Azad Essa, Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel (Pluto Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Azad Essa (AE): I grew up with the belief that India, having been part of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and a friend to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, was a friend to the Palestinians. But when Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014 and implemented a long standing Hindu nationalist sentiment to turn India into a Hindu supremacist state, I began to notice how Delhi and Tel Aviv began cooperating with each other more than ever before. Under Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu, the countries became strategic partners. Then in 2019, after Modi’s government revoked Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, a senior Indian diplomat in New York said that India would look to replicate the Israeli model in Indian occupied Kashmir, meaning building Hindu-only settlements in the Muslim-majority region just as Israel has built Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank. Though I had traveled to Kashmir and to Palestine and seen the similarities shared by the two occupations, I was still surprised by the brazenness of his comments. And I wanted to understand how a country that was perceived to be so close to Palestine just a few decades ago suddenly talks about replicating Israel. This is how this story begins.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AE: This book started off being about the new alliance between the two countries, but it actually ends up arguing that India and Israel are more alike than many of us would like to believe. I think there are two crucial parts of this argument. First, I look at how post-independence India realized early on that a pro-Palestine position suited its interests as a leader of the so-called third world and in ensuring close ties with the Arab world. Whereas India had a public posture against Israel, the Indian establishment privately admired the Israelis and secretly worked with them when it came to intelligence sharing as well as arms purchases. This is significant especially because there remain persistent myths that India was historically a “friend” to the Palestinians. Second, I examine the ways in which Zionism and Hindutva have been in conversation with each other for several decades. It turns out that both ideologies are quite integral to the makeup of each state as evidenced by the relationship today. I also track the military industrial complex and the ways in which the Indian lobby has worked with the Israel lobby in the United States, as well as the similarities between the occupations in Palestine and Kashmir and how the two countries are building economic ecosystems to maintain their ethnonationalist and settler colonial projects.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AE: This is a book about connections. And so much of it draws on my work as a journalist over the past decade or so as I reported from several places across the globe, including Kashmir. For several years, I reported on central and southern Africa, focusing on poverty, development, politics, and human rights. But I was often surprised by the stories I would find along the way. For instance, I often came across Israeli projects during my reporting trips in the strangest of places: an Israeli flag in a village in the Central African Republic or outside Accra in Ghana. And I observed how Israel used “development” and “technology” to build goodwill with African leaders as well as amplify its myths as a miracle nation to ordinary people. These nefarious developments worried me because Israel’s assistance on the continent was predicated on growing normalization. In other words, these countries will eventually provide Israel with diplomatic support at forums like the UN and become a cover for its crimes. And few people seemed to be writing about it. Meanwhile, I have long known and written about how India has abused western fascination (and ignorance) with Gandhi, yoga, its cuisine, and its upper caste Hindu diaspora to sell a “peace-loving” Brand India story to the world. Bringing together the historical and contemporary connections between the two was a natural outcome of my work.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AE: I am hoping that the book will influence students of history, and activists working on issues of human rights, freedom of speech, and even on larger questions of settler colonialism and ethnonationalism, to better understand how systems of oppression overlap. Identifying how multiple oppressions cooperate with each other presents opportunities for shared tactics of resistance. I also hope that it will assist journalists in the West to better understand India and reconsider the overall coverage of South Asia. India has managed to portray itself in an immensely positive light over the decades and the mainstream Western press has helped create and maintain that image, despite the incredible amount of authoritarianism and violence the Indian state has been involved in, especially in Kashmir. The Delhi-Tel Aviv alliance is the perfect opportunity to unpeel the myths of the past.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AE: I continue to report and write about the rise of Hindutva in the United States, especially the ways in which the Hindutva lobby aligns itself with the Zionist lobby and with US imperial interests. I am also tracking the ways in which these relationships are manifesting into similar tactics being used in the United States to stifle free speech on campuses or silence Palestinian or Kashmiri voices, be it in the United States or elsewhere. Moreover, I am looking at the ways India and Israel are using popular culture, like television and cinema, to expand their relationship. The ties between India and Israel are deep rooted but we are only beginning to understand the extent of the relationship.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 3, pp. 83-90)
Hindu Nationalism and Zionism
The geo-political reconfigurations following the end of World War I had a profound impact on independence and nationalist movements across the globe. India was no different. The INC, under the leadership of Gandhi saw the events of World War I, the Balfour Declaration, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate, and the establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine in 1922, as further reasons to repudiate British rule. It also fomented closer ties with Muslims in India and the assertion of an anti-imperial agenda.
In Palestine, Zionism had arrived. Palestinians were increasingly displaced, excluded from employment opportunities and denied entry into Jewish-only trade unions. As the continuous flow of Jewish refugees from Europe increased, the rate of dispossession of Palestinians only increased. The program of building a Jewish state brought together Jews (as well as dispensationalist or Christian Zionists) of various persuasions and motivations.
The movement spawned political, cultural and labor Zionism (and later revisionist Zionism), each with its own idea as to the character of this future state. However different these might have been, Zionism in totality agreed that this future state would need to have a Jewish majority and therefore establishing it was ultimately predicated on the act of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.The political project went against Orthodox Jewish beliefs, but it nonetheless proceeded. However, political Zionists were so detached from the sentiments of the Jewish polity, that they were prepared to accept a homeland in Argentina and Uganda, before cultural Zionists put that matter to rest.
Once the political project was endorsed, it wasn’t long before the Bible was used as “proof” that Jews belonged to Palestine. And in keeping with the peculiarities of the time, the Zionists reframed their movement as one befitting a “national liberation movement.”
