The Mysterious Case of India’s Jews

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Why did India’s Jews leave? Since 1881, Jews began to arrive in what was then called Palestine mainly from Europe but also parts of the Middle East. Most of them were escaping persecution in their homelands, from a deeply unequal status such as in Yemen to outright violence such as in Eastern Europe. Yet a study of their migration patterns and the conditions reveal that many were still reluctant to make that journey to Zion and clung to a sense of belonging to their countries of domicile. In contrast, the Jews of India have never faced persecution of any kind and were in a relatively good position economically and socially in their country. However, most of them left the subcontinent soon after the creation of the State of Israel. What explains this unusual phenomenon?

It is beyond the scope of this essay to answer this question. However, I wish to highlight the incompatibility of the general Jewish experience or even the Israeli nationalist narrative when we discuss Indian Jews. Four primary motives are ascribed to migrations: 1.) persecution, be it on the basis of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or something else; 2.) economics, in search of greater opportunities to create wealth, better governance, and an overall higher quality of life; 3.) nationalism, for a feeling of belonging to a community, especially if one is alienated in the culture of one’s residence; and 4.) religion, as a belief in transcendental promises, obligations, and belonging to a particular geography or community. It is also understood that there are factors that push for migration from the resident country and there are corresponding pull factors in the migratory destination. Although each of these four reasons are problematic in describing the considerations of Indian Jews for leaving India, the scant evidence suggests that a mix of nationalism and religion explains their actions the best. I shall consider each of these briefly to capture a sense of the Jewish experience in India and bring out the unsatisfactory answers they provide.

My focus on the Bene Israel rather than on, say, the Baghdadi Jews, is for one simple reason – the Bene Israel had been in India so long and were disconnected from the Jewish world for most of that time. Many of the Cochin Jews, though not all, came fleeing Iberia after the Alhambra Decree of Queen Isabella of and King Ferdinand II in 1492 and the Baghdadi Jews came to India in the early eighteenth century escaping the pogroms of Dawud Pasha. Their far more recent connection to the world Jewish community makes their exodus from India far more understandable than that of the Bene Israel or the kala (Black) Cochin Jews.

Persecution:

In his 2003 visit to India, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon commented that India was the only country in the world that had not known anti-Semitism. While Sharon was no scholar of history, his words can easily be fact-checked: although it is not certain when the first Jews arrived in India, the myths of the Bene Israel, the largest Jewish community in India, claim that they arrived in India around approximately 200 BCE, shipwrecked off the coast of Goa and given shelter and refuge by local villagers in the region. This is supported by the similarity of some Bene Israel rituals – malida, for example, to those practiced in the Northern Kingdom’s Asher and Zebulon tribes after the separation from the Kingdom of Judah. Some stories about the origins of the Cochin Jews push that date further back to the eighth century BCE, using the presence of South Indian loan words in the Bible as evidence.

Documentary evidence is scarce from this period but the earliest definitive proof of harmonious Jewish existence in India comes from a copper plate from around 1000 CE issued by the Chola emperor, of what is now the modern Indian province of Tamil Nadu, that listed the rights granted to the Jewish community of Cranganore, including the right to adjudicate all disputes in their town. Several other stories abound about how the Jewish community was always protected by the Hindu rulers of India. For example, when the Portuguese conquered Goa in 1510, neighbouring Hindu kings gave refuge to Jews fleeing from the Goan Inquisition.

Similar behaviour was witnessed when Jews were persecuted, to a much lesser extent, by the Dutch in Cochin or occasionally by India’s Muslim rulers from time to time. In general, Jews were treated on par with any of India’s myriad communities, and the Indian polity was used to dealing with hundreds of different customs, rituals, and languages between them. Nathan Katz writes of the kingdom of Cochin even as late as 1550, “Probably India is the only country on earth so civilized that in war, out of deference to its esteemed Jewish soldiers, no battles were fought on the Sabbath.” As one Cochin Jew expressed the place of Jews in India, the Jewish and Hindu communities lived “side-by-side but not submerged, acculturated but not assimilated.”

