*A “Natural Alliance”:  India, Israel, the United States, and the Muslim in the National Imaginary


Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi shortly after Modi’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, 4 July 2017. Source: Times of Israel.

As Israel prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its founding on May 14, 1948, the transformation in its relationship with India over the course of the last seven decades offers a palpable demonstration of the fact that there are no permanent foes or friends in politics.  India voted with Arab states in opposition to the UN Partition Plan that divided Palestine into two states, and formal diplomatic relations between India and Israel date back only to 1992.  Yet today India, the world’s second largest importer of arms and accounting for 9.5% of the global total, is Israel’s largest arms market just as Israel is the second largest exporter, after Russia, of arms to India.  Over the past decade, Indian imports of Israeli arms have increased by 285 percent.  In July 2017, Narendra Modi not only became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, but he pointedly, unlike Indian cabinet ministers on previous official visits, did not go to Palestine—not on that trip. Benjamin Netanyahu returned the compliment with the following official pronouncement on 13 January 2018:  “This evening I am leaving on an historic visit to India.  I will meet with the Prime Minister, my friend Narendra Modi, with the Indian President and with many other leaders. . . . We are strengthening ties between Israel and this important global power.  This serves our security, economic, trade and tourism interests . . . This is a great blessing for the state of Israel.”


Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara by his side tries his hand at a spinning wheel — where else but at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, January 2018. With devoted followers such as these, Mohandas Gandhi scarcely needs any enemies. Source of the photograph: Times of India.

It must have made Indians proud to hear their country being described as an “important global power”, but it isn’t one.  Nor should it be a fact of life that being one such power is necessarily a virtue:  “the meek shall inherit the other”, says one revered text, though I am fully aware of the modern wisdom which thinks that virtue only belongs to those nations which are “important global powers”.  But let us leave aside these esoteric considerations for the present.  There are yet other, often little considered, registers of the friendly ties developing between India and Israel: along with an influx of Israeli arms, young Israeli men and women have poured into India for long stays. According to the Jerusalem Post, so many young Israeli citizens swarm to India to enjoy a post-military training repose that one can now chart a “Hummus Trail” through various Indian landscapes and a proliferation of restaurants serving local kosher cuisine.  Israel’s own Foreign Ministry has reported that there is more support for Israel in India than in any other country of the world, the United States not excepted.  In one study, 58% Indians expressed support and admiration for Israel, exceeding the 56% Americans who responded in like fashion.

The bonhomie between the two nations is all the more remarkable considering the frosty relations between the two nations at the time of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.  One might think that India, with the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, did not want to antagonize its own Muslim population and was indeed keen to cultivate the idea that India would remain a home for Muslims even after Pakistan had been carved out of the country.  Nor, as a country heavily dependent on oil imports, could India afford to antagonize Muslim-majority Arab states or Iran—all of which, for decades after the creation of Israel, displayed unremitting hostility to the Jewish state.  As one of the principal architects of the idea of non-alignment, Nehru was also wary of close relations with a U.S.-friendly Israel.  Some might think that India, not unlike most other countries, surrendered to anti-Semitism in not having diplomatic ties with Israel for well over four decades.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  as every scholar of global Jewish history knows, India, with a history of Jewish presence dating back to perhaps as early as 79CE, is nearly singular in having absolutely no history of anti-Semitism and, to the contrary, in having a clear historical record of offering hospitality to Jews.  Nathan Katz, author of the scholarly study, Who are the Jews of India? (UC Press, 2000), unequivocally states that “Indian Jews never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination”, and lived “as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”


The emergence of an India-Israel nexus, and, as is becoming patently clear, a tripartite alliance of India, Israel, and the United States, owes everything to the changing place of the Muslim in the national imaginary of India and the United States.  It was in the mid-1990s that the notion of Israel and India as two democracies surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations that had an aversion to democracy, and having in common the problem of communal violence, first arose.  The Indian middle class, I suggested in a piece published in the Indian magazine Outlook in 2006 entitled “Emulating Israel”, has long admired Israel as a tough, no-nonsense state with zero tolerance for terrorism from which India—a comparatively soft state in this imagination—can learn to confront the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and, as Hindu nationalists increasingly argue, Muslim fifth columnists within the country.  Middle class Indians have long demanded an aggressive response against terrorists (and, as they argue, their patrons in Pakistan) and they hold up Israel as a country that India should emulate.

