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Remarks by External Affairs Minister during his interaction with Indian Jewish Community and Indologists (October 17, 2021)

October 17, 2021

Ambassador,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Friends

Haverim be’Israel, Shalom alichem! Namaste.


This, as the Ambassador told you, is my third visit to Israel in the last four years. And, I must say, every time I return, I still leave with the sense of an unfinished journey. Like India, Israel too is a place that requires perhaps a lifetime to discover and understand. I am, therefore, very happy to be back here, amidst a land with which we have ties of centuries, and amidst you who are in many ways been an umbilical cord that has nourished it.

India itself has a diaspora of more than 30 million. And of course, diaspora is a word which we have learnt from here. And some of them left our shores many years ago, some perhaps more recently. Some were uprooted in more difficult times and moved against their will. Some, of course made more prescient choices of their own. But among all of them, I would say that the Indian Jewish community is in many ways very unique because one, like other communities, it is a community that has existed peacefully in India for hundreds of years, which maintained its Jewish identity despite a long period of isolation from other Jewish communities. And, two, because, you all chose a new life here mainly for civilizational reasons. It is again a basis for creating a new bond between India and Israel. Now, it is rare in Jewish history that you have had a long, continuous period where you have thrived in freedom and equality, as you did in India. And I must say that we Indians are very proud of that.

Now, it is, inevitable that we consider you as one of us! The Talmud mentions trade with India in ginger and iron. And the Book of Esther infact mentions India as Hodu. One of your 17th century mystics settled down near Delhi and was revered as a Sufi saint by us. And the fact is that the Jewish Indian community over many centuries, in multiple ways contributed to the building of India. We often go around Mumbai and Pune not realizing that many landmarks were actually the contributions of this community, whether it is the Sassoon docks in Mumbai and the Sassoon Hospital in Pune. David Sassoon in fact, was one of the founders of the Bank of India. And some of you were of course by the side of Mahatma Gandhi during our freedom struggle. In 1916, one of the lawyers in the team defending one of our major national leaders, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, was a Jew – David Erulkar. Some members of the community contributed as educators, some as medical doctors, like Dr Jerusha Jhirad was awarded one of our highest civilian awards, the Padma Shri . Some served as administrators and some distinguished themselves in judiciary, such as David Reuben who served as the Chief Justice of one of our High Courts . There were some who became mayors of Bombay-Mumbai, three infact. And there were another three who are even today remembered for their military service; Vice Admiral J R Samson, Maj Gen B A Samson, and of course, Lt Gen J F R Jacob whose uniform hangs at the Latrun Museum here. And, of course, the community has excelled as poets and artists in India. The name Nissim Ezekiel readily comes to mind, whom we honoured with our Sahitya Akademi Award . People of my generation in fact, grew up with the signature tune of All India Radio that was composed by a Jewish exile in India, Walter Kauffman. And how could it be that India, with all its influences could have left the community untouched in terms of Bollywood and cricket! So, of course, the community has been part of the film industry and you know, one, very distinguished member, Judah Reuben, actually, officiated as cricket umpire in many of India’s test matches , including with England and Australia. Now, the Jewish Indian community also made very rich contributions to Israel. Like those by Lt. Ellis Ashton Asthamkar to the Hagana, agricultural scientist Eliayu Bezalel, and cardio-thoracic surgeon Dr Lael Best. Indeed, we have honored Mr Bezalel and Dr Best with our Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award.

What is equally important and interesting is that not only has the community carried some flavours of India with it here, but they have retained, or assimilated in some form, Indian traditions that in many ways now have become yours. I am told, for example, that the distinctive Malida thali made by the Bene Israelis – and Malida is now officially incorporated in the local calendar here. Likewise, the influence of the mangalsutra and the mehendi among Bene Israelis, the practice of baat pukka for formalizing marriages among Baghdadi Jews, and symbolic adorning of the Torah arks with jasmine garlands and the use of manara by the Cochini Jews. You also adopted that very Indian tradition of removing shoes before entering the synagogue. And you all still remember our way of life, our languages, our festivals, and, I am told about the Maiboli journal in Marathi. And I recently saw pictures of Onam being celebrated with a saadya meal, not to forget the flower rangoli! It’s not just Onam, Holi is celebrated here, also Purim, Diwali, Hanukkah. And, as I said, the community is really today an organic bond between our two peoples. It is, therefore, not surprising that people you say, "Israel is my fatherland and India is my motherland.”