This fraternity between Hindus and Jews did not change under British rule. For example, a Bene Israel professor, Ezekiel Talkar, was able to persuade the Bombay municipality in 1870 to allow Hebrew as a second official language for the civil service exams – this was almost 80 years before the State of Israel would be formed and before the efforts of Eliezer Ben Yehuda to revive Hebrew as the unifying Jewish language. India was thus the only place in the world where Hebrew was an official language for national examinations. Interestingly, the only problems the Bene Israel faced over their Jewish identity from Indians was from another Jewish community, the Baghdadi Jews!

An interesting counterpoint is raised by some scholars that the readiness of the Bene Israel to emigrate to Israel began after the partition of India and the departure of the British from the subcontinent because of their concern that the Indian population would not forgive the collaborative role of the Jewish community with the British imperial masters. However, none seem clear on what these fears are based – after all, millions of Indians – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, as well as others – also collaborated with the British as civil servants, soldiers, and servants. Even in that part of the Indian subcontinent that became Pakistan, animosity against the Jewish community was based on their religion rather than any grudge for siding with the British Raj.

Furthermore, although Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru did not support the Zionist aspiration of creating a national homeland in Palestine, this was more out of ignorance of Jewish history and circumstances rather than any animosity. At most, one might argue that Indian reluctance to support the Jewish cause was based on the pragmatic evaluation, with which even the British agreed, that it might cause unrest among India’s vast population of Muslims.

In fact, it was the British who tried to stop Jews fleeing fascist Europe from entering India – Hindu Indian leaders welcomed them and allowed philanthropic organisations to be established by the Jewish community to help the refugees (Hodes, 69). Many of these European Jews even made long-lasting connections with the Indian people despite their brief stay in the country and contributed much to the cultural milieu of the subcontinent.

Thus, persecution does not seem a probably cause for the departure of the Bene Israel from India. There is simply not an iota of evidence that they had ever been the target of discrimination nor was there any realistic fear that they might become targets in the near future.

Economics:

Most migration theories today focus on economic factors that pull migrants to their destinations. Although there was, as with any community, a wide variance in personal wealth among the Bene Israel, their economic conditions nor those of the newly established State of Israel warrant any migration from India to Israel during at least the first two waves of Jewish emigration from India between 1948 and 1951 and 1953 and 1954 when the overwhelming number of Indian Jews – some 80 percent – left the country.

The Bene Israel may not have been as affluent as their Baghdadi cousins, but there is ample evidence that they were a generally prosperous community. After their initial arrival in India, they took up the profession of oil merchants and were called shaniwar taelis for the refused to work on Shabbat. However, they were restricted to that profession and the Bene Israel were also found in carpentry, masonry, trade, money lending, and several other professions. With the advent of the European modernity in the seventeenth century, the Bene Israel also became journalists, architects, writers, physicians, lawyers, engineers, teachers, professors, civil servants, social workers, and even politicians. Among the financially lower classes who could not afford much education, they became millworkers, tailors, soldiers, and hospital assistants in addition to their traditional trades.

In 1796, Samuel Ezekiel Dibker opened in Bombay the first Bene Israel synagogue (the first synagogue in India was built in the fourth century in Kodungallur). Until then, they had congregated in the homes of leading Jewish families of the neighbourhood or village for prayer for they were kept out of Baghdadi Jewish synagogues as they were not seen as pure Jews by the newer entrants to India and although the Cochin Jews allowed them to pray together, they were made to sit on the floor or outside the synagogue. In 1841, another synagogue was built and a third in 1886. Away from home, the Bene Israel contributed funds through Rabbi Yaakov Sapir in 1864 for the renovation of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. This indicates the relative prosperity of the Bene Israel community.

The advent of the British in India increased the fortunes on the Bene Israel. With access to modern education, they were able to create contacts with the international Jewish community and move into international trade as well like their Baghdadi brethren. Furthermore, the British policy of favouring minorities in staffing their local administrations helped the Bene Israel tremendously. Several Bene Israel such as David Erulkar were even able to go to England to receive advanced degrees and others such as Dua Aftekar and Eliyahu Moses were elected mayors of Bombay. Jacob Israel, another prominent Bene Israel member, became the ruler of Janjira.

