Opinion: To fight anti-Semitism, Indian PM should launch Jewish Studies program

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel means the time is ripe for Jewish Studies to be introduced to Indian academia.

By: Navras Jaat Aafreedi

Indo-Israel relations have never been in as sharp a focus as now, thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Jerusalem, the first ever by an Indian prime minister, marking the 25th anniversary of bilateral relations between the world’s largest democracy and the world’s only Jewish State. This PM’s visit is indicative of the fact that the time has come for Jewish Studies to be introduced in Indian academia. It reminds us of Victor Hugo, who said: “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

India cannot ignore the study of a civilization as ancient as Judea with which it has had links for ages and a modern state with whom it shares more interests than with any other, that is Israel. Jews are India’s smallest religious minority while the Muslims are its biggest.

Given the fact that Islamic Studies or Arab Culture exist in almost every major Indian university, the non-existence of Jewish Studies in Indian academia cannot be justified. Considering their continuous presence in the country for more than a millennium and their significant contributions to Indian society and culture, notwithstanding their small numbers, the study of the history and culture of Jews cannot be overlooked just because of their numerical insignificance. In fact, the introduction of Jewish Studies in India would give the nation the opportunity to present before the world the only happy Jewish story, the story of Indian Jews, for it is only the Indian Jews who neither ever faced persecution nor lost their separate identity as a result of complete assimilation, which is what happened to Jews in China. Moreover, it is high time India matched its step with the country it sees as its natural ally, Israel, where Indian Studies are booming, by launching Jewish Studies in its own institutions of higher education. It would be a long due reciprocation.

Sharing Ancient Cultures

One of the earliest advocates of Jewish Studies in India was Professor M.L. Sondhi (1933-2003), a distinguished scholar of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who founded the Sanskrit-Hebrew Society. Its objectives were:

1. To build a society in India and Israel that respects the dignity of citizens reinforced by the historical consciousness of the Sanskrit and Hebrew inheritance.

2. To raise awareness of ethical and humanitarian values for promoting justice, cooperation and shared responsibility between Indians and Israelis and their diaspora.

3. To counter the nihilistic currents in contemporary culture through the collective creativity of the Indian and Jewish people.

“Here are two ancient cultural streams, and I believe something creative can come of them together,” Sondhi said of Israel and India. “There is a tremendous cultural basis to the relationship… We are not far from each other… When you give any Indian the facts about Jewish history — give him Jewish literature and Jewish thinking and Jewish spirituality — then something is going to blossom.”

His student P.R. Kumaraswamy, a professor at the Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU is the doyen of Israel Studies in India. Author of the definitive book India’s Israel Policy (2010), he has produced a whole generation of young scholars working on Israel and its relations with India. Many of them are rising stars in the field, like Dr. Khinvraj Jangid, Coordinator of India’s only Centre for Israel Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana and Alvite Singh Ningthoujam, Senior Research Associate, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi, who regularly publishes on India-Israel relations. Another important scholar in the same league, though not a student of Professor Kumaraswamy, is Dr. Priya Singh, Associate Director of the think tank Asia in Global Affairs, Kolkata, and author of Foreign Policy Making in Israel: Domestic Influences (2005).

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But there are hardly any scholars in India who work on Jewish history and culture. The few exceptions being Ranabir Chakravarti, Professor of Ancient History, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, a scholar of pre-medieval Indo-Judaic trade, Professor Margaret Chatterjee, author of Gandhi and his Jewish Friends (1992) and Studies in Modern Jewish and Hindu Thought (1997), Dr. Scaria Zacharia, author of a bilingual volume of Jewish Malayalam women’s songs. Dr. Sreekala Sivasankaran, author of Immigration, State Policy and Identity: Jews of India in Israel (2009), Dr. Rohee Dasgupta, Associate Professor and Convenor of the Centre for Israel Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, the only scholar of Ashkenazim (East European Jews) in India, Dr. Kaustav Chakrabarti, Assistant Professor of History, City College, Kolkata, author of A Brief Introduction to the Rise and Rhythm of Zionism and Glimpses into the Jewish Life of Calcutta: 1798-1948 and the present author with a book titled, Jews, Judaizing Movements and the Traditions of Israelite Descent in South Asia (2016).

The credit for introducing the Hebrew language into the syllabus of any Indian university goes to a Christian missionary, Dr. John Wilson, who did so by incorporating it into the curriculum for matriculation and higher examinations of Bombay University. A Bene Israel, Professor Ezekial Moses Ezekiel Talkar, at the University of Bombay was able to have Hebrew added as an official second language for the 1870 matriculation examination (the national examinations to graduate high school). Until then Ben Yehuda had not revived Hebrew as a modern language, and India was therefore the only place in the world where Hebrew was an official language for national examinations. Hence, Hebrew came to be taught in India much before its teaching started in the academia in mandate Palestine (pre-Independence Israel). The only other Indian university to have taught Hebrew is the Jawaharlal Nehru University, where it got introduced fairly recently as a result of the efforts of a devoutly religious Muslim, Dr. Khurshid Imam, who is the only tertiary level teacher of the Hebrew language in India. He works as an Assistant Professor at JNU. Now the Hebrew language studies are likely to be reintroduced at the University of Mumbai as result of a recent Memorandum of Understanding signed by it with Tel Aviv University. Tel Aviv University plans to establish a Centre for Israel Studies there.

