Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel in July has apparently whet the appetite of many Indians for knowledge about the Jewish state. That may seem contradictory in a country where Mein Kampf is a bestseller and Hitler enjoys a cult status among many, even in mainstream society.
Such was the environment that Concordia University political science Professor Csaba Nikolenyi entered this November, when he was a guest lecturer in India’s only academic Israel studies program.
“I found no hostility to Israel, only a very great curiosity,” said Nikolenyi, director of Concordia’s Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies, who gave a month-long, intensive course on Israeli politics at the Jindal Centre for Israel Studies.
Created five years ago, the centre is part of the international affairs school of O.P. Jindal Global University, a private university, just north of Delhi.
The invitation to teach there, he hopes, will develop into a formal relationship between his institute and the centre that will allow for regular student and faculty exchanges. The centre already has ties with Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Nikolenyi says that officials at the centre are eager to collaborate with foreign institutions that have expertise in Israel, a country with which India has had formal diplomatic ties since 1992, but a historically rocky relationship.
Nikolenyi had a dozen students in his course, most in international studies and law. His focus was on Israel’s political parties and how the Knesset works. Unlike the Azrieli Institute, the centre does not offer a minor in Israel studies, but students are encouraged to write dissertations on the subject.
The centre’s focus is on modern Israel, and areas studied include domestic politics and the region’s geopolitics, as well as the country’s culture, social issues and relations with the Diaspora.
Most of the students were Hindu, with a few Muslims and Christians, Nikolenyi said. Only one had ever been to Israel.
“Their hunger for learning was palpable,” he said. “It was strong, genuine interest,” not only about Israel, but also about the Jewish People, of which many Indians know very little.
Rather than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, they seemed more interested in Israeli society. “They asked a lot of questions about gay rights in Israel, and also how marriage and divorce was regulated without a uniform civil code, but left to religious authorities,” he said.
“Only at my last lecture did one woman (bring up) BDS and apartheid. She asked what it meant.”
Nikolenyi participated in a panel discussion on “Understanding Israel: Constructing an India-Israel Narrative for the Future” that drew a packed audience of students, academics, the general public and diplomats, including from Pakistan.
Not only was the audience large, those in attendance couldn’t seem to hear enough about the subject, and continued asking questions long after the talk had ended.
It was at that time that an older woman in traditional sari expressed her alarm over Mein Kampf’s popularity. She tried to persuade Nikolenyi that the phenomenon did not mean that Indians are fascists or racists, but rather that it stemmed from Hitler having been a common foe of the British.
I found no hostility to Israel, only a very great curiosity.
– Prof. Csaba Nikolenyi
But Nikolenyi, a tall man who wears a kippah, never sensed any anti-Semitism from anyone.
The centre’s convenor, Rohee Dasgupta, a European studies scholar, told The CJN that their goal is to move beyond only studying Israel from the perspective of bilateral relations or the Israeli-Arab conflict, to critically examining the varying identities of its people and their relationship with the Diaspora.
Dasgupta said that there are many parallels between India and Israel, such as their post-colonial experience, their pluralism and their democratic political systems. “This makes it easier for us to teach Israel,” she said.
Nikolenyi and Dasgupta co-presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies, which was held in Washington, D.C., from Dec. 17-19. Entitled, “The Roots of Limited Secular Democracy in Israel and India,” they explored the similarities between these two very different countries, which both gained independence from Britain at around the same time.
“Politically, both states developed robust democracies, based on individual rights and freedoms, yet placed important limits on individual choice and secularism by granting extensive powers to religious authorities in the areas of personal status, such as marriage,” Nikolenyi said.
In March, the Azrieli Institute will host P.R. Kumaraswamy, author of the soon-to-be-published book, Squaring the Circle: Mahatma Gandhi and the Jewish National Home. Kumaraswamy is a professor of contemporary Middle East studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who has been influential in the Jindal Centre’s development. He is considered the pre-eminent scholar of Israel in India, said Nikolenyi. From 1992 to 1997, he was a research fellow at Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
India’s ambivalence toward Israel until the early 1990s had its roots in Gandhi’s pro-Palestinian stance, but Kumaraswamy found that in his later years, Gandhi modified his views.
Dasgupta said a more formal relationship between her centre and the Azrieli Institute would be “a meaningful connection,” because they share an interdisciplinary approach to Israel studies.
It would also allow the centre to expand its understanding of Israel-Diaspora relations, which is now limited to American Jewry, to include the distinct ties between Canadian Jews and the state, she said.