It is also no secret that India furnishes sinecures to retired Israeli army generals who serve as consultants to anti-terrorist operations in India.  In 2000, when L. K. Advani, then the Minister of Home Affairs in the BJP-led government, visited Israel, the two governments pledged to stand together against terrorism.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his aforementioned visit to India in January 2018, pointedly harkened back to both the devastating terrorist attacks on Mumbai’s suburban train network in 2006 that killed 209 people and the grisly attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in 2008 that led to 166 fatalities.  It is no surprise, then, that one Indian academic has called attention to the “ideological convergence” between India’s BJP and Israel’s Likud Party since “both promote a narrative of their respective populations being victims at the hands of Muslims.”

Matters do not, however, end here:  we can now speak of an emerging tripartite alliance between India, the US, and Israel, the logic of which has been captured by one scholar of public policy, Vivek Dehejia:  “India, Israel, and the United States are natural allies. All three are democratic and pluralistic societies, and all have suffered grievously from the scourge of Islamic terrorism.”  One might question a good deal in this assessment, such as what it means for three very diverse countries to be deemed “natural allies”—and why only these three democracies?  The US, to raise another difficulty, appears to be suffering from the scourge of white supremacism, not “Islamic terrorism”.  For Dehejia to imply that Palestinians are but a synonym for “Islamic terrorism”, which appears to be the case from his formulation, is objectionable in the extreme, even if one were to agree that Hamas is, notwithstanding its façade as a social welfare organization, at the very least a quasi-terrorist outfit.  But questions of the merit of his observations apart, what is most striking is that countries such as Pakistan, and the Muslim world more broadly, may be taking notice of this tripartite alliance. The Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Raza Rabbani, in a speech in January 2018 warned his fellow legislators about the “changing world scenario” and described the developing “nexus between the US, Israel, and India” as “a major threat to the Muslim world.”

Is it then the foreign policy wisdom in India, Israel, and the United States that these three democracies are, or ought to be, united by the menace posed by Muslim extremists?  To what extent are these countries collaborating in anti-terrorist and surveillance activities, more particularly with the thought of containing “Muslim terrorists”, and might such collaboration have implications for the exercise of their democratic rights by Muslim residents of these nations?  If India’s friendly relations with Israel on the one hand, and its growing ties with the U.S. on the other, augur new trilateral links, can we speak of such an alliance as a new force in geopolitics?  And, if we can, what might be the implications of such an alliance for the global world order?          

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at abplive.in on 13 May 2019, under the title:  “India, Israel, and the Geopolitics of an Emerging Tripartite Alliance, accessible here.)                                 

*Günter Grass and the anti-Semitism Canard

Günter Grass, some say, invites controversy.  For many years, he excoriated his fellow Germans to come clean about their past and confront the brute facts that might help explain how Germany became the seat of most terrifying machinery of human extermination that the world had ever witnessed.  However, not until Grass was nearly 80 years old did he confess that, as a 17-year old at end of the war, he was conscripted into the Waffen-SS, a paramilitary force attached to the Nazi party.  Grass is in the eye of the storm again, this time with a poem, published in several European newspapers on April 4th and rendered in English as ‘What Must Be Said’, that warns the world that ‘Israel’s atomic power endangers / an already fragile world peace’.    Declaring himself sick of ‘the West’s hypocrisy’, Grass hopes that with his poem

many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger

we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.

Israel has, in consequence, declared Günter Grass persona non-grata.  A once eminently diasporic people, formerly scattered to the ends of the earth and living their lives in exile until they could claim Palestine as their homeland, have apparently surmised that the banishment of Grass from Israel represents the most fitting punishment for the aged but unrepentant poet.