The Bene Israel benefited from the Christian Missions that followed European imperialism not just in terms of education that made them professionals and an introduction to the international Jewish trading community but also in terms access to services such as sanitation, hospitals, child day-care, orphanages, and other such amenities that truly modernised them in outlook. It was a case of colonised people demanding – and receiving – what they wanted from their imperial masters; what they did not want – Christianity – the Bene Israel did not hesitate to reject.

However, with the departure of the British the new Indian government implemented socialistic economic policies and Jewish trading, particularly Baghdadi, was hurt. This policy was not directed at the Jews specifically but nonetheless it created an impetus for many among the Jewish community to leave the country in search of greener pastures. It is noteworthy that the preferred destinations of these Jews were the United States and Canada where they had cultivated networks over the past century rather than the newly formed Jewish state. Another change the new Indian administration brought in was the end to a preference for minorities in the civil services and other posts. Although Jews were not specifically discriminated against, the new policy meant that they had no special privilege and would have to compete for jobs as ordinary Indians. This reduced any additional benefit the Bene Israel might have felt that their country of domicile offered them and increased the attractiveness of Israel and the wider world.

Still, given the economic uncertainties and difficulties in Israel, it is difficult to understand how economics might have played a role in making the Bene Israel emigrate from India. Jean Roland notes that this can be partially explained by the international political climate and the public perception it created of the Jews. Being a minuscule community, the Bene Israel lacked networks in the Indian economy and administration. When applying for corporate jobs, they were sometimes told, “We’re reluctant to hire you because we’ll invest in your training and then you’ll leave for Israel.” Without significant ties to India, such as land holdings or domestic trade networks, the more mobile urban professionals found it easier to migrate to Israel and the West.

If this is indeed a motivation, it seems trivial in comparison to the travails of European and Middle Eastern Jewry, who withstood the greatest of pressures for centuries before they were finally forced to leave their homes for Israel. Nonetheless, it is still surprising that such a sentiment was felt across the community rather than among a few educated, cosmopolitan, and mobile professionals.

Judaism:

The Bene Israel, having arrived in India before the destruction of the Second Temple and having been disconnected from the world Jewish community for so long, was not even aware of rabbinic Judaism until the eighteenth century. It was the Cochin Jews at first and later the Baghdadi Jews who introduced them to Judaism and the Hebrew script again. Although Shirley Isenberg argues that the first sign of contact between the Bene Israel and the Cochin Jews is recorded a chronicle called the Maggid Hadshoth circa 340 CE, it is believed that the Bene Israel, in their travels for trade, came across Jewish merchants in Surat in the mid-1700s. Regardless, clear evidence exists that David Ezekiel Rahaby was instrumental in sending the Bene Israel books from Cochin to reintroduce the community to Judaism and the Cochin community henceforth was influential in bringing the Bene Israel back into the Jewish world after having been isolated for centuries. This meant that the Judaism of the Bene Israel came to resemble that of Sephardic Jewry.

Even before their rediscovery of Judaism, the Bene Israel maintained Jewish customs and rituals to the best of their ability. They observed the Shabbat, maintained kosher, and commemorated Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah, Pesach, and other important Jewish events. However, due to the understandable development of certain customs peculiar to them – pronunciations or rituals – the Bene Israel were castigated by the Baghdadi and Cochin Jewish communities for not being “proper” Jews and did not allow intermarriage as the resulting offspring would be mamzerim. This was despite proclamations of Jewish authorities in Safed and Tiberias, such as Rabbi Samuel Abe, claiming that it was a great mitzvah to be close to the Bene Israel, who were good Jews in every sense. The Bene Israel were thus accepted into the Jewish community but not fully; this problem would continue to plague them even after their arrival in Israel well into the 1960s.

For their part, the Bene Israel followed halacha to the best of their ability. Marriage with non-Jews was rare and when it did occur, the children were not allowed to marry other Bene Israel. Circumcision was practiced, and ritual slaughter, marriage, funerals, and adjudication of disputes was done by the Jewish code as much as they were aware. Yet with modernity, and unaware that their religious identity needed to be protected since they had never been persecuted on its account, the Bene Israel secularised like most other communities around the world. By the twentieth century, the Bene Israel ceased to ascribe the same prestige to religious positions within their community as they previously had soon after the encounter with the Cochin Jews. Secular success marked importance now, and combined with their relative inexperience with halacha and religious regulations, the Bene Israel remained dependent on the Cochin Jews for religious leadership.