India was the crown jewel of the British Empire, and Zionists paid attention to both the art and literature that emerged from India, as well as the mass mobilizations that threatened the British Empire.
However, it was Hindu nationalists who identified immediate kinship with the Zionist movement.
They saw no contradiction in admiring the European fascist movement that targeted European Jews as well as the Zionist project that looked to revitalize the Jewish race by building an exclusive homeland for the Jewish people. The support of European powers for a Jewish state in the Middle East, then, turned a colonial matter into a civilizational conquest. The subtext now was that “Israel was a device for holding Islam—and later the Soviet Union—at bay,” Edward Said wrote.
Herzl, the writer Abdul-Wahab Kayalli argued, had routinely portrayed Zionism “as a political meeting point between Christianity and Judaism in their common stance against Islam and the barbarism of the Orient.”
Unsurprisingly, in India, Hindu nationalists saw “the Jewish question” in Europe as “the Muslim problem” in their own backyard. “India’s Muslims are on the whole more inclined to identify themselves and their interests with Muslims outside India than Hindus who live next door, like Jews in Germany.” Savarkar said in a speech in December 1939.
For Hindu nationalists, the support for both fascism in Europe as well as Zionism won them admirers among the right wing in Europe and helped recast themselves as adjacent to the global racial elite. In Harbilas Sarda’s book, Hindu Superiority: An Attempt to Determine the Position of the Hindu Race in the Scale of Nations, the famous Indian judge writes that his effort to glorify the Hindu past, was not meant to “run down any creed or nationality [. . .] it may be remarked that the evils of the rule of the Afghans, Turks, and others were due not to the religion they professed but by their ignorance and backwardness in civilization.”
It is precisely this invocation of a racial, civilizational, cultural superiority and adoption of a very European tradition of pathologizing Muslims as a backward, problematic minority that lured Hindu nationalists and supremacists toward European ethno-fascism.
For Hindu nationalists and supremacists, the comparison with Zionism, then, was not incidental. It merely represented an exchange in a larger, and longer conversation between Judaism and Hinduism, as “two age-old civilizations.” Hindutva’s affinity for the Zionist search for a homeland spoke to their interactions across the centuries.
Hindutva’s construction of the Hindu proto-race (as “insider”) in opposition to Muslims (as ultimate “outsider”) through a focus on religion, culture, and philosophy was a marker of “civilization.”
In other words, Hindutva held that the people of India were all fundamentally Hindu and that Hinduism was ultimately their race-culture.
It also determined who could be part of the nation. As academic Satradu Sen argues, both Zionism and Hindutva developed “an interest in deploying the language and imagery of a racialized people whose health was both a scientific and a political problem.” Golwalker, in particular, was caustic and influential when he articulated the place of “the other” in his book We or Our Nationhood Defined: “All those not belonging to the national i.e. Hindu Race, Religion, Culture and Language, naturally fall out of the pale of real ‘National’ life.”
There were other similarities in the religious ethos of both Judaism and Hinduism, which right-wing proponents latched on to, too. Both Jews and Hindus purportedly rejected conversion and were unenthused by the proselytizing habits of others (Christians and Muslims). This underscored the aforementioned anxiety of racial “contamination” or being demographically overrun by Muslims or Arabs or Palestinians.
This concern is foundational to racial superiority as purported by both Zionists and Hindu nationalists. The duo also found symmetry in the vigor of the religion itself. Whereas Hinduism was about seeking eternal enlightenment, Judaism could be characterized as a journey “to search after the knowledge of God.” These similarities became the religious backbone for building ties between the political projects of Hindutva and Zionism, which relied on myth-making as a form of statecraft.
But the relationship didn’t happen immediately. With the labor Zionist movement becoming the dominant stream in Palestine, Zionists reached out to the presiding movement in India: the INC and Gandhi. For labor Zionists, Gandhi represented a version of Hinduism that appeared to match their egalitarian vision of Zionism still in denial over the actions of the Haganah, or militia.
The Hindu nationalists however chose to understand Zionism in its full totality. It is no surprise that Ze ’ev Jabotinsky, the father of revisionist Zionism, or the version of Zionism that rejected labor Zionism’s “negotiation” in the Holy Land, wrote his manifesto, The Iron Wall, in 1923, the same year that Savarkar published his treatise on Hindutva.
Unlike labor Zionists, Jabotinsky was blunt about his ambitions. Hindu nationalists, too, saw the full project, understood the implications, and imbibed the values.
Jabotinsky argued that only the complete disenfranchising of Palestinians would convince them to accept the Jewish settlers.
Likewise, for Hindu nationalists, the Congress party’s “policy of appeasement” delayed the inevitable: the creation of a majoritarian Hindu state. Philosophically, Hindutva was fundamentally anti-Muslim. The “Hindu” identity was built almost entirely in opposition to Muslims, even placed ahead of the struggle for independence. So much so, that some of Hindutva’s early ideologues extricated themselves from the larger Indian struggle for independence.
As early as 1931, it was clear that all Zionists “concurred ideologically with the principle of Jewish sovereignty over all Palestine,” Zeev Tzahor writes. If anything, labor Zionism functioned as a trojan horse for settler-colonialism. They held disagreements on strategy, on timing, on language, “there was no difference between our militarists and our vegetarians,” as Jabotinsky put it.
Furthermore, the Zionist project was much more invested in a mythical history—a trait it shares with Hindutva.
In other words, when it comes to Hindu nationalism and the complete project of Zionism—be it cultural, political, labor, revisionist (right wing)—the two ideas share more than symmetry. They shared kinship. And their differences aside, the pursuit of consolidating dominion to create unified states with a single culture and identity, predicated on erasing the “other” is what ultimately defined their kinship.