Hindutva and Zionism. Few words—ideas—have been as misunderstood or reviled as these two have been. Both are similar, scholars of nationalism will tell you, because they espouse ethnic nationalism—the notion of a national community based on religion, race, or blood. Notwithstanding the differences in the symbols they choose to venerate or vilify, the core dynamics of identity and emotion are identical.
However, there lies a deeper similarity between the two than merely rhetoric. Between Hindutva and Zionism, there exist three core similarities that shape their worldview in profound ways. It is not my contention that these concurrences are responsible for a subconscious affinity between India and Israel: in fact, it is an uncomfortable and unspoken verisimilitude that much of the sympathy and admiration for Israel in India probably comes from the perception of a common enemy. Despite Jewish presence in the subcontinent for two millennia, Indians are only now beginning to discover Jews—perhaps speaking to the seamless harmony in which Hindus and Jews existed.
The first point of congruence between Hindutva and Zionism is that, as nationalism goes, both are weak. It is not their fervour that is in doubt but the fact that neither held the land which they claimed on behalf of their nationhood. For the Zionists, they had been in exile from the territory that was the object of their nationalism for 18 centuries; expelled by the Romans after the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 CE, Judea (renamed Palestina during the Diocletian reforms at the end of the 3rd century) was subsequently ruled by the Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans, and finally the British. All nationalism needs to look inwards to create a community; colonial nationalism also has an outside enemy to rally against in the form of an imperial power. Zionism had a third obstacle in that the Jewish people had not even been living on the land they claimed as their own. While a very small number of Jews always remained in Herod’s fallen kingdom, they usually faced persecution at the hands of the occupying power and immigration to the region was tightly controlled. On the eve of the First Aliyah in 1882, the number of Jews in Palestine was barely 20,000.
It may seem farcical at first glance that Hindus—the subjects of Hindutva—did not possess their own land. After all, they were, and remain, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. Yet habitation alone does not mean possession: one must be able to exercise hegemony over it. For centuries before even the advent of the Raj, the Hindu kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent had been relegated to the footnotes of history. Four centuries after the first Muslim raids into Sindh, Muslim rule was firmly established in India with Muhammad of Ghor’s victory at the second battle of Taraori in 1192. It was not until the appearance of the British East India Company and the Maratha Confederacy in the late 17th century that the Dar al-Islam ceased to be the predominant power in the subcontinent.
Sultanates in Delhi, Bengal, Gujarat, and the Deccan expanded Muslim rule as far south as Madurai and subjugated all major Hindu kingdoms. The result was not just the loss of political sovereignty but the end of state patronage for Hindu society. Hindu art, literature, music, and welfare systems went into decline, and the famous temple construction projects as evidenced at Ellora, Khajuraho, Thanjavur, Badami, Belur, and elsewhere ceased; philosophy and theology stagnated. The short-lived ascent of the Marathas breathed some life into a moribund society before suzerainty over India passed into British hands but it was not enough.
The second core commonality between Hindutva and Zionism is how the exposure to secular, civic nationalism shaped their ideologies along similar lines. The decay of Hindu society and the dilution of Jewish identity preyed on early Hindutva and Zionist leaders’ minds. Both feared that living under foreign rule and gradual assimilation over the centuries had weakened the sense of identity in their communities. Despite a Hindu majority, religion was not the clarion call to the masses during India’s independence movement. Rather, mainstream Indian nationalists argued in the Western lexicon of liberty, self-determination, equality, and good governance.
The Jewish people were the first victims of the myth of civic nationalism—the notion of a national community based on shared values rather than the contrasting immutable properties of race and blood that ethnic nationalism privileged. It is an interesting observation that while immigration to Israel was central to Jewish identity and the land features centrally in their liturgies, there was not much of a rush to return to the Holy Land. This hesitation gives l’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim—next year in Jerusalem—uttered at the end of the Yom Kippur and Passover Seders, an unintended, tongue-in-cheek meaning! Zionist ideology and immigration to Israel began to increase only in the aftermath of the first set of pogroms after the French Revolution.
