Opinion |

Israel's Founding Father David Ben-Gurion’s One-sided Love Affair With India’s Jawaharlal Nehru

Six decades after his death, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru is making headlines again, hand-in-hand with Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion, whom Nehru cold-shouldered during his lifetime

Khinvraj Jangid
Khinvraj Jangid
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David Ben-Gurion and Jawaharlal Nehru, founders and first prime ministers of Israel and India, respectively
David Ben-Gurion and Jawaharlal Nehru, founders and first prime ministers of Israel and India, respectivelyCredit: David Eldan/La'am, Mark Neiman/La'am and AP
Khinvraj Jangid
Khinvraj Jangid

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is making international headlines, nearly six decades after his death.

At home, a former prime minister asks, pointedly, why the current Modi government constantly blames Nehru for, well, almost everything that’s wrong with the country.

Abroad, Singapore’s prime minister praises figures, like Nehru, "of great courage, immense culture and outstanding ability" who led their countries "through the crucible of fire" to independence, and how debased their idealism and standards of behavior have become in present-day India, not least in terms of its parliamentarians.

"Nehru’s India has become one where…almost half the MPs in the Lok Sabha have criminal charges pending against them, including charges of rape and murder."

Lee Hsien Loong paired another heroic state founder with Nehru: David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first premier, who likewise "emerged as [a] leader of men and nations." For the Singaporean leader, Israel also presents a sad tale of the decline of trust and values as expressed by its elected representatives. "Ben-Gurion’s Israel has morphed into one …[where] a stream of senior politicians and officials in Israel face a litany of criminal charges, some have gone to jail."

What would Nehru and Ben-Gurion themselves have thought of being bracketed together this way? Ben-Gurion would most probably been delighted; he lived in hope that India would consummate its relations with the Jewish state. Nehru would have been less elated.

Now, as India and Israel celebrate 30 years of belated, but full, diplomatic relations, how did India pivot away so definitively from Nehru’s stance? Did he ever feel the pull of partnership or shared destiny with the state born a year after he declared India’s independence? And what is left of Nehru’s India, and Ben-Gurion’s Israel?

It’s hard to imagine now, with the images of Modi and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frolicking in the shallows on an Israeli beach still fresh in our memories, that India had to "cross the Rubicon" in the early 1990s when it revised both its foreign policy alignments and its economic policy, towards free market principles. It was during this transition period that Israel and India finally exchanged ambassadors.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Olga Beach, October 9, 2017.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

Despite Israel’s explicit interest in diplomatic relations, Indian leaders like Nehru and later his daughter Indira Gandhi, who dominated Indian foreign policy, were unpersuaded. Ben-Gurion made several attempts to progress the issue, and waited patiently for decades for results, but Nehru’s India kept its distance from Zionism and the State of Israel.

During the United Nations vote on the partition plan of Palestine in1947, India voted against partition and suggested that there be a federal state for both Palestinians and Jews. The UN plan proposed two states, advised an economic union for both and international governance for the holy city of Jerusalem.

Sadly, partition was rejected by both Arab states and Palestinian nationalists. The State of Israel was established as war was raging in 1948 and India took its time to offer even basic recognition, which it did in 1950, a policy that came to be known as "recognition without relations.”

During the Cold War, India was a non-aligned state, but that did not mean passivity: Nehru had an activist foreign policy, engaging directly with major world issues.

Indian students wave near a giant portrait of the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru on a school building in Ahmadabad, IndiaCredit: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

To Nehru, Zionism was incompatible with other anti-colonial national movements in Asia and Africa. Zionist leaders had worked with the British empire when in 1917 they sought help from the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, to recognize Jewish national claims in Palestine.

According to Nehru’s worldview, Zionist nationalists relied more on the imperial power and less on negotiating terms with the Palestinian Arabs. India, he believed, was morally bound to back the Arab and Palestinian opposition to partition.

He ascribed the dearth of peace after the 1948 war to Israeli aggression, such as the 1956 Suez-Sinai campaign’s invasion of Egypt in league with the ex-imperial states of France and Britain as much as to Arab-Palestinian rejectionism. In brief, Nehru expected more from Israel before he could extend diplomatic ties.

After independence in 1947, Israel remained a "most controversial and deeply divisive" subject in India’s foreign policy discourse, the diplomatic historian P.R. Kumaraswamy has noted. "While Israel eagerly sought close ties, Nehru’s India was reluctant and coy” towards the State of Israel."

Indian government's official celebration of 75 years of independence omits Nehru from its pantheon

There was one small window in time when Nehru was apparently amenable to establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel: In March 1952. In his dual role as prime minister and foreign minister, he instructed civil servants to prepare a budget for establishing a resident mission in Tel Aviv.

Walter Eytan, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1948-59), was a key factor in Israel’s pursuit of India. He was informed that following the first parliamentary elections of free India, "within the next few weeks," a formal announcement would follow.

However, nothing happened: According to Ben-Gurion, Nehru "did not keep his word," and did not even deign to explain what happened or, more generally, his ambivalence or opposition to Israel. As a result, a perplexed Ben-Gurion stated in 1959, "India, under the leadership of that illustrious statesman, Mr. Nehru, refuses to establish normal relations with Israel, although he has repeatedly promised our representatives to do so."

Nehru had more immediate concerns than dealing with the question of Israel. India, after partition, was consumed by concerns about Pakistan and the dispute over Kashmir, which soon became international as Nehru chose to take that issue to the UN – indeed, quite some faith he invested there.

