August 15, 2017  | The Jerusalem Post  > Commentary

Highlights of Israel-India Relations as India Turns 70

by Shalva Weil

It is an irony of history that it took the approaching centenary for an Indian prime minister to visit Israel, says a senior researcher at the Hebrew University.

India came into being on 15 August 1947, as did Pakistan. Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy of India and cousin of current Queen Elizabeth, attended the celebrations in Pakistan the day before because, of course, he could not attend both events simultaneously.

By August 15, he had returned to New Delhi to become the last Viceroy of India and the first Governor-General of united India.

Ironically, Indian Independence was originally supposed to have taken place a little later, and would have coincided with Israeli independence in 1948. Mountbatten had been given strict instructions to pull Britain out of the mire with the least possible damage upon being appointed Viceroy in early 1947. He surmised — some people say incorrectly today that Britain could not wait to exit. His plan of Partition resulted in millions of people becoming refugees on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani borders. Today, stories about partition abound the internet: neighbors became enemies; friends became murderers. Indians and Pakistanis alike still remember the slaughter and the horror.

After teaching a semester on Indian Jews this year at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, I took the railway, which was once known as the “British Jewel of the Orient,” to the summer capital of British India, Shimla, in Himachal Pradesh. It was here that Lord Mountbatten met with Mahatma Gandhi in the Viceregal Lodge, a grand Elizabethan castle built in grey sandstone — more fitting in Oxford than in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was also here that Gandhi urged to Mountbatten to invite the Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah to form a new united central government. But Mountbatten never conveyed Gandhi’s ideas to Jinnah, and the rest, as they say, is history. In the end, Prime Minister Nehru, who was having an affair with Mountbatten’s wife according to all accounts, agreed to divide India.

Only Gandhi refused. The pictures hung today on the walls of the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla, testify to the historic meetings, where Mountbatten unfurled his Partition plan. Today, the same building houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Study.

It is tempting to speculate how a previous British Viceroy, Lord Reading, would have reacted to the Partition plan when he resided at the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla during the 1930’s. Rufus Daniel Isaacs Reading was born to poor Jewish parents, who had a stall in Covent Garden market, London. Lord Reading reached the highest title any Jew has reached in Britain: he became a Marquess, the Viceroy of India, Attorney General, Lord Chief Justice, British Ambassador to the United States and Foreign Secretary.

When Lord Reading visited Tel Aviv in 1932, he was received as a celebrity. Onlookers reported that it was the most triumphal reception since Lord Arthur Balfour’s visit. It was Balfour who had composed the Balfour Declaration, which paved the way for a national Jewish homeland. In the same year that India is celebrating its Independence and 70th birthday, in Israel in November 2017, we will be marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration at a special reception in the Knesset.

It is odd that yet another Jew in the British Raj, who became Governor-General of India, actually opposed the Balfour Declaration. This was Edwin Samuel Montagu, who came from an Orthodox Jewish family, but rebelled and married Venetia Stanley, a Protestant aristocrat, who converted to Judaism. Montagu’s sister, the Honorable Lily Montagu, became active in progressive Judaism and eventually established the Jewish Religious Union in Bombay in 1925. Their synagogue catered to the English-speaking Bene Israel Jews of Maharashtra since prayers were held in the English language. Today, services are still held at the JRU, as it became known, on High Holidays.

Montagu’s objection to the Balfour Declaration was based upon the belief that Zionism was “a mischievous political creed” and that Jews were not a nation. However, both Reading and Montagu requested to be buried as Jews.

It is an irony of history that it took nearly a centenary for an Indian prime minister to visit Israel, which was declared a state less than one year after the independence of India, despite the fact that diplomatic relations were established between the two countries in 1992. It is a truism that the two countries have more than the British Raj or the British Mandate in common.


Shalva Weil, a senior researcher at the Hebrew University, is the Founding Chairperson of the Israel-India Cultural Association. She is the author of “India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle,” and several other books on Jews in India, and has authored scores of articles on different aspects of Indian Jewry.