Two things I cannot banish easily from my mind: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remark that the marriage between Israel and India was made in heaven, and an article on Shylock in the latest New Yorker.
Stephen Greenblatt, the article’s author, teaches at Harvard but learnt his English literature at Yale, where in 1961 he was denied a research assistantship for being a Jew. Orally telling the 18-year-old that Yale’s Jewish students were genetically programmed to “wheedle” money out of the university, a financial-aid officer rejected his application.
Goaded by the slur-soaked rebuff, Greenblatt went on to become one of the world’s best-known literature scholars and a student also of ethnic and religious apartheid. His New Yorker article brings to life the segregated Venice of the period when Shakespeare was alive. It also touches on the cruelties that Europe’s Jews faced in preceding and succeeding centuries.
I must not steal from the article. Those who can access it will obtain a brilliant analysis of Shylock and of how Shakespeare’s immortal character found a life beyond what the playwright may have intended, and beyond what The Merchant of Venice plot required.
Pointing out, moreover, that some Christian writers in 17th century-Europe articulated the misery of victimised Jews, Greenblatt also acknowledges that today “other ethnic groups and religions have replaced Jews as the focus” of the sort of hostility he ran into in 1961.
The story of today’s Israel is wider than that of Netanyahu, but most in India are unaware of that width. Not many know that American as well as Israeli Jews are among the sharpest critics of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Or that Israel’s oldest newspaper, Haaretz, is relentless in its exposure of Arab hardships in Israel and in the “Palestinian territory”, where Israeli settlements have taken over the highest and best lands, in the process almost halving the Palestinian area.
A recent Haaretz issue underlines the inhumanity, illegality and difficulty in the Israeli attempt to convert Jerusalem, the eastern half of which was captured by Israel in 1967, into a homogeneous Jewish city. Despite new (and internationally unlawful) Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the decay of the city’s Arab sectors, nearly 30 per cent in Jerusalem are Arabs, who, however, are not permitted to vote for the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), unlike Arabs in other parts of Israel, who vote.
Given such realities, the notion of a heaven-made Israeli-Indian alliance sticks in one’s throat. A down-to-earth partnership between Indian and Israeli citizens loyal to human dignity would be better, if also more courageous. And one asks if drones and other purchases would require India’s silence on the question of Israel’s treatment of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who signed numerous MoUs in Israel and was the first Indian leader to give Palestine a miss while visiting the area, refrained from saying that India would recognise Jerusalem as an exclusively Israeli or Jewish city, or that India’s embassy in Israel would be shifted to Jerusalem, for centuries sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. The world is not yet so “pragmatic” as to produce a musical of an Israeli-Indian romance where a screen of roses and an anti-terrorist wall combine to hide the realities of occupation, suppression and misery.
Tragically, terrorism is part of the real world that Jews and Arabs inhabit in Israel, Palestine and the neighbourhood, as it is part of real worlds elsewhere. But it was not wholly absent in other freedom movements that we honour. Historians can point to periods in the 20th century when “terrorism” was a nice word in the vocabulary of Hindu nationalists in India and Jewish nationalists in Israel.
Disharmony among Palestinian leaders is also another unhelpful reality. Still, some Arabs and Jews work together to seek nonviolent solutions for the Palestine/Israel question, even if their impact is not as loud as we might like. The security that walls, drones and missiles provide for Israel from one tense day to the next cannot match the security that can come if its Arab neighbours choose to become Israel’s friends.
A pipe dream? Even if it is, I wish Prime Minister Modi had given expression to something like it while he was there. Even within India, what future is there if we conclude that bitterness between divided neighbours is an unalterable and permanent reality? Doesn’t every family find out that putting hurtful incidents to one side is the only way to go forward?
In any case, India becoming a major power will not excite the world unless India’s voice is raised in favour of reconciliation and justice, which are two sides of a single coin.
Utopian? Perhaps. On the other hand, what would you call an Indo-Israeli honeymoon on a magic carpet that floats above dispossessed and ordered-about Palestinians? To me that would be a disgraceful betrayal of those in whose laps we were raised. Even worse, it would be a slamming down of our consciences.
[The writer, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, is research professor at the Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.]