July 2, 2017  | Haaretz  > Opinion

Modi Visit: Does Trump’s Instability Mean Israel Should Pivot Toward India?

by Shalva Weil

As well as billion-dollar defense deals, Israel and India have another key feature in common: a large diaspora. The Jewish Diaspora is India’s model for cultivating investment and supporting its foreign policy.

Judging by the multiple ‘promo’ articles in the Indian and Israel press pre-announcing the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel in July 2017, India could be Israel’s greatest ally. Uncertain of President Trump’s stand on several key issues, will ‘redemption’ come to Jerusalem via New Delhi?

Indeed, the stakes are high. Israel has already signed on its largest deal in history: a $2 billion defense agreement (reportedly, $1.6 billion for Israel Aerospace Industries and $0.4 billion for Rafael, a state-owned defense company) by which India will purchase anti-missile systems and components made in Israel.  

Top-level preparatory delegations have been visiting Israel and India during the past few months. An example is the February meeting between Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his counterpart Brig. Gen. (ret.) Jacob Nagel, during which Doval also met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The head of the Indian Navy visited his Israeli counterparts a few weeks ago. Israelis participated in the Technotex and CAPINDIA exhibitions, India’s largest textile and chemicals exhibitions respectively.

Both India and Israel expect to profit. According to a recent World Bank report, the Indian economy is expected to grow by 7.2% by 2018 and to an unprecedented 7.5% by 2019. Israel, in its turn, is expected to benefit from accelerated industry, jobs and, of course, a strategic alliance.

Education and culture, though encouraged, appear to be waiting on the sidelines, probably because they are not big business.

When diplomatic relations were established between the two countries in 1992, and we ran the first official friendship association between the two countries with Maestro Zubin Mehta as President, we chose to call the association the Israel-India Cultural Association. We brought to Israel great musicians like Ravi Shankar and poet laureates like Nissim Ezekiel, and Israel’s top artists and film-makers visited India. Although cultural and academic exchanges do take place today, their pace has not accelerated commensurately with the size and scope of these enormous economic and defense deals.

In 2016, PM Modi introduced demonetization in a bold step to accelerate the Indian economy and delete India’s lucrative ‘black’ economy. The unexpected invalidation of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes that accounted for 85% of liquidity touched every household in India, from villagers to billionaires. With the unavailability of cash, India’s middlemen and lower classes suffered, as did importers and exporters. Time will tell whether the plan will prove to be a brilliant success – or a demonic demonetization.

However, economic reform is only one aspect of Modi’s vision for a strong and global India. Gone are the days of an insular country, cut off from world economies and politics. In its attempt to conquer the world, India has a (non-American!) trump card, modeled on Israel and the Jewish people’s age-old concept of Diaspora.

India’s diasporic community numbers 28 million people – 16 million NRI’s (Non-Resident Indians) and 12 million permanent residents abroad. Modi’s idea is to coalesce a global community, which will invest in India and support its foreign policy. There are already many power-holders in the United States of Indian origin, such as Sunder Pichai, the CEO of Google, and Nikki Haley, Ambassador to the US mission in the UN.

India’s Jewish Diaspora include members of all three Indian Jewish communities: the Bene Israel from Maharashtra, the Cochin Jews of Kerala, and the ‘Baghdadi’ Jews, who had settled in Mumbai and Kolkata in the nineteenth century. Members of all three communities reside in Israel. Recently, the “Bnei Menashe” from Manipur and Mizoram have joined their ranks. Today, there are over 80,000 Jews of Indian origin in Israel. In addition, there are thousands of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI’s), including influential diamond merchants, and a recent influx of caregivers from Kerala and Tamilnadu.

All these Indian foreign nationals and OCI’s (Overseas Citizens of India) are invited to a huge rally due to take place in Tel Aviv on July 5, where Modi will address the crowds and champion his “Make in India” campaign. Similar gatherings have taken place in New York, in Sydney and elsewhere. In Canada, Modi’s visit generated $1.6 billion worth of business. Wherever he goes, he is greeted by rapturous crowds of overseas Indians.

Israel will be no exception. Many members of the Indian Jewish communities, traditionally supporters of left-wing political parties like Mapai and Mapam, have turned steadily right, in line with many other members of the edot hamizrach (Eastern Jews) in Israel. An Israeli organization affiliated with the global network OFBJP (Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party), has been set up, to express support for Modi’s right-wing party.

It appears, however, that Israeli Indians of all political persuasions are excited to meet Modi. Online registration to the planned Tel Aviv event is at its height. Like others, Israeli Indians dream of sharing Modi’s vision of India as the “21st Asian Century.”

Shalva Weil, a Senior Researcher at the Hebrew University, is the Founding Chairperson of the Israel-India Cultural Association and a scholar of Indian Jewry. Dr. Weil is the educator on Burkat Global’s 3000 Years of Jewish India tour.