Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

Debunking the Myth of Conflicting Nationalism between India and Israel

India’s strategic partnership with Israel is multi-dimensional, it varies from counter-terrorism to water-management. India’s Surgical Strike 2.0 in Balakot reiterated Israel’s importance in India’s counter-terrorism strategy. The Israeli made SPICE-2000 and Phalcon AWACS systems were crucial in the Surgical Strike.[i] The proud declaration of Israeli technology in India’s cross-border pre-emptive counter-terror measure marked the importance of the strategic partnership between the two vibrant democracies of Asia. The two countries cooperate in real-time intelligence-sharing, training and know-how, technology transfer etc. Importantly, India-Israel defence cooperation is older than the diplomatic normalisation of relations between in 1992. Israel provided ammunition to India in 1962 and 1971.[ii] In the Kargil War (1999), Israel’s technology of aerial photography through unmanned drones was a game-changer in favour of India. It cannot be simply put into ‘buyer-seller’ relationship, because Israel responded in wartime and often going against the wishes of some other countries which frowned on this assistance.

Even after the important strategic cooperation, a section of intellectuals, largely left-leaning and with anti-Israel bias, criticised this strategic partnership. This opposition is not based on examining the merit or demerit of the relationship but denounces the strategic cooperation based on a theory of conflicting nationalism between India and Israel and the selective representation of Gandhi and Nehru’s stand on the Jewish question. In the era of its hegemony, the Congress party had set the ‘norms’ of the socio-cultural-political life for Indian society. These ‘norms’ remained the guiding principles of public life for decades. The key argument of criticism against the India-Israel bonhomie is an arguable contradiction in the perennial question of the idea of ‘Nation’. The critics argue that the Gandhi-Nehru led freedom struggle was a non-sectarian or all sectarian movement, regardless of their religion. While Zionism was a Jewish call to return to their ‘promised land’ in Palestine as the panacea of all massacres and pains they faced in different parts of the world, especially in Europe through different types of anti-Semitism including Holocaust. Although this theory sounds well structured, lucrative and logical, it has less empirical validity. The narration of this mismatch is inspired by the politics of convenience. Moreover, South Block, under Nehru’s leadership or after, did never follow such policy of matching the national trajectory before establishing diplomatic relations. Had it been so, India could not establish its embassy anywhere in West Asia and large parts of Africa and East Europe, even if we discount the question of Pakistan and China.

Contrary to this critical reading, the commonality between the two struggles for statehood is also prominent. Both the States is the continuation of old civilisations, having their origin in the pre-Christian era. Their formation also followed the same path, raising identical political questions. Since Independence from British rule, both faced retaliation from their immediate neighbourhood and faced a refugee influx. As sovereign nations, both primarily approached the Cold War as essentially Eurocentric in nature. Both countries had to contend with external threats to national security, periods of economic hardship, political assassination and ethnoreligious rivalries but have never wavered in their belief in, and their commitment to, open and pluralist democratic societies. The common threat to existence from Islamist Radicalism sponsored and nurtured by neighbouring states, faced by both countries, is a binding factor of the strategic partnership between two civilisational states. Furthermore, in the light of the absence of anti-Semitism in India for the decades of coexistence, P.R. Kumaraswamy, a noted expert on this field, has argued that the lack of diplomatic relations until 1992, was an aberration in India’s overall policy toward Jews.

