November 18, 2003

Indo-Israeli Fusion in McGraw

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Cornell’s Israel Public Affairs Committee hosted speakers yesterday afternoon on Indo-Israeli relations. The event was co-sponsored by the Society for India, and the speakers of the evening were Dr. T.S. Tirumurti, Counselor and Special Assistant to Ambassador Lalit Mansingh of the Indian Embassy to the U.S., and Nissim Reuben, Local Coordinator of the Earthquake Rescue Mission of the Israeli Field Hospital, from January to February 2001, in Gujarat, India.

Dan Greenwald ’05 welcomed the audience and guests. He mentioned that in the month that he had been promoting the event, he invariably got the same response to the idea of Indian Jews and Indo-Israeli relations: “There are Jews in India?” and “What kind of relations could there possibly be between the two countries?”


Greenwald was happy to explain how important it is to celebrate the relationship between “two young, struggling democracies that are trying to protect their citizens while insuring free, democratic processes.” He introduced Aneeq Ahmad ’04, president of the Society for India, who in turn brought the first speaker, Tirumurti.

Tirumurti began by saying that the last time he visited Cornell, he wondered what it would be like to speak here, and that “it feels great.” He continued, “The topic I have been asked to speak on is very close to my heart,” and explained how there is a “total lack of anti-Semitism in India.” Eight major religions have thrived on Indian soil over the centuries, with the four largest, he said, being Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity. Tirumurti said that a “glorious time in Indian history” occurred after the fall of the second temple, when Jews took refuge in India.

“India,” he said, “welcomed the Jews like no other country,” and it has been said that Jews in India “lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live.” The three areas in India with the largest Jewish populations were the Malabar Coast, home of the Cochin Jews; Greater Bombay, home of the Bene Israeli Jews; and port cities like Calcutta and Bombay where the Baghdadi Jews lived, a loose term that meant Jews of Arab and Persian origin, not only from Baghdad.

Tirumurti cited India as the only country where battles were not fought on Shabbat out of respect for the Jewish soldiers. Prime land was even given to the Jews for a synagogue, on which the famous Cochin synagogue was built in 1568, “one of the most beautiful and uplifting synagogues in the world.”

When Jews came to India to find refuge, they became a part of India and also became “Indianized” themselves, but Tirumurti said that it is still special for them to retain their traditions and ways of life. Though migration to Israel has diminished India’s Jewish population, a saying has been that these emigrants “left one mother for another.”

“Indo-Israeli relations have indeed come of age,” Tirumurti stated, though he explained how “contacts never ceased,” and even in 1918, it was Indian cavalry units that helped to liberate Haifa from German forces.

Last year was the tenth anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between Israel and India, which Tirumurti said are wide reaching and deep, ranging from issues of environmental protection to space exploration. In addition, India was the first country after the U.S. and Israel to establish formal talks with the latter two on terrorism. These three countries have been prime targets of terrorism, and 9/11 was a “global awakening” in which it became apparent that there can be no double standards or divisions over which terrorists to fight. Tirumurti said that all three understand this.

Indo-Israeli cooperation in defense has “grown tremendously, and there is, no doubt, tremendous potential.” Israel is an important source of technology; trade between India and Israel has exceeded $1 billion, while they continue to look for ways to participate in each others’ industries. “They do have their differences,” Tirumurti said, but expressed optimism in overcoming them.

The second speaker of the evening, Reuben began by explaining that as an Indian Jew, he is often asked by confused members of Jewish groups, “Are you Indian? Are you Jewish?” And his answer is simply “Yes.” He then spoke of how there are many Indo-Israeli business contacts, and that relations are important between India, the largest democracy in the world, and Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. India, he said, is the largest market for the Israeli Defense Association, and Israel is one of India’s largest suppliers in the area, for items such as boats for the navy and upgrades for the air force.

Reuben spoke of how Ariel Sharon, upon visiting India, said that nowhere had he “found such warm and friendly people as in India.” Unfortunately, the visit was cut short because of brutal suicide bombings in Israel, but another visit will “hopefully be in the near future.”

Bombay, Reuben said, was only founded 200 years ago under British rule, but already in 1796 the first synagogue in the city was built. “Despite the small size [of India’s Jewish population], the contributions have been enormous.” The influence of Indian culture on Jewish traditions can also be seen, he went on, for example, in the preparation of a sweet Hindu dish for the prophet Elijah during a ceremony preceding happy events that is very similar to a Hindu ceremony. “ack ept traditions, but blended aspects of the culture, as the Farsis did.”

Even while the Jewish trend toward business spread to Indians around them, Reuben continued, Jews were influenced by Indian trends toward service, and “Jews are involved in business everywhere else in the world but India.”

Responding to a question of what he thought the future holds for Indian Jews, Reuben gave a personal anecdote — “My mother wants me to marry an Indian-Jewish girl!” Laughing, he explained, that would be preferable to his family, but “with only about 6,500 of us, it’s hard!”

Raj Shah ’06 wondered why relations between the two countries “were not always so rosy as they are now.” Taking turns, Tirumurti and Reuben explained how though Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, recognized Isreal, he also wanted to see a Palestinian state, and delayed diplomatic relations in the 1960’s for this reason. The speakers explained how we have to remember that not only does India have a Muslim population second only to Indonesia, which made the government very cautious, but India is also very energy dependent, importing 70 percent of its oil, and has to be very careful in world affairs.

They finished by explaining how after 9/11, the 150 million Muslims in India were not celebrating or glad like some were, but rather quite the opposite — they did not support Al Qaida or anti-Jewish sentiments. “Why were they different? They live in a democracy, and are able to exercise dissent, and express their views in safety.” Tirumurti concluded that though there is occasionally violence between religions in India, “It remains an aberration.”

The evening concluded with a free dinner of Israeli and Indian food at the Kosher Dining Hall for all who attended.

Archived article by Lauryn Slotnick