Saturday, October 18, 2003

When Israel was a distant dream
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghTHE visit of Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon brought back memories of my close association with Jews and my visits to Israel long before India opened diplomatic relations with the country. I belong to a generation which witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany and the resurgence of anti-Semitism across Europe, the USA and, indeed, among white nations of the world. In many European countries, particularly Russia and Poland, Jews were not allowed to buy land, not recruited to the Army and forced to live in ghettos. As often happens, people persecuted and discriminated against do their utmost to excel in other professions. So poor Jews reduced to becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water, cap makers, tailors, silversmiths, etc., continued to educate their children no matter what it cost them. The better placed became professors, lawyers, moneylenders, bankers, artists, musicians and excelled in whatever they undertook. When I joined college in England, the first lot of Jews who had fled Nazi Germany started migrating to other countries. In my class of about 20, we had six German Jews who could hardly speak. In the final, three years later, four got first division.

At that time Israel was a distant dream. Some Jews had gone to Palestine, then under the British rule, bought desert land from their Arab owners and set up colonies Kibbutzim and Moshavs and taught themselves farming. Being educated and determined, they soon turned them into green pastures, growing olives, vines and food crops. Their expansion was entirely with Arab concurrence because Arabs willingly sold their arid lands at high prices. There was no coercion. But Arabs soon began to envy the success of Jewish settlers and resent their presence as neighbours. When World War II ended, European Jews in large numbers migrated to Palestine and declared a state of their own, Israel. Arabs made determined attempts to drive them into the sea. With trained armies led by tanks and armoured vehicles, they tried to overrun Jewish settlement. Jews, who had at that time no regular army or tanks, or sophisticated weapons, repulsed them and captured more territory, including parts of the main city, Jerusalem. The notional Jewish state became a reality. Thereafter American Jews poured in large sums of money and because of their influences the USA became Israelís principal ally. The Arabs, mainly Egyptians, Syrians and the Lebanese, took on Israel again and again and each time suffered ignominious defeats with loss of territory. In some ways it was a clash of civilisations ó an ultra-modern state against the still medieval world of Aarbs. Reluctantly, some Muslim nations like Egypt and Turkey accepted the existence of a Jewish state among them and gave it diplomatic recognition.

Although India recognised Israel in 1948, abstained from giving it diplomatic recognition: only an Israeli Consulate was allowed to operate from Bombay, ostensibly to facilitate the migration of Indian Jews who wanted to go to Israel. They did so in thousands, leaving a few families in Cochin, where they had built their first synagogue, and a few others in Maharashtra. India had its own reasons for not giving diplomatic recognition to Israel. It did not want to displease Arab nations where thousands of Indians found employment. In return, it also expected Arab nations to support it in the UNand the Security Council in its many confrontations with Pakistan. The second hope was unfulfilled. Every time an Indo-Pak issue came up for consideration, Muslim states sided with Pakistan.

I first went to Israel in the early 1970. I had to fly toRome, then take an Al Italia flight to Tel Aviv. I had special Israeli passport issued to me as even the name of Israel on my Indian passport was good enough to have me deported from any Arab country. I spent almost a fortnight travelling the length and breadth of the country from the Lebanese frontier down to the Egyptian.

It was easy to tell where Israel ended and an Arab country began: Israel was green; Arab countries were deserts. I visited its main cities from the European Tel Aviv to the mixed Jewish Arab, Armenian parts of Jerusalem. I saw the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque and Christian holy places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. I also visited the Bahai Centre at Jaffa. I was surprised to see how every day thousands of Arabs labourers crossed over to Israel every morning to work and return to their homes in the evening. A rough kind of class hierarchy had evolved. On top were Ashkenazis from Russia, Poland, Germany, France, England and America. They hold top positions in the government, civil service and the army. Next came Siphadis or Spanish Jews who were somewhat browner; at the bottom were Yeminis, Baghdadis, and Africans. Indian Jews were just above Yeminis; they are sargeants in the police, clerks and minor officials. I visited a settlement of Cochin Jews. They were happy to see me and exchange a few words in Hindustani. Their only grouse was they had to work very hard: life in Malabar was much easier and relaxed. I also spent some hours in an Ahmedia Muslim mission; they were free to preach Islam. Even in the 1970s, though officially India kept its distance from Israel, I came across plenty of evidence of our defence personnel periodically visiting Israel on secret missions.

To most Israelis, India was an unknown country from which they expected more friendship than they were getting. Very few Indians visited Israel; very few Israelis were allowed to come to India. They had rarely seen a Sikh, and if they saw one, they could not tell whether he was from India or from one of the Arab countries. I had an amusing experience which I have written about many times. I was staying in King David Hotel, Jerusalem. One evening when I went to the dining room, I was given a table next to American Jewish couple on their first visit to their holyland. They gaped at me in disbelief, held whispered consultations with each other and with the waiters. When they could not contain their curiosity anymore, the man turned to me and asked, "Sir, can you speak English?"

"Yes, I can," I replied.

"My wife Ruth and I were wondering where you are from and of what faith?"

"Iíll give three guesses," I replied.

"You wouldnít be Jewish?" ventured his wife. "No, I am not a Jew," I replied.

"Donít be silly, how could he be Jewish?" the man snubbed his wife. "Would you be a Mussalman?" "No, I am not a Mussalman," I replied.

The man chewed his cigar and asked, "A Buddhist?" "No, I am not even a Buddhist," I replied.

"I give up, tell us who you are."

"I am a Sikh,," I replied.

"A Sheikh? Isnít that a Mussalman?"

"Not a Sheikh, not a Mussalman, but a Sikh."

"I get it," said the man triumphantly, "You are from Sikkim."

On Bapu

What is it that Gandhi knew

And others knew not?

Is there was aught

That he taught,

So long as he lived;

If still there was

Something left,

He put it in print

For generations to come

He did not keep to himself

A thing that he knew

Isnít that true?

But all that knowledge

And all these decades

Could not produce

One more Gandhi.

Then what was it

That Gandhi had

And others had not?

(Contributed by J.C. Mehta, Delhi)