On March 31, a brief news item, “Indian-Jewish ‘lost tribe’ make matzah for Passover,” appeared in the Times of Israel.
It described the activity of the B’nai Menashe community of Churachandpur in a remote part of northeastern India as they baked matzah at a centre run by Shavei Israel, a non-profit that “seeks to connect ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ Jews to the Jewish state.”
In the last four years, Shavei has brought 1,200 Indian Jews to Israel. “We hope that after 27 centuries of exile, the remaining 7,000 B’nai Menashe still in India will be able to celebrate Passover next year in Jerusalem,” said Shavei director Michael Freund.
The B’nai Menashe trace their lineage to the tribe of Manasseh, one of the 10 lost tribes exiled from what was then Israel (north of Judah) 2,700 years ago by invading Assyrians.
‘In 2015, during a pro-forma un human rights council vote condemning israel over the 2014 war in gaza, India was one of just five countries that abstained’
The reminder in the story of the special connection between this community and present-day Israel comes at an equally special moment in the broader emerging relations between India and Israel. It’s a relationship that, while developing slowly over two decades, has recently blossomed, and holds immense potential for increased growth.
Almost two years ago, in the context of talking about Israel’s “pivot” to Asia, The Economist noted an unexpected anomaly. In July 2015, during a pro-forma UN Human Rights Council vote condemning Israel over the 2014 war in Gaza, India was one of just five countries that abstained, while 41 voted for the condemnation and the United States was the sole contradicting voice.
The Economist cited an unnamed, surprised Israeli diplomat as saying, “For the first time in a major anti-Israel vote, India didn’t vote with the Arabs.”
For years before, Israel and India, along with China and other Asian countries, had expanded trade – including high-value Israeli high-tech and weapons sales – it was only when Narendra Modi emerged as India’s new, business-minded prime minister that attitudes toward the Jewish state began to shift.
One change meant that India, a traditional leader in the Non-Aligned Movement (a group that routinely backed Arab countries’ anti-Israel diplomatic measures at the UN and its bodies), could no longer be counted upon to do so.
Yet India’s newfound warmth toward Israel – Modi may visit this summer, the first visit to the Jewish state by an Indian head of government – isn’t the only surprise.
As India’s prominent Hindustan Times noted in a story by editor-in-chief Bobby Ghosh, what’s also surprising is that, in response to this proposed visit, “no Arab state has voiced any displeasure, not publicly, and not even through diplomatic back channels.” Ghosh called this “nothing short of astonishing.”
Ghosh argued that major Arab states, especially Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, are looking to Israel as a counter to Shiite Iran’s increasingly threatening incursions into the region – in addition to its nuclear program – and thus are disinclined to protest India’s desire to build stronger ties with Israel. If anything, Ghosh suggested, Arab states may now be looking to Modi to convey messages to Israel.
The Saudis feel an existential threat from Iran’s designs on extensive oil reserves in Saudi eastern provinces, home to its restive 15 per cent minority Shiite population. The same concern has impelled Saudi Arabia’s participation in a war in Yemen against Iran-backed, nominally Shiite, Houthi rebels.
The full range of reasons for the deepening relationship between India and Israel is too extensive to be enumerated here, but it’s important to mention that, given ongoing threats from Pakistan, especially over Kashmir, India is looking to Israel for military and counter-terrorism expertise.
With 1.3 billion people and an expanding, educated middle class, democratic India is a natural trading partner with democratic Israel in high-tech sectors, despite lagging trade between Israel and China in this area. Further, India respects Israel’s agricultural, water, biomedical and digital banking expertise.
The bottom line is that, according to Indian business leaders, Israel-India trade – currently about US$5 billion per year – could swell to as much as US$40 billion.
Paul Michaels is CIJA’s research director.