partner,” said Shoshana Sassoon, 52, a housewife who came to Israel just after the two countries signed the first diplomatic accords.
Sassoon said that she had not been back to India since coming to Israel but now, in the excitement, she is thinking that she might want to return for a visit. “Modi is saying that we who live in Israel are part of the Indian Diaspora and part of India. I can come close to my Indian side now.”
Watching the dancing, Riya Thomas, 18, an electrical engineering student at Tel Aviv University from Bangalore, said that Modi’s message of renewed and enhanced relationships is particularly important for young people like her.
“We can come here and learn from your expertise, and bring our knowledge back to India, where we can help our country advance even further. Modi’s visit signals new opportunities – for our country, and for many of us as individuals." According to the Indian Embassy, there are currently some 550 Indian students studying at Israeli universities, most in doctoral and post-doctoral programs, and most funded by special programs that provide scholarships for them to come to Israel.
“He’s coming! He’s inside!” people called out, and all ran into the hanger as Netanyahu and Modi walked onto the stage.
In their speeches, both leaders continued to emphasize historical, cultural and social ties. After the singing of the two national anthems, as thousands of smartphones filmed, Netanyahu greeted the audience with “Shalom and Namaste,” pressing his hands together and bowing slightly, in accordance with Hindu custom.
The crowd roared and continued to interrupt his speech with wildly appreciative applause at least a dozen times more.
“The partnership between our two countries is a partnership made in heaven,” declared Netanyahu, who spoke in English. “But it’s happening right now, here on earth we will always remember that there is a human bridge between us. We admire you, we respect you, we love you.”
Modi, who spoke mostly in Hindi as his quotes were tweeted in English, emphasized the many achievements of the Jewish people throughout the world, as well as their cultural and economic contributions to India. "Our ties are a sign of our friendship and dependability,” Modi said.
He emphasized the friendship between the two leaders and the two men. “Last night we were chatting late after dinner. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu gave me a photograph of Indian soldiers from World War Two who helped free Jerusalem,” he told the audience.
Noting that this was the first ever visit by an Indian premier to Israel, Modi said, “This meeting is a matter of joyIt took many years for this visit to happen.”
“He didn’t have to say why it took so long,” said Hitender Jha, 41, an IT professional who has lived in Israel for 4 years. “We all know that it was because of geopolitics – the dependence on the Gulf countries, the Muslims in India that want us to support Palestine. But Modi is both open and a nationalist, and he will find a way to do what is best for India, including these relationships with Israel.”