Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Feb 14, 2020
While India and Israel share extensive cultural exchanges, China has adopted a different strategy to ‘woo’ Israelis all together.
India’s cultural battle with China in Israel

Since the establishment of full diplomatic relations in 1992, Israel has successfully maintained ties with India and China — two Asian giants engaged in competition. After the United States, China is the second largest trading partner of Israel with 7.7% consumption of total Israeli exports, and India occupies the seventh position with 3.5% of total consumption. Furthermore, the economic initiatives between Israel and China have expanded dramatically with Israel agreeing to take part in China's One Belt-One Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank. With regards to military ties, Israel ranks second only to “Russia as a weapons system provider to China and as a conduit for sophisticated cutting edge military technology” and between 2009-2019 Israel has been the third three largest arms exporter to India. While Israel is ahead in its economic and defence relations with China, India receives higher marks from Israel in soft power aspects.

Cooperation among democracies 

As per a growing pool of research, democracies possess greater incentives as well as opportunities for interstate cooperation. Israel and India have time to time extended rhetoric support to each other on the basis of democracies in political speeches, bilateral/multilateral reports, joint statements, as well as through tweets. In 2003, during the visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to India a joint statement was issued on strengthening the foundation of open and democratic societies. Furthermore, during the Constitution Day of India in 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuvin Revlin gave congratulatory remarks to India for its “landmark” constitution combining “East and West”. In response, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi tweeted “thank you for your warm greetings on India's… We remember your visit to India in 2016 with great fondness. We also take pride in our friendship with the vibrant democracy of Israel.” Thus, with these constant democratic exchanges, Israel’s relationship with India based on shared values, interests and the principles of democracy has a greater bearing than its relationship with the non-democratic China.

Diasporic contribution by India and China to Israel

Adding to the cultural mosaic of Israel, the Indian Jewish community mainly comprises of Cochini Jews, Bene Israel, Baghdadi Jews, and the Bnei Menashe. The Indian Jewish diaspora in Israel have played a key role in fostering a strong relationship between the two nations. During the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel in July 2017, he appreciated the contribution made by the Indian Jews “for bringing the two societies closer.” They have been successful in forging a unique form of diaspora and sustaining ‘multi-stranded’ social relations that links together their society of origin and settlement.

On the other hand, China is home to a small Jewish community, albeit highly enmeshed in controversies. Due to the Marxist ideology of abolition of all religions, the Kaifeng Jewish community in China has been deprived of a “proper house of worship, a Torah, or even a spiritual leader.” Thereby, leading to the unrecognition of the Kaifeng Jews by not only the Chief Rabbis of Israel, but also by the state of China. Because of the unrecognition of Kaifeng Jews by both the states, the contributions by the Chinese diaspora to the bilateral relation remains negligible. Henceforth, Israel-China ties are primarily based on trade and defence relations, unlike India.

Academia and research collaborations 

In the sphere of education, there has been an increase in Israel’s interaction with both the dominant Asian countries. At present, the four prominent universities of Israel — Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University, Ben Gurion University and Haifa University — offer courses focused on India studies such as Indian politics, religion, culture, philosophy, economy and businesses. Additionally, ‘India corners’ have been created at several universities where quality resource material on India have been made available. Presently, there are about 550 Indian students in Israel, a majority of them pursuing doctoral and postdoctoral studies. There have been several initiatives undertaken by the two governments to enhance academic cooperation: Six joint projects under the Scheme for Promotion of Academic and Research Collaboration; Visiting Advanced Joint Research Faculty, an opportunity for Israeli scientists to be associated as faculty; and University Grants Commission-Israel Science Foundation Fund, a funding programme for joint academic development.

On examining China, it has taken a strong interest in Middle Eastern studies since the early 1960's, having said that its focus on Israel has been very recent. Presently, there are a considerable number of Chinese universities offering Israel studies for acquiring a greater understanding of Israel’s approach towards national security. None of this was existent prior to 2012, however credits have been given to a non for profit SIGNAL for fostering significant education cooperation between Israel and China. The Israeli Council on Higher Education must also be commended for providing scholarships to a considerable number of Chinese students studying a variety of programs in different Israel universities.