It seems strange that it was the emancipatory message of the French Revolution that fuelled Zionism. After all, the new French laws allowed Jews to come out of their ghettos, take up whatever profession they desired, serve in the military, and be considered full French citizens as long as they swore an oath to defend the secular French state. Many Jews welcomed this sudden inclusiveness and began to assimilate into the mainstream cultures of France, Germany, Russia, and other European nation-states. They spoke European languages, were comfortable in their literature and philosophy, adopted many of their customs in clothing and other banal aspects of life. Until 1815, owing to their exclusion, Europe’s Jews had contributed hardly anything to politics, philosophy, finance, medicine, the arts, or the law. Yet by the end of the 19th century, Jews were heavily concentrated in the major metropolis—Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Warsaw, and to a lesser degree, London, Paris, and Odessa.
These “modernising” Jews also gave up attending yeshiva and, in the process of deracination, lost familiarity with their culture. During their exclusion, the Jewish community had established a parallel education system, in a language Europeans ironically considered dead. Hebrew had long been an exclusively liturgical language but fewer Jews could now read it. This distanced them from the scriptures.
Yet the secular modern nation-state did not hold all the answers. Suddenly, the myriad smaller issues of quotidian life intruded upon newfound Jewish liberty. For example, France would not accept the Sabbath, which put the bureaucracy and educational system on a collision course with Jewish tenets. Or, the adherence of the Jewish community to their dietary laws restricted Jews only to restaurants of their own community. In essence, gentiles viewed emancipation as a vehicle for the integration of Jews into general society and their ultimate disappearance within it. Thus, ironically, secularism and liberalism did not solve problems of Jewish identity but exacerbated them by asking them to meld into the purgatory of undifferentiated universalism.
Doubts over the benefits of Jewish emancipation were quickly washed away when a fresh wave of anti-Semitic pogroms swept across Europe. It reiterated to the Jews that despite their assimilation, to true Europeans they would forever remain Judas. As Jewish elders also began to ask, could a Jew in France truly identify with Vercingetorix, the chieftain who united the Gauls against Rome, and would Germans really view a Jewish colleague as a true descendant of Arminius, who liberated Germania from the Roman empire? The inclusivism of the universalistic principles of the French Revolution came to be tempered by the historicist exclusivism of modern nationalism.
Jews had been persecuted throughout their history—first by the Visigoths and the Byzantines, and later by Muslims and Christians. They had been massacred during the Crusades and expelled from England, France, and Spain. Jews were not allowed to reside in the imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire, forcibly converted in Spain, and made to wear distinctive clothing and barred from public office in Italy. The pogroms of the 19th century, however, were different. Zionism, then, a post-Jewish emancipation phenomenon, was a response to the challenges of European liberalism and civic nationalism much more than a response merely to anti-Semitism.
Hindu nationalists came to the same conclusions about liberalism and the whole general caboodle of post-Enlightenment European values. Efforts to turn Indians into Macaulay’s children notwithstanding, Indians were kept out of the upper echelons of colonial administration. Under the guise of freedom of religion, proselytism was allowed even though it was detrimental to local traditions that did not proselytise. These policies were justified in the name of development while they slyly whittled away any sense of an Indic identity. The scientific temper had a decidedly European accent, as if there had been no intellectual achievements elsewhere. Being modern meant for the Indian what the Enlightenment and emancipation meant to the Jew: the disappearance of the communal essence of their culture through atomisation and alienation—for this, as Max Nordau described, was the nature of the modern world based as it is on deracinated individualism.
Moreover, Hindu nationalists saw their community as a victim of centuries of excessive pluralism. While Hindu kings had welcomed refugees and traders of other faiths warmly, the sentiment was not reciprocated when foreign rulers dethroned them. Hindu nationalists remembered only too vividly the forced conversions, the rapes and massacres, the pillaging and looting, the destruction of temples, and the overall attempt to erode Hinduism at the hands of Muslims and Christians. The Raj and opposition to it presented a unique opportunity which held the potential of uniting India under one administration again and reviving Hindu society.
