Wednesday, October 3, 2007

India and Israel

There was an interesting article in the Times yesterday on how Indian-American groups are beginning to emulate Jewish-American groups as a source of ethnic political influence, and there are dreams of an India lobby rivaling the Israel lobby in its scope and puissance. They can even call their organization AIPAC (American-Indian Political Action Committee.)

In thinking about it, there are a lot of similarities between India and Israel. They received their independence from Britain a year apart (1947 and 1948, respectively), and both nations were born through a hastily mapped partition with a Muslim country that has resulted in six decades of tension, war, and conflict with their neighbors. (However, Israel liked its partition, while India hated theirs.) They were originally democratic socialist polities that in recent decades have moved towards free market economies. (It is difficult to think of two world leaders that were more alike in their general political philosophies than Nehru and Ben-Gurion, and their tenures as prime minister, from the late 1940s into the early 1960s, roughly coincided.) And in recent decades both countries have been riven by strife between the optimistic and secular vision of their founders and a xenophobic, religious-based nationalism. (Both countries have had popular prime ministers assassinated.)

And the dominant religions of Israel and India are similar as well, despite the fact that Hinduism is basically polytheistic, and Judaism is the first important monotheistic religious, apologies to Akhenaton and Zoroaster aside. Although it was nice to read in the Times article that “Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, met with Hindu leaders in India, after which the Jewish and Hindu clerics declared common beliefs, among them that their "respective traditions teach that there is one supreme being,” I think what is most valuable about Hinduism is that it is the only genuine polytheism to survive to modern times, long after Zeus, Apollo et al. were ploughed under by Christianity. (To be sure, there are aspects of Hinduism that emphasize the unity of God, say in the Upanisads, as aspects of Judaism that see God as a plurality, most notably in Kabbalism. In every polytheism there is a monotheism striving to get out, and vice versa.)

But there are strong affinities between Hinduism and Judaism nontheless. Among the “Great Religions” Judaism and Hinduism are the oldest (and the only two whose origins can not really be dated), the only two that are essentially national cults, and the only two that do not proselytize. And although Judaism and Hinduism both have extensive ethical and metaphysical teachings, they are, at their core, the great religions of ritual purity, strewn with myriad obligations and proscriptions for the believer.

This is perhaps a bit far afield of the Times article. To return to Indian-Americans seeking political power, it seems to me that Indians lack a New York City, a large metropolitan area whose politics they can dominate. They need a power base. I’m not an expert in this, but I think the Indian-American population is probably too widely dispersed for their own political good.

And then, there is a misunderstanding of how the Israel lobby works, on the part of Indians and many others. This brings us to the subject of the new book out by Walt and Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby, which has received praise and furious condemnations. Perhaps this is a subject for a subsequent post. All that I would say is that much of the argument on the power of the Jewish lobby seems to have the relationship backwards. Israel’s unique role as an ally of the United States has come about less because of pressure by American Jews and others to have their government support Israel, but because US government has sought over the decades, for its own geo-political strategic reasons, a close relation with Israel, and then more or less went about creating an Israel lobby to serve its own interests. (By all accounts the “Israel lobby” is far more conservative on Israel and other matters than American Jewish opinion as a whole.) In many ways, the US government and neo-conservatives in high places (Jewish and non-Jewish) have manipulated Jewish-American opinion far more than the reverse.

Perhaps Indian Americans will someday gain enough political power to rival Jewish Americans, and the India lobby will equal the Israel lobby. All I can say to Indian Americans is; be careful what you wish for.


Rob Snyder said...

Teaching in New Jersey as I do, I am always reminded of the large number of recent immigrants who skipped the urban experience that defined earlier generations of newcomers (especially Jews) and moved straight to the suburbs. This is especially true for Indians.

Indians have worked to build political power in the suburbs. (Mitra Kalita's book, "Suburban Sahibs," looks at this in New Jersey.) Still, as "India and Israel" points out, this is in a context of an Indian population that lacks a strong identification with one major city--as with Jews in New York or Cubans in Miami.

Will this lead to Indians gaining political power in coalition with others at a local level? Will it lead them to concentrate on international issues, on the AIPAC model, that Indians around the country care about? Or perhaps a bit of both? Whatever the case, this is all worth watching from the vantage point of Greater New York.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if the Jewish model would be one I would want to follow, the ADL et al have pissed off a LOT of people and the anomosity is growing, as is increasing awareness of Jewish American influence on foreign policy which often runs counter to American interests. If all those families across the US who are receiving their sons in body bags knew the Iraq war was pushed by AIPAC.....I wouldn't want to be associated with anything remotely Israeli.

Secondly, Indians will not have the power of the Holocaust to shield them nor dominance (thus far) in the media - plenty of Indians work in journalism, but not nearly with the cohesiveness and frequency of Jews.

Third, if another group with 'positive' demographics starts lobbying not as Americans, but as their ethnic group, how long until whites finally get fed up? I know I am getting there.

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