Most of the scholars of Indian Jews have been foreigners. The most prominent being Dr. Shalva Weil, Founding Chairperson (with Zubin Mehta as President) of the Israel-India Friendship Association and editor of several books on India’s Jews, Professor Joan Roland, Jewish Communities of India: Identity in a Colonial Era (1989), Dr. Yulia Egorova author of Jews and India: Perceptions and Image (2006) and co-author with Dr. S. Perwez of The Jews of Andhra Pradesh: Contesting Caste and Religion in South India (2013), Dr. Anna Guttman, author of Writing Indians and Jews (2013), and Dr. Myer Samra, author of numerous publications on the B’nei Menashe Judaizing Movement in Manipur and Mizoram. The scholar who has come to be recognized as the father of Indo-Judaic Studies is Nathan Katz, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Florida International University, who considers India to be his second home. Author of numerous publications and the founding co-editor of the Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies, the unofficial academic voice of this sub-field in the broader academic discipline of Jewish Studies.

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Jewish Studies Booming Elsewhere

Jewish Studies are booming in Communist China, which does not even have a Jewish community of its own, for the one that existed got assimilated in the general population long ago, whereas there is no institution in democratic India to offer even a single course in Jewish history, other than the Presidency University in Kolkata.

Even at institutions in the rest of the world where Jewish Studies flourish as an academic discipline, Indian Jews never receive the attention they deserve. Their identity eludes being put into any of the major divisions of world Jewry, viz., Ashkenazim (East European Jews), Sephardim (descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 who found refuge in Turkey and in the Arab countries of Maghreb, a strip of North African Muslim countries, and West Asia), and Mizrahim (Jews from the Arab world), for they are a category unto themselves. The introduction of Jewish Studies in India would automatically pave the way for the rise of the subfield of Indo-Judaic Studies.

Jewish Studies could be launched as an alternative to Arab Culture and Islamic Studies (both Islam and Judaism being Semitic religions), so that the students have the choice of earning their degree either in Arab Culture/Islamic Studies or in Jewish Studies, as is the case at a number of highly prestigious institutions across the world, like the Department of the Languages and Cultures of Near and Middle East, School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London; Washington University in St Louis; Trinity College, University of Dublin; Institute for Islamic-Judaic Studies, University of Denver; Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis University, etc. The fear that Indian Muslims might oppose it is baseless given the fact that there are Muslim countries, including those that have fought wars with Israel, that have introduced Hebrew/Jewish/Israel Studies in their academia. A few prominent examples are the Department of Hebrew Studies, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt and the Centre for Israel Studies, Amman, Jordan.

Jewish Studies should be available as an alternative to Islamic Studies also for those appearing in the University Grants Commission’s National Eligibility Test (NET) for lectureships. Jewish Studies ought to be established at all central universities in the country, irrespective of the fact whether the subject Arab Culture/Islamic Studies is already there at the institution or not. The way to start would be the establishment of a Chair for Jewish Studies at a central university. Instead of establishing the chair at any of those central universities that have already received much state patronage and have already made a mark for themselves, it would be preferable to have it at the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow, a central university that is young and has yet to make a name for itself.

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What makes Lucknow the ideal geographical location for it is the fact that it is a major centre of Muslim scholarship and has always been the hotbed of Muslim politics in the country. But, in addition to this, it is unfortunately also a centre of Muslim anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Muslim clerics there and the anti-Semitic literature produced by highly prestigious institution of Islamic Studies there, Nadawatul Ulama, spreads across the Muslim world in no time.

A prominent example being that of Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, former rector of Nadwatul Ulama, who translated Abul Ala Maududi from Urdu into Arabic, which was read by Sayid Qutb, the figurehead of Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, and his Islamist ideology of Jihad against the “Judeo-Christian” West embraced by Qutb and popularized in the Arab world, leading to the rise of Islamic militancy across the world. Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi’s own writings have been full of anti-Semitic rhetoric and there are madrasas around the world that follow the curriculum prescribed by Nadwatul Ulama.

Countering Anti-Semitic Rhetoric

The existence of a Jewish Studies Program would make it possible to have a dialogue with the scholars and clerics indulgent in anti-Semitic rhetoric and that would certainly go a long way in checking the spread of anti-Semitic rhetoric right at its inception. We have seen how, if left unchecked, anti-Semitism can manifest itself through violence, as seen in the attack on the Chabad Centre at Nariman House, Mumbai in 2008, the bomb explosion at the German Bakery in Pune, a place frequented by Israeli tourists and very close to the Lal Deval Synagogue there, in 2010, and in the attempted assassination of an Israeli diplomat in Delhi in 2012.

PM Modi started his trip to Israel with a tribute to the victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The Holocaust was the apogee reached by anti-Semitism, and the only way to eliminate anti-Semitism is through the spread of education. “The ignorance about Judaism and Jewish history is, of course, a particularly fertile breeding ground for anti-Semitism” cautioned Robert Wistrich, author of Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred. We must remember what the United Nations’ former Secretary General Kofi Annan had famously said: “The rise of anti-Semitism anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. Thus, in fighting anti-Semitism we fight for the future of all humanity.”

The author is an Assistant Professor in History at Presidency University, Kolkata.