Just what, we must surely ask, was Grass’s sin?   The fury whipped up in Israel, and among Israel’s supporters in the West, points to several considerations.  Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed outrage that Grass should have had the audacity to compare Israel to Iran.  Netanyahu described the comparison as shameful, offensive, shall we say, to the dignity of every civilized person:  ‘In Iran there is a regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel.  This comparison says very little about Israel and a great deal about Mr. Grass. It is Iran, not Israel, which poses a threat to world peace. It is Iran, not Israel, which threatens to destroy other countries.  It is Iran, not Israel, which supports terror organizations that fire missiles on innocent civilians. It is Iran, not Israel, which supports the massacre that the Syrian regime is carrying out on its civilians. It is Iran, not Israel, which stones women, hangs gay people, and ruthlessly suppresses the tens of millions of citizens in its country.’  No doubt, the present regime in Iran cannot be viewed as other than highly authoritarian, though there is no reason to suppose that the suppression of some freedoms has stifled all dissent, or creativity in art, music, cinema, and literature.  It has not helped Iran that its most public face is provided by Mahmud Ahmedinejad, succinctly and not inaccurately described in Grass’s poem as a ‘loudmouth’ who earned undying notoriety in the West when he described the Holocaust as a fiction.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to resist the view that Netanyahu protests too much.   However enormous the misgivings one may have about Iran’s political regime, Iran has never posed a threat to any other country, nor has it launched an attack on another nation.  Netanyahu is no less boorish than Ahmedinejad, and it is idle for him, or indeed for any other Zionist, to pretend that Israel has not been the perpetrator of untold number of atrocities against the Palestinians –– choking, numbing, and starving them into submission in a war of gravely disproportionate resources.  It is no surprise that the list of accusations hurled against Iran did not include its real or alleged sponsorship of political assassinations, since Israel is likely without peer in its mastery in this department of covert politics.  But there is something else underlying the swashbuckling behavior of Netanyahu and his predecessors in high office:  Iran and Israel have long fought a shadow war, and they need each other desperately.  The ayatollahs in Iran say and do enough to keep states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan frothing at the mouth; similarly, the Shia clergy can always count on the presence of Israel to summon the faithful, particularly when internal dissent appears to pose grave threats to the regime.  Whether or not the relationship of Iran and Israel can be characterized as one informed by what Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences”, there is no gainsaying the fact that these two countries understand each other very well.

The more Iran and Israel begin to look alike, the greater the swagger with Israel must contemptuously dismiss Iran as the irredeemable other. Israel has long thought of itself as the sole democracy in the Middle East, ringed by unruly Arabs within and hostile states beyond; and if on occasion its unmitigated repression of Palestinians has evoked a mild rebuke from its allies in the West, it has nearly always conducted itself in world politics with the assurance that it may act with impunity.  Iran, on the other hand, has for an equally long time labored under it reputation in the West as, in the vocabulary of our times, a ‘rogue’ state.  The nationalism of countries such as Iran has always seemed to many in the West, even those who style themselves liberals, as ‘problematic’.  The nationalization of Iran’s oil industry in 1951 was bound to lead to serious repercussions for then Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who would be removed in a coup two years later.  His overthrow, orchestrated by the CIA and British military intelligence, brought Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whose gratitude to his benefactors would amply be on display in the decades ahead, to the helm of power.  Since the revolution of 1979, which installed the mullahs in power, and the subsequent Iranian hostage crisis, a rather humbling experience for the Americans, Iran has effectively been shunned as a ‘pariah state’ by the West.

The countries in the West which for years have rallied behind the United States to declare Iran a ‘rogue’ state have, historically speaking, treated their Jewish population much worse than did Iran, which even today has the largest population of Jews outside Israel in the Middle East.  It is barely necessary to recall, for example, the barbarism of the French, whether with respect to the Jews or their colonial subjects in Algeria, Indochina, and elsewhere.  On the received narrative, however, the anti-Semitism that was so characteristic a feature of European society is a thing of the past; indeed, what generally gives Western civilization its distinct prominence over other civilizations is its capacity for atonement and repentance.  It is precisely in this respect that Grass has been found by Netanyahu and other like minded yahoos to be severely wanting:  as Grass had disguised his past for over six decades, he is said to have been absolutely stripped of credibility.  Writing for Haaretz, long established as the voice of Israeli liberals, Anshel Pfeffer ponders in a piece entitled ‘The Moral Blindness of Günter Grass’ why ‘a highly intelligent man, a Nobel laureate no less’, does not understand that ‘his membership in an organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualifies him from criticizing the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization began. What could be more self-evident?’ For the likes of Grass, there is, quite self-evidently, no atonement, no remorse, only the certitude of eternal condemnation.  Yet the poet had clearly anticipated it all:

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

When critiques of Zionism, or of Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians, cannot be adequately answered, there is always the weapon of last resort, the ultimate weapon with which to tarnish the voice of informed democratic and humanistic criticism:  the charge of anti-Semitism.  ‘This general silence on the facts’ –– the fact, which Israel is in no position to repudiate, and which Grass’s poem has now uncomfortably brought into the limelight, namely that Israel’s own nuclear program remains without supervision, inspection, or verification, subject to no constraints except those which its leaders might impose upon themselves in the light of reason –– forced Grass’s hand; and it was not without awareness on his part of how the end of the narrative was foretold.  Writes Grass,

This general silence on the facts,

before which my own silence has bowed,

seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,

leading to a likely punishment

the moment it’s broken:

the verdict “Anti-Semitism” falls easily.

To consider just how easily the verdict of ‘anti-Semitism’ falls on the critics of Israel, let us recall the opprobrium that Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi and the co-founder and then President of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, had to face when he penned a short blog for the Washington Post (20 January 2008) entitled, ‘Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence’.  Though Arun Gandhi recognized that Israel was far from being the only purveyor of violence in that part of the world, he nevertheless thought that ‘Israel and the Jews’ were the ‘biggest players’ in promoting the ‘culture of violence’.  On a visit to Tel Aviv in 2004, Gandhi wrote, he was surprised to hear even peace activists defending the separation wall and the military build-up as the unavoidable condition of their secure existence.  The future of Jewish identity struck Arun Gandhi as ‘bleak’:  too many Jews remained ‘locked into the holocaust experience’, not merely convinced of the absolute exceptionality of the Holocaust but firm in their view that their victimhood gives them unique entitlements.  The case of Israel, Gandhi argued, ‘is a very good example of [how] a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends. . . . the Jews today not only want the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews.’  What hope is there, asks Arun Gandhi, that Israel will ever come around to the view that its existence cannot be secured by ‘bombs and weapons’?

Fast and furious was the response to Arun Gandhi, and in much less than a week he had been forced to step down as President of the M. K. Institute for Nonviolence.  Though Arun Gandhi cannot be accused of disguising his Nazi past, nothing prevented him from being brandished with the scarlet letters of anti-Semitism.  One cannot downplay the persistence of anti-Semitism over the centuries, and it is similarly instructive to what extent a forgery such as the ‘Protocol of the Elders of Zion’ continues to resonate among those who are convinced that the Jews are uniquely capable of conspiring to ensure their domination over the world’s financial markets and the power elites in the United States and Europe.  But it is a form of totalitarianism to insist that all criticism of Israel is itself a form of anti-Semitism.   Even the Jew might not critique Israel; if he or she does so, the Zionists have a phrase for such a person: a self-hating Jew.  Moreover, it is imperative to recognize that in the United States and much of Europe, it is not anti-Semitism but rather a visceral hatred and fear of Islam which is by far the greater problem.  In large swathes of respectable European and American society, the open display of xenophobic behavior towards Muslims is not burdened by the fear of censure.

It is Israel, rather than Günter Grass, that has come across poorly in this recent exchange.  This has happened all too often in the past, and Israel will have to do more than hide behind those gigantic scarlet letters that spell ‘anti-Semitism’ if it is to confront the reality of its own demons.

— First published in the Economic and Political Weekly XLVII, no. 17 (28 April 2012), 23-24, under the same title; for much shorter version, see ‘Stake in the Grass’, Times of India – Crest Edition (21 April 2012), p. 14.