Despite this lukewarm attitude towards Judaism, it is interesting to note that many of the Bene Israel who came to Israel stated that it was their faith that brought them to the Holy Land. Immigrants interviewed held that the creation of the State of Israel excited them and suddenly, there arose thoughts of Zion and the Holy City in their minds which would not let them rest. Of course, to interview subjects so long after the event and acculturation into their new home might taint their recollection of the past but it is surprising to see that a community not known for its religiosity either in India or in Israel insist that Judaism was one of the key motivators for them to leave India. More importantly, this goes against the narrative of the overwhelming number of Jews from Europe and the Middle East – who were fully immersed in Judaism and the Jewish world – who came to Israel fleeing persecution, often as a last resort; it goes against the grain also of the experience of the many Jews who came to Palestine and then left for ideological reasons – communism – or economic and environmental hardship. While the Baghdadi and Cochin communities might have found it appealing to return to their networks, the Bene Israel had no such excuse and stand out as an interesting case of migration.

Zionism:

Zionism was always a lukewarm enterprise in the subcontinent. Paradoxically, it was Christian attempts at proselytism that strengthened the Jewish identity of the Bene Israel. In 1815, the American Mission opened schools 35 schools in Bombay that taught in Marathi, the language of the Bene Israel; in 1826, the Bible was translated into Marathi and in 1832, a Hebrew grammar was published in Marathi. Although the Bene Israel learned had conventional Jewish liturgy and forms of worship from the Cochin Jews, their knowledge of Hebrew and Biblical knowledge came from American, Anglican, and Scottish missionaries. This interaction did not convert the Bene Israel to Christianity but the community later used the tools and knowledge gained to criticise Christianity and embrace rabbinic Judaism.

Pace these stronger ties to Judaism and international Jewry, the Bene Israel remained disconnected from the political developments in Europe and the Middle East and did not understand the significance of some of the events news of which trickled through to India. When invited to attend the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, they hesitated to send an envoy. Nonetheless, as the Yishuv sent emissaries to India – the first in 1917 – to try and win the support of Gandhi, Nehru, and other Indian leaders, the Bene Israel learned more about the plight of their brothers in Europe. Consequently, the All India Israelite League was created the same year with a publication called Friend of Israel. Although this group supported Zionism, they did not see it as necessary for themselves.

In 1920, the Bene Israel Zionist Organisation was created and after the visit of Israel Cohen from the World Zionist Organisation in 1921, the Calcutta Zionist Organisation was also established. Cohen remarked in his report a strong Jewish consciousness among the Bene Israel, a love of Jewish learning, and a willingness to do their share in restoring the land of Israel. All this paved the way for the visit of Immanuel Olsvanger in 1936, who, according to one Bene Israel member, first awoke in them the idea of emigrating to Israel. An Indian Zionist journal, The Jewish Advocate, wrote at the time of Olsvanger’s visit, “[he] had forged a link between Indian Jewry and Palestine as no other delegate before him had done.”

Even if this claim is a bit of an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the Polish Zionist activist made a tremendous impact among Indian Jews. By the time of his visit, the Jewish community had begun to become worried about Muslim political mobilisation in favour of their religious brethren in Palestine and fervour for Zionism has dissipated somewhat since Cohen’s visit twelve years earlier. During Olsvanger’s visit to Bombay in 1941, he proclaimed to the Bene Israel emotionally, “Your ancestors came here at the time of the destruction of Second Temple; we want you in Palestine to assist us in building the Third Temple.” He went back with the largest collection of funds for the Zionist cause until then from the city.

However, the Bene Israel were not completely convinced by the Zionist public relations efforts. Some members recounted their own experience and were not sure that the Bene Israel community would be treated as equals in Israel by the same European Jews who were racist towards the Bene Israel when they visited Europe for further studies. Furthermore, the Baghdadi Jews, with whom the Bene Israel had much friction despite welcoming them when they first arrived, saw themselves as European and superior to the native Jews of India. These experiences gave pause to some of the Bene Israel who cautioned against the possibility of racial discrimination in Palestine and warned that this heedless mixing of Jews of such diverse cultures from all around the world might end up hurting world Jewry more than was anticipated.

