There are no threats to Jews in India,” said Arjun Hardas, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) representative based in Delhi.
And yet, he told a luncheon gathering in Florham Park on June 20, the first time most Indian school- children learn about Jews is in “a most negative way.” They study “The Merchant of Venice,” William Shakespeare’s play about a cruel Jewish moneylender named Shylock. “The impression is the Jew is odd — a moneylender, a blood-letter, negative,” said Hardas, adding that nearly 100 percent of Indians “have not met a Jew in their life.”
And while one of most deplorable Jewish stereotypes in all English literature is taught broadly, and Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, “Mein Kampf,” is on sale “in every bookstore,” in India, the Holocaust “is not taught at all — not even one sentence in our books.”
One common attitude, he said, is summed up by the question: “Why should we talk about six million Jews when four million people died in the Bengal famine in 1943?”
In fact, the Second World War takes up “only one half of a chapter” in Indian history books because, said Hardas, the broad view was that “it happened in Europe and has nothing to do with us….”
But that is changing, he said. Now World War II “is seen as a global war in which India performed very well across the globe, from Europe to Burma to Africa. Wherever there was combat, there were Indian troops.”
Hardas, who is Hindu, is determined to also change attitudes and perceptions about what is a tiny minority in his country. Jews constitute a meager .0004 percent — some 5,000 people — of India’s population of 1.3 billion.
The effort involves overcoming stereotypes based not on malice, but on severe lack of knowledge. He said he is often asked the notorious canard about why no Jews showed up for work at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Another is whether Osama bin Laden was spirited to safety by the Israeli Air Force.
He regards the people who voice such views with forbearance. “You can’t be upset or angry because they are speaking out of complete ignorance,” he said.
As the AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute (API) representative, Hardas works with the Jews of India to create and sponsor programs of Jewish interest and introduce the organization and its work to those who attend them. He meets officials from across India’s political spectrum. “At the end of the day, our goal is advocacy through dialogue,” he said, and he is pressing hard for Holocaust education.
One area where there have been vast improvements relevant to many Jews is India’s increasingly close relationship with Israel.
On July 5 Prime Minister Narendra Modi will become the first Indian head of state to visit Israel. “It is a cliche, but the relationship has been growing from strength to strength.” Hardas said.
But that was not always the case; India and Israel did not get off to a good start at all, he explained. In November 1947, India voted against the partition of Palestine to create the State of Israel — “not because India had anything against Israel or the Jews, but because India had itself been partitioned into ‘Secular India and Muslim Pakistan.’” Rejecting the partition of the British Mandate in Palestine was for India in keeping with the idea that religion should form the basis of a nation-state. “It favors secular states where everybody can live together. So if it could not accept Pakistan’s rationale that religion forms the basis for a state, then how could it accept Israel as a state for Jews?”
Especially since Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who served from 1947 to 1964 — who identified his nation with the Third World rather than the West — considered Jews as “white people, a European implant.”
When Nehru agreed to establish ties with Israel in 1950, he began by opening a trade office with no diplomatic privileges for its staff.
While Nehru de facto recognised Israel in 1950, he permitted the opening of only a trade office in 1953.
Hardas said things were “so hostile that up to 1990, the Indian passport was stamped as invalid for travel to Israel and South Africa.” Those wishing to visit Israel from India “had to obtain a special one-time-use passport for that purpose.”
But because Israel “is the only country that has always assisted India in military supplies, no matter what the circumstances,” it won India’s favor in the diplomatic arena as well since Israel’s military aid in its war against China in 1962. “No questions asked,” Hardas said.
But there has been one “little bugbear” in Indian-Israeli relations — Iran, which the Indian government generally supports.
“We do not see eye-to-eye on the subject,” said Hardas. “The Indians and the Iranians have had a civilizational relationship for over 3,000 years…. There are cultural ties, and we do not see Shia Islam as a threat. Our threats come from Pakistan. Radical Sunni Islam is seen as a greater threat to India,” even though, he said, his country does not accept the notion of a nuclear armed Iran.
At the United Nations, Indian governments have had differing attitudes toward Israel over the decades.
In 1975 India supported the Zionism-equals-Racism resolution at the UN, then voted for its repeal in 1991.
The Jews were “the first non-Hindus in our neighborhood,” with a presence dating back to 70 C.E., after the destruction of the SecondTemple” in Jerusalem and the Jews’ dispersal, Hardas pointed out. He has a ready explanation for why Jews never faced overt anti-Semitism in his native land.
“India does not have a Judeo-Christian tradition,” he said. “For us, Jesus is just another god belonging to the Christians, not a holy figure for Hindus. Blame the Jews for killing Christ? What for? It’s not our concern.”
Hardas spoke to approximately 20 people at a lunch meeting organized by AJC New Jersey’s Metro Region. The event was hosted by Philip Sellinger of Greenberg Traurig in his firm’s Florham Park office.
The API, which is based in New York and also has representatives in Washington, Los Angeles, New Delhi, Japan, and southeast Asia, seeks to raise awareness about the Jewish people and Israel and to further positive political alliances, economic ties, and dialogue.