Both Hindutva and Zionism have several different strands and are evolving phenomena. Independence has not meant stagnation, though the principal actors and foci change. Early Zionism, for example, was strongly opposed by the religious sections for they saw it as playing messiah and interference in God’s work. The questions that preoccupied the Jewish community then were also not religious but European emancipation and liberalism. It is little wonder, then, that the towering Zionists of the era preached cultural revival as the first step towards Jerusalem.
The philosopher-historian Nachman Krochmal, for example, saw history through a Hegelian lens and the nation as Herder did. Thus, he recognised the particularities of the Jewish people that forge a unique nation distinguished from others and argued that this was not an end unto itself but only a step in the development of universal culture. What Krochmal attempted to do philosophically, historian Heinrich Graetz did historically, firmly establishing the idea that the Jews were one nation among a community of nations. Rather than search for and expand a gap between the Jewish community and religion as many Jewish intellectuals of the time tried to do, Graetz maintained that “Judaism is not a religion for the individual, but for the community…and the fulfillment of commandments do not refer to the individual”, but rather are intended for the entire people.
Yet as Moses Hess, one of the founders of Labour Zionism, had disappointedly noted, the Jews suffered from Mangel an Nationalsinn—an absolute lack of national consciousness. One way to rebuild kinship was through a national language. Although Eliezer Ben Yehuda would later go on to resurrect Hebrew, it was Rabbi Yehuda Hai Alkalai who first gave sanction to the idea. His standing as an Orthodox rabbi lent some weight to the effort, for the clergy were strongly opposed to the idea of desacralising their holy language.
Cultural Zionism got its poster boy in Asher Ginsberg, who wrote under the pseudonym Ahad Ha’am. He rejected anchoring Zionism in traditional religious symbolism. Instead, he argued, the creation of a body politic is the apex of the cultural and spiritual forces of a people. A state based on a purely political imagination, such as that of Theodor Herzl, may perhaps be a State of Jews—Judenstaat, but it could not be a Jewish state—Jüdischer Staat, for the sociocultural infrastructure is a necessary condition for political life. Ahad Ha’am believed that a political ideal which does not rest on the national culture is apt to seduce the people from a loyalty to spiritual greatness and turn them onto a quest for material power and political dominion, thus making the Jewish state an ordinary one. Moshe Lilienblum’s corollary to Ginsberg was the observation that in contemporary Europe, just as in historical Judea, redemption and liberation came from the popular masses, not from the assimilated elites.
The Zionist emphasis on a cultural revival in service of a political goal echoes closely to the thoughts of Hindu nationalists. Although Hindutva is most closely associated with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar for it was he who coined the term in his 1923 essay, Essentials of Hindutva, its definition could well encompass thinkers who came before then just as many prominent figures of Zionism lived and died before 1890 when the term was coined by Nathan Birnbaum. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, for example, was a key figure in the revival of cultural Hinduism. Besides his famous novel Anandamath which speaks of an ascetic army taking on the British, he wrote an important commentary on the Bhagavad Gita and Krishna Charitra, in which he tried to demystify the deity and bring the values inherent in Krishna to the popular masses.
As in Judaism, it is difficult to separate culture from religion and several of Hindutva’s cultural revivalists spoke in religious or philosophical tones. Swami Vivekananda and Aurobindo Ghose are perhaps two of the most prominent of such figures who tried to revive dharmic thought and values. At a social level, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar organised the Deccan Education Society whose goal was to impart education with an Indic emphasis. Additionally, via their feuilletonistic bon mots, they passionately put forth to the multitudes their vision for a free India. Others such as Dayananda Saraswati worked to uplift the status of women in society.