And then there are those among you and your ancestors who are here today, not from the Bene Israeli or the Cochini or the Baghdadi or the Menashe community, but who are still strengthening their bond through scholarly studies of India and its vast cultural treasures. I am, of course, referring to the Indologists among you and we owe a deep of gratitude for the understanding and friendship that your work has fostered in this land. You serve, all of you, to widen and deepen the discourse between one holy land and another. And I am told, that some of you, who have Now, delved deep into Dravidian languages and literature, translated classical Sanskrit texts into Hebrew, devoted themselves to the study of Hindi literature, and even ventured into comparative studies of the two religions.

Now, as Member of Parliament myself from Gujarat, where Esther Solomon was a well-known Sanskrit scholar and professor at Gujarat University, I can say that there are many who have done very far reaching work on the anthropological studies of the Indian Jewish community. There are those who have done again, a lot in terms of India’s political geography. And of course, I just had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Shaul Sapir, who has published yet another work on the Jewish heritage in Bombay (Mumbai) and I’ll be happy to launch his book today. We’ll be hearing from Prof. Sapir himself about his work.

India’s connections with Jerusalem goes back 800 years in time. One of our revered Sufi saints, Baba Farid, meditated in a cave inside the city walls in Jerusalem. And this place later has become a shrine and a pilgrim lodge for travelers from India. Today, this Indian Hospice symbolizes India’s presence in the Old City. Further, hundreds of Indian soldiers fought in this land during the First World War, and many of them actually made the supreme sacrifice. The tale of the valiant cavalry charge by Indian soldiers that liberated the city of Haifa on September 23, 1918 is of course very well known. What is less well known are the sacrifices made by other soldiers in other parts of the land. Or how some of these soldiers actually ensured the safety of the spiritual leader of the Baha’i Faith in Israel at this time. In modern post-Independence times, there are also the relatively less known aspects of how major socialist political leaders and streams in India felt a kinship with the kibbutz movement in Israel. And, in a quest to build on the Gandhian concept of ashram or village as a self-sustaining unit of development. Jayaprakash Narayan, one of our most prominent political leaders and theorists associated with our Independence struggle, visited Israel in 1958, and many followers of Vinoba Bhave, another towering leader of our independence movement, visited Israel in 1960 to understand the kibbutz movement here. I will have the honour of visiting some of these sites hopefully later in this visit.

And this brings me to the urgent need to tap both the community and the Indologists here to better document the heritage and history of the community, as also the societal crossflows. How do we preserve the memory and experiences of the community elders? How do we listen to the younger generation of the community, understand their aspirations and make them a part of this living bridge? How do we enhance the reach of the work being done by the Indologists both within the community and outside? We will be happy to hear from you and would support your endeavours in this direction. I am told that the Embassy has already offered to devote a corner in its Cultural Center to house the work being done by you so that it is both available and accessible in one place.

Four years ago, I had the honour to accompany the Prime Minister on his historic visit to Israel. And at that time, he said that "हमारा संबंध परंपरा, संस्कृति और एक दूसरे के प्रति भरोसे और मित्रता का है।" that is, "We are joined by traditions, culture, mutual trust and friendship.” Indeed, our bilateral relations have been in a qualitatively different trajectory in the last few years. Our two countries share values of democracy and pluralism. We also share some of our guiding civilizational philosophies: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in India, or the world is one family, and Tikun Olam in Israel, or heal the world. We also share similar challenges to our society from radicalism and terrorism, apart from many other emerging developments on the geopolitical landscape. The real thrust, however, is to expand the innovation and trade partnership between our two knowledge economies. For example, while we collaborated to tackle Covid-19, can we take that to the next level? How should we further augment the contact and collaboration between scientists, students and start-ups? I’ll be discussing these issues, and others, in my meetings during my visit. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between India and Israel. India is celebrating the 75th year of our own independence. In 2023, Israel too would be celebrating the 75th year of its independence. These occasions are significant milestones to start new voyages and to cover new horizons.

Now, it may be that, as I said in the beginning, mine is an unfinished journey. But I can certainly contribute, however modestly, to quicken thepace of our cooperation, and to tap into the enthusiasm that I see every time that I come to this country. Once again, I thank you all for joining me today.

Toda rabba.

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