To this end, the Bene Israel questioned visiting Zionist emissaries about potential racial tensions in the Yishuv. Cohen responded that the Bene Israel would be “just as welcome as the Yemenite Jews or any other Easterners who had recently arrived.” Their poor knowledge of the world and Zionism meant that the Bene Israel interpreted this positively but at the time of Cohen’s answer, division of labour based on race and ethnicity existed in Palestine. In 1943, “The Uniform Pioneer of Eastern Lands,” a plan drawn up by the Yishuv for integrating olim, demarcated a zone from Haifa to Gaza for internment camps for European Jews who would have to stay there for three months for acculturation while Eastern immigrants would be hosted in the Negev for a year. Though never implemented, this shows that the Bene Israel fears were not entirely unfounded.

The arrival of Jews fleeing Europe in the 1930s stirred up support for Zionism among Indian Jews. The communities set up the Jewish Relief Agency (JRA) in 1934 to assist the refugees and promised to compensate the British for every Jew they allowed into the country; much as in Mandatory Palestine, the British were reluctant to allow Jews to come to India for fear of upsetting the local Muslim population. In fact, Jews coming from countries friendly to the Axis Powers were held in internment camps by the British to ensure that they were not spies. However, the JRA was supported fully by the Indians and was able to rapidly expand with relief services in Madras and Calcutta.

None of this is to suggest that the feeling of belonging to India in the Bene Israel was weak. As elsewhere, the question of dual loyalty arose among the Jews of India (but not among the Indians themselves). The conclusion of their discussions was that they felt both, strongly Indian and fiercely Jewish. As Solomon Moses argued forcefully, “If any of you is asked whom you love more, your father or your mother, what would you say? Rightly, India has become our mother. It is our motherland and Israel is our fatherland.”

Although Jews worked in the British colonial administration – as did other Indians – they were also supportive of Indian nationalism. Gandhi had couched it in terms of a moral struggle against cruelty and they saw Zionism in the same light as they saw the Indian independence struggle. Many Jews were also involved in social work in India and helped rid society of discriminations of various kinds. They were also philanthropic beyond their own communities and also contributed greatly to Indian cultural production.

Thus, it might be accurate to think of Indian Jews as Zionists not necessarily for themselves but for those who had faced unremitting persecution for centuries. Naturally, they felt for their religious family; however, those ties were not, on their own, strong enough to loosen the bonds they felt to India.

Conclusion:

I have outlined the four primary motivations the Indian Jewish community might have wanted to emigrate to Israel after the independence of India and the creation of the Jewish state. No reason appears convincing by itself to initiate the uprooting of one’s entire family to go into the unknown. However, a combination of factors might have played a role and swung the balance sufficiently to make the Bene Israel want to leave. Still, in comparison to the situation of the Jews from other parts of the world that were flooding into Israel, these reasons still seem wanting.

The most common reason the immigrants themselves have given in later interviews is Judaism with a twist of Zionism. Since it is methodologically problematic to base our conclusions on interviews alone, that too done so many decades after the events, we are left with no choice but to accept the immigrants’ answer with caution.  The answer is unconvincing also because a large number of Indian Jews who left India went to the United States, Canada, and other destinations rather than Israel. This points to a multicausal phenomenon but we return to the same question of if any one reason was sufficient to trigger a mass exodus.

With scant documentary evidence from local sources, with so few members of that generation left, and those remaining probably fully integrated into the Israeli national narrative, along with their children and grandchildren, it is unlikely we will ever be able to fully understand this small sliver of Jewish migration unless creative scholars invent new methods of mining history.

It is true that the Bene Israel – and perhaps Indian Jewry in general – did not understand Zionism properly because of their distance from Europe and the Yishuv. Might their rosier-than-warranted picture of Israel have played the role of a fifth element in their decision? Plausible, but the best explanation I have come across for the migration of Indian Jews from India comes from an interview with a Bene Israel immigrant: asked why he chose to come to Israel, the respondent said, “I cannot remember exactly why I decided to come to Israel but I can remember the exact moment – I was reading The Jewish Advocate and was overwhelmed with emotion. I made up my mind to move there and then.” Perhaps, as Roger Peterson cautions us, we should not discount emotion, as empirically unsatisfactory as that is, in favour of rational decisions when considering historical events.

