From Shul-hopping to anti-Muslim Nationalism: Why India Feels Like Being Home in Israel

I joined my son's post-army trip to India just in time to see it launch its own West Bank settlements

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An Indian security personnel stands guard behind a barbed fence wire during a lockdown in Srinagar on August 10, 2019
An Indian security personnel stands guard behind a barbed fence wire during a lockdown in Srinagar on August 10, 2019Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Last Friday night, sitting in shul, I got bored with the tunes the chazzan (cantor) had chosen for Kabbalat Shabbat. I sauntered to the shul down the road only to find a rather dispirited service and left after a couple of minutes. There was a third shul within walking distance but I was a bit tired, so I turned back to my first option, where davening was almost over.

I don’t normally go to shul nowadays on Friday night, but when I do, this is usually what happens. What was less usual that this abundance of synagogues wasn’t in Jerusalem, or any other established Jewish community, but in the foothills of the Himalayas.

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In the two small adjacent villages of Bhagsu and Dharamkot there are no less than four Jewish centers, catering to the hundreds of Israeli tourists visiting there at any one time. It won’t surprise you to hear that there’s a Chabad house there, as there is a Chabad house wherever there are Jews, but there are two of them! And only a short walk apart. 

The reason for that as far as I could gather was that in the drugged-out state of many Israeli backpackers, Chabad’s organizers seem to have reached the conclusion that if they only had one, then those staying in the neighboring village simply wouldn’t find the way.

What is more surprising is that in each village, there is competition to Chabad. In Bhagsu, there is Ha’Lev Hayehudi ("The Jewish Heart") run by an Israeli modern Orthodox organization, and in Dharamkot, a Bet Binah ("House of Wisdom"), part of a network of Israeli secular yeshivot. In its own words, Binah – headquartered in Tel Aviv, with another branch in Palo Alto - "works to advance Jewish identity and Hebrew culture, with an emphasis on social justice and communal empowerment."

I’d hear of this bizarre density of soul-gathering operations before arriving in the Kangra Valley, but I was still surprised to see that they were all clustered so close to each other. I’m sure somewhere, there’s an Israeli sociologist researching this hub of Jewish spirituality and its impact on the backpackers passing through. I’m skeptical though that they have much resonance.

In recent years, I’ve met dozens of Israelis in their twenties who have been to this region and failed to detect any significant change their time in India has wrought in their souls. They choose the area not for its Jewish outreach but because it's a convenient resting-place after the army and before university, where the guest-houses are cheap and the ganja plentiful.

Smoke rises from a pine forest on the foothils of the Himalaya near Palampur, about 30 miles south of Dharamsala, India. May 28, 2019 Credit: Ashwini Bhatia,AP

As is now the fashion for middle-class Israeli parents, I was in India to share a few days of my son’s past-army trip. On a whim, I decided to take along his 13 year-old brother, and before heading up to the villages, we spent a week in the cities as well.

Delhi, Jaipur and Amritsar induce sensory overload. The colors, smells, temples and deities. I recommend experiencing them through the eyes of a 13 year-old, rather than through the rather more jaded ones of IDF-hardened millennials, who spend much of their time in India, when they’re not high, worrying that they won’t be "stung" – charged more than the standard (ridiculously low)  Indian rate for anything they purchase.

After running the gauntlet of eyeless and baby-toting beggars in a Delhi rickshaw and reaching the Taj Mahal, he asked, "How come a country with the most opulent building in the world also has such poverty?" This was followed by more questions including, "How can a country which produced wise men like Gandhi still be practicing idol-worship?" "If Narendra Modi was born so poor, why doesn’t he eradicate poverty now he’s prime minister?" "If British colonialism screwed India up so badly, why is everyone here so nice to a British tourist like you?"

And, of course, "Why does everyone here love Bibi Netanyahu?"

At least this last question I could try and answer with some authority. We had arrived in India a few days after Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv had been festooned with massive billboards of the prime minister shaking hands with Modi (as well as with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin). And while Bibi’s display of statesmanship was aimed at Israeli voters in next month’s election, it was not lost on Indians either.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara at the Taj Mahal in the Indian city of Agra on January 16, 2018.Credit: STR/AFP

Literally wherever we went over the last two weeks, we were greeted by locals who said: "Israel and India, Modi and Netanyahu, great friends!"

One Indian journalist put it to me bluntly. "Most Indians see Israel as kindred spirits – nationalists who hate Muslims."

Under the recently re-elected Modi, Indian nationalism, which at least officially saw members of all religions, whether the Hindu majority or the large Muslim minority as equal Indian citizens, not favoring one group over another, is undergoing a transformation.

The Hindutva ideology of Modi’s BJP Party, is not classical Indian nationalism. It instead sees the country as the Hindu Rashtra, or the embodiment of the Hindu polity. Muslims and members of other religions are to be tolerated, perhaps, but they are pretty clearly regarded by this government as second-class citizens.

Any comparisons between two distant countries are dangerous. Especially when one is a subcontinent of 1.4 billion, and the other less than one percent the size and population. But the current love affair between India and Israel isn’t all sweetness and light. It points at dark sides our two countries have in common as well

While we were there, Modi’s government carried out a long-cherished part of the Hindutva manifesto and cancelled the semi-autonomous status of Muslim-majority Kashmir, imposing virtual martial law and a curfew on the northern state. The section in the Indian constitution which forbade citizens of other states buying real-estate there was cancelled.

"We have our own West Bank now, complete with settlements," one Indian friend said to me.

Jetsun Pema pays her respects in front of a portrait of her brother, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, on his 84th birthday. Tsuglakhang temple in Dharmsala, India, July 6, 2019Credit: Ashwini Bhatia,AP

The cluster of villages with the synagogues includes also McLeod Ganj, which where the Dalai Lama, spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, has maintained his government-in-exile since fleeing Tibet in 1959.

There is a small museum there dedicated to the suffering of the Tibetans over the last 60 years: China's occupation by and political repression, the destruction of their culture and heritage, and the waves of refugees fleeing over the mountains to India.

It’s a reminder that once upon a time the "Free Tibet" cause was fashionable in the west and the Dalai Lama something of a rock star. Today he is mainly a tool in the hands of the Indian government with which to needle their neighboring rival China. But no one, not even the Tibetans, seriously believe the Chinese will ever be pressured to restore their independence.

Israelis visiting the museum are immediately put in mind of another conflict and wonder whether the Palestinian cause will one day seem as anachronistic and hopeless as that of Tibet. In Israel-loving India, that can certainly feel the case.

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