Cultural exchanges

The Indian Jewish community has been the sole bearers of the Indian culture in Israel. They have introduced a beautiful mélange of Indian and Israeli traditions and heritage. Their acculturation into a poly-ethnic society of Israel has produced a distinctive identity of being Indian-Israeli with hybrid festivals, cuisines, cinemas and art forms. This blend of Indianness with their Israeli identity in a foreign land, surrounded by communities with diverse cultural orientations, has facilitated an exchange of customs that exemplifies prospered relations between India and Israel.

In a recent development on 11 February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated the Bene Israeli community for the inclusion of their “ancient tradition, Malida, into the official calendar” of Israel, denoting it as a “vital link in flourishing India-Israel relationship.” Moreover, the very first ‘Jerusalem-Mumbai Festival’ is scheduled to take place in Mumbai on 15, 16 February to “showcase the special links between the two cities and to promote ties between India and Israel.” The festival is aimed at promoting “artistic cooperation in the diverse fields of culture, such as culinary art, music and dance.” In the past as well, the two countries have also signed MoUs for facilitating film cooperation. Cultural conduct has made Bollywood a symbol of ‘soft-diplomacy’ beyond the mainstream yoga and Indian food in Israel.

While India and Israel share extensive cultural exchanges, China has adopted a different strategy to ‘woo’ Israelis all together. They have established two Confucius institutes in the University of Tel Aviv and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to encourage Chinese language training and cultural experience programs in Israel. Only time can tell how a development like this will benefit the two nations at a point when the world is concerned about China’s sharp power through Hanbans. China, like in any other country, invests and employs several soft tools only to advance their trade and economic interests.

Role of tourism

Eli Sneh, Consular Affairs, Israeli Embassy in Delhi, estimates that some 80,000 Israelis visit India on a yearly basis. Goa, Old Manali, Kasol and Dharamshala are the popular sites of their visit and in many of these locations signs in Hebrew on public transportation and businesses are very common. Israelis conglomerate at Chabad community centres established across India to celebrate their festivals and observe religious traditions. “As an Israeli, it’s easiest to travel in India” says Ora, from Israel in an interview with Jerusalem Post. “The way Israelis congregate in every place — it’s not like that with other nations, it’s special, and it’s totally part of the India experience.” A Facebook group called ‘Travelling to India with Meron’ has been formed with around 30,000 members now. Furthermore, there are around 40,000 – 50,000 Indian tourists visiting Israel every year. Recently, there was a diplomatic breakthrough when Air India doubled its flights -three to six days — per week from Tel Aviv to New Delhi.

Tourism has not only been the center of relationship between India and Israel but also played a significant role in bolstering Israel’s cooperation with China. In 1994, Israel and China signed agreements on cooperation in tourism and since then a lot of Israeli tourists have traveled to China. At present Israel Airlines have changed their round trip flights from Beijing to Tel Aviv from two flights a week to three. In April 2016, China Hainan Airlines made a remarkable change by opening a direct flight route from Beijing to Tel Aviv. Furthermore, China Eastern will be the third airline after Sichuan Airlines and Hainan Airlines to have its own direct flight to Tel Aviv. The Chinese tourists traveling to Israel has roughly been around 123,000.

Just as Israel has cancelled visa fees for Chinese tourists travelling in groups and made an extension from three months to ten for the holders of Chinese passports, a similar provision must be undertaken for the growing Indian tourists to Israel.

Both India and China have completed 28 years of diplomatic relations with Israel, and they are among the very few countries to have never witnessed anti-Semitism either by the state or the society. However, there have been efforts taken by China to curb the growth of Kaifeng Jews. India, on the other hand, has allowed complete representation of Indian Jews as well as let them preserve their Jewish culture and Indian identity fostering stronger India Israel relations. Israel recognises India as a ‘true friend’ which was clearly conveyed to the world during the 2019 elections when a poster of Netanyahu shaking hands with Modi was hung beside the posters of Trump and Putin. Israel’s Ambassador to India, Ron Malka reiterates this by calling the relationship between India and Israel a very “emotional one” as well as appreciating the presence of a natural “mutual trust and affection.”

The authors are research intern at ORF.
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