Polarised Electorates

Tags

As India hits the election cycle, we are bound to hear about how polarised the electorate has become over the past decade or so. Blame will be ascribed to all sorts of things – the anonymity of social media, the reach of technology, the politics and psychology of fear. Yet in some ways, it is difficult not to see the present situation as the inevitable outcome of Progressive politics.

To briefly put that in context, Progressive politics in this case refers to the postmodernist strand of belief that traditions are invented, nations are dangerous make-believe, and that we are all free-defining minorities of the individual. By tearing away at the common fabric of society, conversations between opposite views are made impossible as there are no mutually understood and shared values.

Aristotle argued that any communication intended to persuade must have three characteristics: logos, the logic and reasoning of the argument, ethos, the character, credibility, and trustworthiness of the communicator, and pathos, the emotional element. The final element was achieved via eikṓs arguments, or what Anaximenes described as proofs derived from the audience themselves; they held for the most part but were not quantifiably true. Essentially, such arguments were supported by the audience’s ability to relate, their knowledge, experience, emotional predispositions, and behavioural habits.

Such rhetorical technique was common among the Ancient Greeks, even in serious circumstances such as legal settings. By appealing to common sense and shared values, Gorgias’ Defence of Palamedes and Antiphon’s On the Murder of Herodes, for example, try to create common ground and sway opinions. The speaker creates a bond with the audience with what philosopher Christopher Tindale called a shared cognitive environment. It is only with an interlocutor who is credible and defines the world as you do that the logic finally starts to matter.

This is not just some idle speculation of the Ancient Greeks – arguing from common ground remains an important part of rhetorical theory to this day. Recent evidence from neurology further suggests that there is just cause for this: since the mid-1990s, Portuguese neurologist Antonio Damasio has argued that emotions and feelings play a vital role in our ability to reason well. While the possibility of pure rationality has been a matter of fierce philosophical debate, Damasio brings laboratory evidence to suggest that people with impaired emotions suffer from cognitive disabilities and poor decision-making too. In fact, the scientist goes as far as to say that music, art, religion, science, technology, economics, politics, justice, or moral philosophy would not be possible without feelings.

Returning to the present quagmire of political discussion, it seems improbable that people with strongly opposing views could sustain a useful conversation for any length of time unless there is a belief that both are working towards the same destination. An enthusiast of a Savarkarite idea of India, for example, would discover little in common with someone who believes in the Gandhian mould even though they both have an idea of India; they might both see each other as staunch enemies of the national project. Both sides not only believe that they will lose a central component of their ethical structure but also suspect that the other is indifferent to the importance attached to this value. Any disagreement on superficial issues like Article 370, the Citizenship Registry, or Sabarimala is bound to remain pointless until the philosophical differences underpinning those differences are resolved and some common ground is achieved. It is only when both sides realise some shared values and develop some sort of bond or affinity that they will become more receptive of each other’s concerns.

The same is true with Brexit, Trumpistan, or any other polarised climate. Valid or not, Brexiteers fear that a lenient immigration policy will result in a flood of people coming in who will change the very icons of Englishness that have lasted for centuries; similarly, Trumpistas are worried that the (in)famous melting pot that is American society will dilute and dissipate the very characteristics of the country created by their founding fathers.

How do we walk back from this cliff? Polarisation will not go away overnight – after all, we did not get here overnight either. Decades of a Progressive agenda that has viciously neglected the concerns of those who disagreed has ultimately resulted in this backlash, and the pendulum is bound to swing back hardest at first. Yet unless there are serious conversations starting from first principles and reaching common ground, the public sphere is only going to get shriller.

The Election Season

Tags

, , , , , ,

Israel went to the polls on April 9 and India followed it two days later in its multi-phase, five-week-long format. Though the dates are an interesting coincidence, the two demonstrations of universal adult suffrage have a powerful common theme running through them – in Israel as well as in India, the central issue in these elections is the personality and character of the incumbent prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared early elections after his ruling coalition collapsed at the end of December 2018 over disagreements on a bill that would abolish the exemption and require haredim to serve in the Israel Defence Forces like all other citizens. An electoral campaign this year, however, was inevitable as the Netanyahu administration’s term was set to expire in November anyway.