A commonly-referenced argument for Nehru’s coldness towards Israel is that it was the result of his fears of a possible adverse reaction by Indian Muslims. In my opinion, this argument does not stand up. He was too secure, confident and popular leader to be jolted by an unsubstantiated claim about a potential Muslim reaction. Moreover, Indian Muslims did not mind when relations were actually established in 1992.

Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru meets Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s children at the president’s home in Cairo in 1960 Credit: AP Photo

In fact, the real motivation for India’s reluctance was its concern about a backlash from Arab states, who were perceived to be critical for India’s struggle against Pakistan over Kashmir. India wanted Arab states to support its claim and, as a result, presenting its dedication to the Palestinian cause, and rejecting warmer ties with Israel, was India’s offer of solidarity with the Arabs.

This geopolitical deal was not to everyone’s taste, even for senior members of Nehru’s own Congress party. J.B. Kripalani, an eminent party leader and its president during 1946-47, expressed his anguish over India’s non-relations with Israel.

"I myself have visited Israel. I personally met Mr David Ben-Gurion at his Ashram [an interesting choice of word for the kibbutz, Sde Boker, where Ben-Gurion lived] in the Negev. I know the interest that he took in our ancient wisdom. I have already spoken in Parliament that we should have close relations with Israel.

"But our government is afraid of the Arab countries. Though they do not help us in any way," he wrote in a letter to an Israeli friend in April 1966, two years after Nehru’s death.

King Saud of Saudi Arabia flanked by India's President Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru arriving in New Delhi, 1955. The king brought an entourage of 224 people in five planesCredit: AP Photo

Nehru, committed as he was to the ideas of non-alignment, anti-imperialism and Third World solidarity, found greater moral value in directing his activist foreign policy towards standing with the Palestinian people. He was deeply aware of the problems faced by the Jews in Europe and their long history in exile, yet he could not ignore the great power politics in which Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion and others participated.

In his famous book, "Glimpses of World History" (1942), Nehru wrote glowingly about the Jews:

"Jews are a very remarkable people…They had no home or nation, and everywhere they went they were treated as unwelcome and undesirable strangers. They were humiliated, reviled, tortured, and massacred: the very word ‘Jew’ became word of abuse. And yet these amazing people not only survived all this, but managed to keep their racial and cultural characteristics, and prospered and produced a host of great men." The reference to “racial characteristics” is a product of its time, as is his omission of any great women.

Ben-Gurion liked Nehru, even admired him, irrespective of his criticism of Israel and his favoritism towards the Palestinian cause. This was an unprecedented and perhaps unrepeatable phenomenon in Israeli diplomatic history. The "Old Man," as he was known, was greatly inspired by Nehru’s drive for modernization, his secular politics and his socialist instincts.

Indian National Congress campaign poster featuring Jawaharlal Nehru for the 1951-52 elections. The poster reads 'for a stable, secular, progressive state; VOTE CONGRESS'Credit: Indian National Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Ben-Gurion spoke very fondly of Nehru in his meeting with U.S. President John F. Kennedy, in May 1961: "It is not for me to judge him [for his frostiness towards Israel]. He is a great man. I admire him. There is democracy in India; it is the only country in Asia which is democratic except Japan. If Nehru goes, I am not sure what will happen; but [for] now it has democracy."

It is interesting that Ben-Gurion had such a laudatory view of Nehru, given that a full decade after India’s recognition of Israel in 1950, the former was still reluctant to establish full diplomatic ties. Ben-Gurion similarly extolled "the illustrious leader" in the Knesset in May 1958, while responding to another parliamentarian’s comments about Nehru’s anti-Israel stand. In defense of Nehru, Ben-Gurion said, "the great Indian statesman will ultimately fulfil his promise" because his opposition to relations was "connected with tactics not principles."

It was an unusual faith for Ben-Gurion to carry – much like a one-sided love affair, yet he remained admirer of Nehru’s India until his last days, just as he placed a portrait of Gandhi in his bedroom at Sde Boker.

David Ben-Gurion in the library of his home in Tel Aviv, Israel, celebarting his 84th birthdayCredit: AP Photo

Ben-Gurion was influenced by Western political ideas such as the primacy of a liberal-democratic state, a plural and open society and a secular constitution. His nationalism was touched by universalism and idealism for world peace. Nehru was, in a way, his comrade and a mirror image. Ben-Gurion saw in Nehru a soul-mate in Asia, but the connection was unrequited: They never even met. Nehru acted in an unkind manner to him, refusing many invitations from him to visit Israel.

In post-colonial Asia, India and Israel are the only functional and stable democracies (except for ex-imperial Japan) and to an extent it is much to the credit of leaders like Ben-Gurion and Nehru who founded those states as democracies. Ben-Gurion had no ulterior reasons to think so fondly of Nehru apart from identifying him as a fellow champion of modern, secular and democratic values in a neighborhood devoid of similar fellow travelers.

The 'Old Man' would surely be thrilled by what has now become a strategic partnership between Israel and India. But both he and Nehru would surely be deeply troubled by the political forces threatening the parliamentary democratic values, inclusion and the universalism in their countries that they fought so hard to institutionalize and embed.

Dr Khinvraj Jangid is Associate Professor and Director, Centre for Israel Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Delhi NCR and Adjunct Professor at The Azrieli Center for Israel Studies at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

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