Scholars and Political Leaders Explore Common Ground Between Israel and India

Maina Chawla Singh, a professor at the University of Delhi, spoke about "Culture, Self-Image and Community Organization: Indian Jews in Contemporary Israel."

Apr 8, 2009 — The numerous commonalities between India, the world’s largest democracy, and Israel, the smallest, were the subject of a conference, “Israel and India: A Relationship Comes of Age,” sponsored by Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies and Institute for Public Health Sciences on March 30-31. The conference brought together academics and political leaders to address the two countries’ ties throughout history and in the current arenas of politics, business and medicine.

“India and Israel have many common values: democracy, open societies, advanced economies, all based on foundations that date back thousands of years,” Congressman Gary Ackerman said in the conference’s keynote address. As chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia in the U.S. House of Representatives, he has worked to promote the relationship between the two countries for a long time.

Congressman Ackerman also pointed to their common enemy in Islamic extremist groups. “India has a long history of combating terrorism,” he said. “They have seen so many leaders and citizens killed by terrorists. The attack in Mumbai is significant because it links the attackers with the larger Jihad movement.”

The conference, held at the Yeshiva University Museum, was dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Mumbai attack of Nov. 26, 2008. “It is against this backdrop in global terrorism that we are here to discuss the flourishing India/Israel relationship,” Congressman Ackerman said.

Ambassador Arun K. Singh, deputy chief of the Mission at the Embassy of India in Washington, D.C., who served as Ambassador of India to Israel from 2005-2008, highlighted economic interests between the two nations. Trade between them rose from $80 million in 1991 to $3.5 billion in 2008. “Israel has invested in IT, pharmaceuticals, real estate, infrastructure and equipment manufacturing,” Ambassador Singh said. “There is also a strong cooperative relationship in defense.”

Benjamin Krasna, the Deputy Consul General of Israel in New York, evoked the memory of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, who believed that “in order to guarantee stability in our region, we have to look to those like-minded countries that have similar missions,” he said. “Democracies are under threat constantly. We must remain committed to addressing the threats of these challenges.”

P. Kumaraswamy, India’s leading expert on Israel and a professor of political science at Nehru University in Delhi, explained that while India has an unblemished record when it comes to anti-Semitism, the “political relationship is an entirely different scheme of things.” He characterized the period from the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 until 1992 as “an aberration of our relationship, not reflective of how it was either before or after.” In 1975, for example, India joined others who equated Zionism with racism at the U.N. General Assembly. Realpolitik seems to have become the order of the day after 1992, when “India began to look at the world differently,” Kumaraswamy said. “It was necessary and possible to have an engaged relationship with both Israel and the Palestinians.”

The conference also dealt with contemporary business relations. Gadi Ariav, associate professor at Tel Aviv University, spoke about the reciprocal global opportunities between the two nations, and Amit Kapoor, honorary chairman of the Institute for Competitiveness and professor of strategy and industrial economics at the Management Development Institute in India, assessed his country’s economic competitiveness.

Public health and medical perspectives were offered by Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director general of Hadassah University Medical Center and Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.

While political, business and public health relationships between Israel and India are a product of recent decades, cultural and historical ties go back millennia. Bringing a cultural perspective to the conference, Nathan Katz, professor at Florida International University, spoke about the Jews of Kochi, and Maina Chawla Singh, professor at the University of Delhi, discussed the place of the nearly 70,000 Indian Jews in modern-day Israel.

A reception at the Indian Consulate on the evening of March 30 brought dignitaries and members of the University community together for a more informal sharing of ideas. “Our relationship goes from strength to strength,” said Ambassador Prabhu Dayal of India. “The scope for development is endless. Conferences like these are important so that the academic community adds its support.”

“As our two states begin their seventh decade, I look forward to our peoples becoming even closer, culturally and politically, as democratic societies committed to building a better world,” said Asaf Shariv, Consul General of Israel in New York.

President Richard M. Joel told the crowd that, as an academic host of ideas and a great American university committed to the world, “we must be willing to engage, give the gift of listening and advance civilization.”

Steven Fine, director of the Center for Israel Studies and professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva College, said that the conference was informed by President Joel’s vision “to place Israel at the center of YU’s academic agenda. The India-Israel relationship is vital to Israel today as never before. I am excited that our Center for Israel Studies is at the vanguard in the exploration of this relationship.”

Sonia Suchday, co-director with Paul Marantz of YU’s Institute for Public Health Sciences and associate professor at Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, concurred. “We need to create a space to get past the boundaries and create solutions for our world,” Suchday said.

The conference is part of a broader yearlong initiative to underscore the relationship between Israel and India, including an exhibit at the YU Museum sponsored by the Center for Israel Studies, “From Malibar and Beyond: The Jews of India,” which opened March 30. A symposium sponsored by the Institute for Public Health Sciences, “Global Partnerships in Interprofessional Health Education,” brought together scholars from India, Israel and the U.S. at Albert Einstein College of Medicine on April 1.

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