Disparate though these labours may seem, they were all held together by the common belief in the reemergence of Hindutva in India. The distinction between religion and culture is crucial here: while all of these personalities were personally religious, their advocacy of their causes was not borne out of a desire to spread or preserve their religion and rituals but to instill the values of a philosophical system that has informed all Indic faiths since time immemorial.
The third similarity between Hindutva and Zionism is their openness and pluralism. Hardly the words that most would use to describe ethnic nationalism, they are nevertheless accurate depictions of Hindutva and Zionist ideology at least until the early years after independence. As Hess conceived nationalism, it followed Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini’s thoughts in that it combined national particularity with a universal vision. Mazzini held that only by being a member of a nation, one can also be a member of the human race, and the only way of belonging to humanity is by belonging to a specific nation.
Later Zionists very much followed this pluralistic view—for them, the new state was to be informed by Jewish values just as France was informed by Catholicism and Britain by Protestantism but other communities would be welcome participants in the state if they could adapt to the majoritarian Jewish ethos.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, considered to be the devil child of Zionism, also supported a pluralistic state. Although Jabotinsky’s innovation in the Zionist cause was the demand to immediately set up an armed Jewish militia, preferably with British help, he was ideologically more of an aggregator. His own views emphasised the military and the political over the cultural but his goal was a capitalist and pluralist Jewish state of Israel. This should be no surprise, given the strong influence of Italian nationalists, particularly Mazzini, on Jabotinsky during his youth.
Savarkar’s Hindutva is no different. He explains the characteristics of his Hindu nation in terms of matrubhumi, jati, sanskriti, and punyabhumi. This flattens not just all castes in the Hindu fold but even other religions that arose in India such as Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. These, Savarkar felt, were bound by a similar philosophical structure that other communities lacked. Although contemporary commentators have chosen to portray this as a stigma on Hindutva, this same reservation was held by several prominent non-Hindutva leaders such as Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar as evidenced in his Pakistan, or, The Partition of India. Savarkar’s Hindutva may have no room for India’s Christians and Muslims in the nation but that did not mean that India could not be a pluralistic state. Like Jabotinsky and Mazzini, the Hindutva leader only wanted a nation-state that would be sensitive to its own values. Neither Zionism nor Hindutva advocated the dispossession of the civil and political rights of other communities to the extent that they did not conflict with the national culture.
These three characteristics—dispossession of land, experience with civic nationalism, and pluralism—mark Hindutva and Zionism as unique among nationalist movements. On pluralism, many nationalist groups are also imbued with a touch of xenophobia and unwilling to tolerate outsiders as equal citizens if not members of the nation. On the experience with civic nationalism, few nations outside East and Southeast Asia have a similar experience. This is largely due to the immense proselytism efforts that went hand in hand with the age of imperialism and spread Christianity to large parts of the world. The Christian roots of liberal secularism remove any grounds for contention between state and community if the society is Christian. Countries where this is not so, mostly along the northern rim of the eastern Indian Ocean, would share the Hindutva and Zionist experiences with the civic nationalism of a secular, modern liberal state.
On the matter of not having control of the land for which nationalism is espoused, this phenomenon is sometimes known as Fourth World nationalism. The term refers to the nationalism of nations that are not recognised by the United Nations, such as Kurds, Assyrians, Yezidis, Pashtun, Rohingya, Balochi, and others. While the situation has certainly changed for the Jewish people since 1948, the situation prior to that is still rather uncommon. It is difficult to imagine, for example, a Russian or Spanish nationalism that originated outside Russia or Spain. For Hindutvawadis, they now endure their own “emancipation” as the Jews of Europe did two centuries ago.
While the Indian and Israeli people seem to share an inexplicable warmth for each other—the Indian state had maintained an icy distance from the Jewish state until recently, they remain largely ignorant of each other’s cultures and customs. There are, no doubt, many differences, both superficial and profound. These seem to be, however, balanced by similarities that are equally superficial and profound. Perhaps it is a subtle sensing of these resemblances that brings these two people together.
This article first appeared in the June 2017 ‘Israel Special’ print edition of Swarajya.