Beyond the question of commonality, there are two basic arguments against the prescription of non-relationship between India and Israel. First, it is half-truth and politics of convenience to project Gandhi and Nehru as a staunch opponent of the idea of Israel. Gandhi called himself ‘a half-Jew’ in solidarity for the Jewish suffering. Nehru was hesitant, not hostile to the question of Israel. He was in favour of inviting Israel in Bandung Conference of 1955 but had to bow down to Arab pressure. Neither Gandhi nor Nehru possessed any static opposition to Zionism, rather they were sympathetic to the Jewish cause but they could not ignore their political compulsions. Moreover, the contrasting view of Gandhi and Nehru does not represent the opinion of the entire Nation. Figures like Ambedkar, Tagore, Sarojini Naidu, Acharya Kriplani hailed the Jewish cause.[iii] Importantly, the Indian population was largely divided on this issue. Intellectuals and revolutionaries like Taraknath Das called it blatant minority appeasement by Nehru. Secondly, this theory of conflicting trajectory of Nationalism is neither factually correct nor confirm any causal explanation to the non-relation. Kumaraswamy has raised an interesting question that Mahatma’s views were largely ignored both by his disciples and scholars, be it in the making of foreign policy or industrial policy. His ideas such as village-based economy to friendlier overtures to Pakistan were, quietly, quickly and forcefully buried by his colleagues and political successors because those were considered impractical, utopian, unscientific, and sometimes antimodern. Why is Gandhi’s approach to Pakistan irrelevant but while his words about Palestine uttered in 1938 sacrosanct?[iv]

To understand the claim of the theory of ‘conflicting nationalism’, we need to look at the primary data which confirms that MK Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru refrained from any ‘public’ endorsement for the Jewish state but that did not mean their outright rejection of the Jewish cause. Mahatma Gandhi once stated in his mouthpiece Harijan, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.” The statement is just a partial reflection of Gandhi’s approach to the problem. In 1936, The World Zionist Organisation had sent Hermann Kallenbach and Henry S. L. Polak—two old comrades of Gandhi in South Africa to convey the message of Zionism to India. Although it did not result in any drastic change in Gandhi’s action—a meaningful change took place in his mind. He promised to study Zionist literature and that influenced him to link the problem of the Jews with that of the downtrodden of Indian society whom he passionately called, ‘Harijan’. Both the Jews and the ‘Harijans’ were suffering from persecution, scorn and outrage and subject to racial discrimination. Gandhi started considering the Jews as the ‘Untouchables of Christianity’.[v] This sympathy, of course, gave birth to a new trend in Gandhi’s understanding of the conflict between Jews and Arabs over the ‘Holy Land’. For political compulsions, he never publicly endorsed the Zionist movement but abandoned his earlier ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs’ approach. In this period, he never used any religious nomenclature to justify Arab claims or negate Jewish demand over the ‘Holy Land’. Simone Panter-Brick, an expert on Gandhi claimed that the brutality of the Holocaust probably compelled him to reconsider the issue. He began to recognise the Jewish claim over the Jerusalem city. In June 1946, Gandhi wrote to American journalist Louis Fischer, “the Jews have a good case in Palestine. If the Arabs have a claim in Palestine, the Jews have a prior claim.”[vi] Gandhi wrote in ‘Conundrum’, in 1939, “My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with Truth, as it may present itself to me at a given moment…take the meaning that my latest writing may yield unless they prefer the old.” At a personal level, Nehru also had sympathy and admiration for the Jews. Following his visit to Europe in 1938, Nehru advocated for India to become an asylum for European Jews. He acknowledged that Jewish immigrants had helped improve Palestine by introducing new industries and by raising the standard of living. Like Gandhi, he admitted that Jews had a right to look at Jerusalem, as their ‘Holy Land’ and they should have free access to it.

A more interesting myth-buster is buried in the city of Haifa. The Indian soldiers who made their supreme sacrifice for liberating the Israeli city from the Ottomans buried in the Haifa-Indian cemetery with pride and valour. The 15 Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade who fought for the liberation of the Israeli city of Haifa from Ottoman soldiers in 1918, was composed of the Hyderabad, Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers.[vii] Though it opposed the deployment of the Royal Indian Army in Mesopotamia and other parts of West Asia, it paid respect to valour and supreme sacrifice of Indian men in the battlefield. Thus, the sacrifice of Indian lives for Israeli cause can never be ignored by Congress that this historical connection was imperial. In his official visit to India, the Prime Minister of Israel Mr Benjamin Netanyahu’s first stop was Teen Murti Marg in New Delhi to commemorate the renaming the road as Teen Murti-Haifa Marg.[viii] The three-stone and bronze statues in the square, represent the Hyderabad, Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers. According to the Ministry of Culture of India, a ‘wrong impression’ was built about the Teen Murti Chowk that it has something to do with Mahatma Gandhi.[ix] The Teen Murti Chowk was named to mark the role of the three cavalry regiments, but no one knows this today. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote in the visitor’s book, “One of these pages was written 100 years ago, in the sacrifice of Indian soldiers at Haifa. The sacrifice commemorated at Teen Murti observes its centenary. Naming this spot as Teen Murti-Haifa Chowk marks this historic occasion. In the presence of the Prime Minister of Israel, we pay homage to the brave soldiers.”[x]