What also surrounded the announcement of elections was the shadow of corruption charges against the prime minister – Netanyahu is facing indictment in three corruption cases on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. If convicted on all counts, he could face up to 13 years in prison and a fine.

Additionally, Israel is no stranger to the global backlash against liberalism. The country has for long been at odds with the international – American – Jewish Diaspora over several issues of identity such as women at the Kotel, the Orthodox Rabbinate’s monopoly in the personal sphere (marriage, divorce, burial, conversion, kashrut, olim, etc.), as well as over policy such as towards the Iranian nuclear programme, Gaza, and the Arab inhabitants of Judea & Samaria. However, these differences over identity with the Diaspora go back much further than the Netanyahu administration or even the foundation of the State of Israel.

The key question for Israel’s elections, therefore, was the personality and character of the prime minister. Even critics of the current administration agree that the economy is doing well, tourism is booming, and Netanyahu has handled his relations world leaders admirably, balancing ties with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, reaching out to some of the Arab states in the region, and opening up more of the world to Israel. Most importantly, no one in Israel, Left or Right, has a better solution to the intractable problem of Palestinian intransigence on the peace process or Iranian ambitions towards regional hegemony.

Predictably, the Opposition’s core message during their campaign was that they were not Netanyahu; on everything else, they closely echoed existing policies. Ultimately, this was not enough to swing the Israeli voter away from a known figure to a coalition of, at best, imitators, and at worst, unknowns.

India’s elections indicate a similar stamp. As in Israel, India’s economic and security indicators are generally as healthy as can be expected though things can always be better. For all the arguments around the policies of the Narendra Modi government, the core issue most people are voting on is identity. Modi is seen, rightly or wrongly, as the face of a resurgent Hindu nationalist identity that could transform the Indian republic. To his detractors, pace all the courts in the land, Modi will never escape the ghosts of the riots in the aftermath of the Godhra train burning incident in 2002.

Interestingly, many of the prime minister’s supporters are lukewarm about his identity agenda – because they only see symbolism in place of action over the past five years – than his critics are vociferous in denouncing it. Regardless, although conversations in India are ostensibly about economics, security, and other issues, most soon collapse to the Sangh Parivar’s idea of India. The battle for India’s soul, like in Israel, goes back much before the current administration. Yet the Modi government has been by far the most powerful voice for an alternative vision of the India republic.

The Indian Opposition, as in Israel, has little by way of new ideas to challenge the incumbent’s narrative of development or security. The platforms of the various parties seem to be largely lifted from socialist tracts of the 1960s that have failed several times before, interspersed with a dose of the contemporary politics of victimhood. There is little clarity on India’s greatest security threats – cybersecurity, intellectual property lawfare, terrorism, China, or Pakistan – except to say more of the same. While the Modi government has not necessarily distinguished itself on these fronts, the alternative offered is a recipe that has been tried before and found wanting.

The victory of the religious Right coalition was a foregone conclusion in the Israeli elections though how well Likud would fare, especially if the attorney general issued the indictments against Netanyahu, was up for debate. In the final outcome, the Likud emerged the largest party and increased its tally in the Knesset though overcame its rival, the new agglomeration Kahol Lavan, by the skin of its teeth. Similarly, most polling pundits seem convinced that May 23 – the day the results of the Indian elections are announced – will still see Modi in power but the fortunes of his party and coalition are in question.

One advantage Netanyahu had is that Israel’s population and politics have shifted to the Right in recent years and are broadly centre-right. In terms of the broader view of peace in the Middle East, Left and Right are mostly aligned, which is why neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas expressed any interest in the democratic ritual. India’s population, however, is more mercantile. A weak nation held together by a beleaguered state machinery, the majority of Indians are more concerned with quotidian social and material hurdles in their lives. Hence, Modi’s success cannot be as confidently foretold as observers could with Netanyahu.

Pretend as you will, India will vote over the next five weeks on Modi as Israel voted on Netanyahu. Securing his fifth term in office, the Israeli prime minister is on track to be not only the country’s longest-serving prime minister but in all probability the one with one of the strongest legacies. Only time will tell if a similar fate awaits Modi.