Our story begins with two Americans, one with an Indian background, the other Israeli, living in a pocket of suburban Long Island. With little in common other than a few mutual friends and an extracurricular activity connecting our two high schools, we became fast friends. However, when we realized we’d be attending the same university, we expected to stay friendly but to go our separate ways. Little did we know that this friendship would become a microcosm of the alliance between our two countries.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Israel. To commemorate the occasion, Indian Minister of External Affairs S.M. Krishna visited Jerusalem to lay out future plans for continued collaboration between the two nations. You may be wondering, so what? Why is the 20-year milestone of this relationship so important, and to whom?
When most people think about India and Israel together, they probably wouldn’t picture the ever-strengthening partnership that exists today. Most people probably wouldn’t even think about India and Israel in the same sentence or thought, let alone think of them as partners in a blossoming alliance. On the surface, the two nations could not be more different. Their cultures, religion and traditions are vastly distinct from one another. When the two countries were first established (within months of each other), they lacked any relationship. India did not recognize Israel as a state until 1950 and even then, the ties between the two countries were loose or non-existent. However, following the establishment of official diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1992, the Indo-Israeli relationship has flourished into a strong alliance driven by continued cooperation in the fields of agriculture, trade, science and technology, homeland security, culture and tourism.
The Indo-Israeli relationship is unique in its unlikelihood and unprecedented in its scope. When one takes a closer look, the two countries actually have a good deal in common. Both were born from the British Empire and quickly established themselves as democracies. Both continuously face the external security challenges presented by international terrorism, which are compounded by internal ones regarding natural resource scarcity. But most importantly, both societies work to maintain the delicate balance between seizing the progress they have made in the modern world and preserving the ancient tradition and culture that make up their respective foundations. For the past 20 years, based on these inherent commonalities, a strong relationship has continued to thrive between the two countries and it deserves to be commemorated, its accomplishments highlighted.
Since 1992, trade between India and Israel has grown immensely from $180 million annually to more than $5 billion; both countries hope to establish a free trade agreement this year. In 2010, India and Israel set up a joint research and development (R&D) fund to strengthen cooperation on renewable energy, water management and computer science research. Additionally, because Israel and India both face the challenge of water scarcity, their collaboration in agriculture is vital and largely unprecedented. The exchange of knowledge, including the transfer of Israeli drip irrigation system technology to Indian farmers and the joint Indo-Israeli R&D farm established in the Indian Agriculture Research Institute, allows these two countries to address the challenges of food security together through constant innovation — a true example of the tangible rewards of cooperation.
One of the strongest links that binds India and Israel together is the threat of terrorism. Both countries are surrounded by continuous hostility and are under constant security threats, particularly from state-sponsored terror groups. Even before diplomatic relations were established, Indian and Israeli security personnel maintained secret channels of communication. During the past 20 years, India and Israel have come together to combat terrorism through the exchange of important intelligence on terrorist group activity and weapons technology. As of 2008, Israel has become the largest weapons supplier to India and signed agreements to develop an anti-aircraft system and missiles for the two countries. Israel has also provided training in logistics, intelligence gathering, surveillance and military strategy to Indian security forces. For Israel, the unparalleled control of South Asian waters that India holds would prove indispensable for safe trade in a truculent climate. Recently, India has launched a spy satellite to help give Israeli intelligence eyes in space. This satellite is meant to monitor activity in Pakistan and nuclear developments in Iran, a major concern to Israel, the United States and India.
Israel and India are tied together by many threads, but perhaps the most vital and least recognized is the thread tying together these two peoples and their cultures. Here at Tufts we’ve both found communities that celebrate our own cultures and identities. What we didn’t realize is that those communities on a grander scale have found ways to support one another. There is a small but thriving Jewish population of 70,000 in India that has existed consistently throughout India’s history and that enjoys a peaceful life free from anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, there is also a small population of Indian Jews in Israel that continues to grow, most notably the Bnei Menashe community.
Beyond that, India has become a hot spot for Israeli tourists. About 35,000 Israelis select India as a travel destination each year with many returning several times throughout their lives. India and Israel further demonstrate their desire for understanding of one another through Hindi courses offered at Tel Aviv and Hebrew University, along with other courses related to India and through scholarships granted to Israelis by the Ministry of Indian Overseas Affairs every year. The most significant display of the cultural ties between India and Israel began last May when the Indian Embassy organized and held a month-long festival in Israel titled “Celebrating India in Israel,” which showcased traditional Indian culture and was a major success.
The Indo-Israeli relationship is often overshadowed in the media by the obvious regional and domestic issues of both countries. We believe that this relationship deserves to be recognized and highlighted for all of its contributions. By working together to face their own challenges, India and Israel have shown themselves to be a prime example of the benefits of cooperation among nations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently described the relationship with the sentiment that “India and Israel are two ancient peoples seizing the future.”
For the two of us, the most amazing part of the relationship between India and Israel is the way it has unknowingly impacted our own lives. Coming to college, we’ve both embraced our separate identities, one by becoming heavily involved in the Indian community on campus through Salaam and Pulse, and the other through active involvement in Tufts Friends of Israel and Hillel. However, despite our expectations that these different interests would distance our friendship, they have only brought us closer together through mutual understanding and shared dedication to the development of our countries. For this reason we feel it is important to recognize 20 years of Indo-Israeli friendship and support. By working together to find commonalities while embracing our differences on campus and beyond, sometimes the most unlikely of friendships can form.
This is an op-ed by Neha Madhusoodanan and Shira Shamir. It originally appeared in the Tufts Daily on April 24, 2012.