Thus, the theory of conflicting nationalism is mythical, fabricated, motivated by political judgement and does not provide any causal explanation to India’s non-relations to the Jewish state. The policymakers in India had feared that the abandonment of the ‘policy of appeasement’ to the Muslims through support for the Palestinians might spark riots within the country in the immediate aftermath of the partition, which in a way may lead to further Balkanisation of India. In the global scenario, New Delhi was attempting to neutralise Arab support towards Pakistan on Kashmir issue. The policymakers in New Delhi assumed that the price of the Arab support to India would be unquestionable support to the Palestine Question. This complex domestic and international milieu forced India to oppose any Israeli cause in every multinational forum. Surprisingly, Nehru never played this card of ‘Conflicting Nationalism’, it was Mrs Indira Gandhi who projected this theory to defend her role as a messiah of the Arab cause. It viewed entire West Asia through an Islamic prism for domestic and international compulsions. Nicholas Blarel commented, that the literature on India’s Israel policy which has interpreted Gandhi and Nehru’s statements as having guided India’s position after independence has less merit. Mostly, their quotes have been used as rhetorical references to rationalise policies in the region in the post-independence period.[xi]

Unfortunately, History is written by the victor. In the Indian case, the parallel voice of sympathy, support and respect for the Jewish State of Israel by a large section of Indian population and intellectuals went inaudible under the loud orchestra of the Congress leaders, after the independence of India. Now, as Narendra Modi de-hyphenated Israel and Palestine, his attempt has been a clear projection of the historical ties with Israel. At the same time, a “New Act West Asia” vision has also been put into action which is redefining India’s engagement with the region. On the whole, the entire matrix and complex web of relationship between Israel and this region is also moving beyond conventional frameworks and structures giving rise to a new era engagement.  The present Government is not just re-reading history to claim Gandhi’s support to Jewish cause or Nehru’s sympathy for the Jews. It has decisively moved beyond the habitual limitation of traditional modern Indian historical research to remain confined within the limits of Gandhi and Nehru. This attempt to rewrite history by focussing on unsighted primary documents of historical exchanges and sacrifice for the mutual cause has strengthened the strategic partnership on mutual terms and debunked the age-old ‘givens’ of Congress legacy.


[i] Browne, N. K. (2019). Fifty Shades of Balakot. VAYU, 32-33.

[ii] Malik, V. P. (2013). India’s Military Conflicts and Diplomacy : An Inside view of Decision Making. New Delhi: Harper Collins Publishers India.

[iii] Kumaraswamy, P. R. (2010). India’s Israel Policy. New York: Columbia University Press.

[iv] ibid.

[v] Ben-David, Y. (2002). Indo-Judaic Studies: Some Papers. New Delhi: Northern Book Centre

[vi] Kumaraswamy, P. R. (2018). Squaring the Circle. New Delhi: K W Publishers Pvt Ltd.

[vii] Jodha, M. S. (2019). The Story of the Jodhpur Lancers, 1885-1952. New Delhi: Niyogi Books.

[viii] Roy, P. (2019). Benjamin Netanyahu’s state visit to India. Israel Affairs, 788-802.

[ix] The Economic Times, 14th January 2018

[x] Business Standard, 14th January 2018

[xi] Blarel, N. (2015). The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy : Continuity, Change and Compromise since 1922. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

(Pradipta Roy is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Scottish Church College, Kolkata. His twitter handle is @JupradiptaRoy. Views expressed are his own)

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